PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - They built it-but almost nobody came.
From the welcoming entryway to the Woodside Hospice, bright orange snow fence stretched 500 feet to the east on 102nd Street and another 500 feet to the west. The barrier-at some points four layers deep in a town where it never snows-was there not just to protect the hospice complex. Pinellas Park police installed the fence to restrain and control the big crowds they were told might arrive from all over the United States to protest what was happening inside the hospice, where Terri Schiavo edged near death after medical personnel removed her feeding tube on March 18.
One policeman told WORLD his department had been warned that as many as 25,000 or even 50,000 people might show up on Palm Sunday weekend. His department, he said, was ready. "We built it," he said, "and they can come."
So the Pinellas Park police built their barrier. Bewilderingly, almost nobody came.
To be sure, several hundred passionate partisans did show up to protest the state's official treatment of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged-but in the testimony of her parents, by no means "vegetative"-victim of a heart attack 15 years ago. Mrs. Schiavo, 41, had for almost all that time depended on a feeding tube to keep her alive. But soon after noon on the Friday before Palm Sunday, that feeding tube was removed at the insistence of her husband, Michael Schiavo. After some 23 court decisions involving at least 16 judges in different jurisdictions, Mr. Schiavo also had the state of Florida on his side.
Medical experts differed about whether, deprived of all food and water, Terri Schiavo would experience severe pain and suffering. But no one disagreed that, because of her husband's decision and the state's concurrence, she would die-and probably within 10 to 14 days.
So the human drama, or the prospect of watching thousands of people respond to the drama, attracted the media. The little industrial park across from Woodside Hospice became a bustling media village with a dozen or more satellite transmission trucks turning the venue into something more like Madison Square Garden than a quiet Florida side street.
Bob Franken and his crew from CNN staked out a prime spot for their hour-to-hour coverage. Reporters from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Los Angeles Times jostled each other for a chance to talk alone with Terri's mother and father, Bob and Mary Schindler. But mostly, the media people talked to each other. The big crowds, predicted by some activists to begin rolling in by the busload, never materialized. On March 18-the day the feeding tube was removed-200 people milled about the site; the next day, no more than 100 folks were still around. By Palm Sunday, fewer than 50 protesters and activists remained in front of the hospice at any given time. Media people easily outnumbered the folks they were supposedly covering.
The lack of boots on the ground in Pinellas County "does not mean a lack of concern," said Lynda Bell of Florida Right to Life. "There's so much you don't see going on behind the scenes in this case."
Her group has worked since 2001 to save Mrs. Schiavo, keeping in close contact with family members and lobbying the Florida statehouse-and recently Congress-for legislative action. The group was instrumental in ushering through Terri's Law, the measure that enabled Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to order Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted in 2003. Last month, Florida Right to Life quietly hammered lawmakers to move HB701, a Schiavo remedy which passed the Florida House but failed in the Senate.
As pro-lifers in Tallahassee hounded the state Senate for passage in what appeared to be the last hours of Mrs. Schiavo's life, those outside the hospice were a motley and disordered crew.
Chris Braren, a 38-year-old plumber from Valdosta, Ga., said he came because "if we don't start by helping her, it will be the old folks' home next." Mr. Braren wasn't sure he'd still have a job when he got back to Valdosta, since he was taking unauthorized time off. But this was more important. "I've been such a poor Christian," he said, "but it's time for me to get ahold of God like I never have."
Guabe Garcia-Jones, a lawyer for the American Life League in Washington, D.C., decided while driving to Florida that if Terri's tube were actually withdrawn, he would take no food or water either until it was restored. Mr. Garcia-Jones pitched a small tent in a grassy area set aside for protesters. He lay quietly on a mat, seeking no attention, but talking agreeably with those who asked-including Gwen, an 11-year-old girl who was understandably intrigued with his commitment. "I don't fear death," he said. But then: "Well, not too much, anyway. I just hope this makes me good enough to meet God." That was on Saturday. On Sunday, Mr. Garcia-Jones and his tent were no longer there.
Franciscan Brothers of Peace Paul O'Donnell, Anthony Sweeney, and Hilary McGee came from St. Paul, Minn. They said their order was first established to protest abortion. "But now," said Mr. Sweeney, "Satan has run around to the other end of life and is attacking our older people. If this is allowed, thousands and maybe millions of people will die premature deaths."
Another unusual trio included Carol Cleigh from Brasstown, N.C., Eleanor Smith from Atlanta, and Heather DeMian from Columbia, Mo. All three rolled up to the federal courthouse in Tampa in wheelchairs-and all three were outspokenly non-Christian. "This is a horrible thing," said Ms. Cleigh. "A 'better-dead-than-disabled' theme is behind the right-to-die movement. It's an insult to us, and we adamantly reject it." The three said the judicial actions threatening Mrs. Schiavo are anti-feminist ("they treat women like chattel") as well as anti-disabilities.
Standing virtually alone was Tim Harmon, one of the few protesters who openly supported Michael Schiavo. Mr. Harmon, a 44-year-old hair stylist from Tampa, said it angered him that Congress and President Bush became involved in a personal situation after Florida's courts had so thoroughly considered the case. "What utter hypocrisy," he snorted at posters with messages like "Feed Terri-Starve Michael."
Pro-life activists Randall Terry and Gary McCullough volunteered to help the Schindler family organize press conferences and provide a semblance of order. But what the media did not find in the Pinellas Park encampment was a ready and broad supply of prepared pro-lifers, well equipped to make an articulate argument for the preservation of Mrs. Schiavo's life.
"People have become so disillusioned with our court system that they don't know how to change what has happened," said Lanier Swann, director of government relations at Concerned Women for America (CWA). "You can't lobby judges."
For a movement that has built itself on sidewalk activism, the no-shows were notable. Who was missing? A serious and coherent Roman Catholic presence, for one thing. Three Franciscan monks, however passionate and well spoken they may have been, could hardly make up for the conspicuous absence of any leaders from the St. Petersburg diocese. Not a single priest showed up, in spite of the Schindler family's reputation as loyal, practicing Catholics. Last year, the local bishop is reported to have prohibited the mention of Mrs. Schiavo in area churches; he yielded finally to allow such mention-but only in prayers. "The pope," Mr. Sweeney of St. Paul told WORLD, "has made his position clear. It angers me that good Catholics are ignoring his message. There should be thousands of busloads heading this way."
Also missing were any big-name, high-profile evangelical leaders. Christian talk radio and internet outlets were abuzz for weeks about the Schiavo crisis. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh devoted hours to it.
Yet no prominent Christian leader showed up in Pinellas Park. Rather than encourage on-scene activism, groups like Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council said they used their massive mailing lists and national radio broadcasts to motivate citizen activism, such as writing or phoning congressional representatives. Focus on the Family president James Dobson devoted four one-hour broadcasts in the last month, and parts of others, to the case. Few apparently thought to send foot soldiers.
Generation Life national director Brandi Swindell said many activists and ordinary folk associated with her group wanted to descend on Pinellas County en masse, but often were restrained by limited vacation time or childcare responsibilities.
Their absence was not lost on the media, many of whom were already cynical about evangelical claims about the size of their following.
"How many protesters would you say are there right now?" asked ABC network news anchor Peter Jennings of his local on-site reporter. "About six," responded the reporter, inaccurately, after glancing around. He may have missed by a factor of five or six-but it hardly mattered. "That's what I thought," Mr. Jennings replied for all America to hear. "By tomorrow, this may not be a story at all."
It was, in fact, a remarkable story-many of the details of which remained blurred by such reporting. What, indeed, was Terri's actual physical state? Was she capable of basic communication, as claimed by her mother Mary, her father Bob, her sister Suzanne, and her brother Robert? Was the rumor true that authorities in the hospice were forbidding relatives even to slip ice chips through Terri's parched lips? How could a genuinely interested media army come up with so few details and so little documentation about the lifestyle of a husband like Michael, who has lived with another woman for 10 years, fathering two children outside his marriage, and who so aggressively pursued his wife's death?
Protesters here at Pinellas Park joined others across the country in raising all those and other questions as well. But if the puny crowds who gathered here were the only evidence to go on, the big media might have been forgiven for concluding it really wasn't that big a story after all. The people who said it mattered most didn't even show up.
-with reporting by Lynn Vincent