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Law enforcement prepares for hundreds of anti-abortion protesters with 'Summer of Justice'

Anti-abortion protester Leon Hiebert sings a hymn while abortion-rights activists protest in 2001 at a weekend rally held by Operation Save America.
Anti-abortion protester Leon Hiebert sings a hymn while abortion-rights activists protest in 2001 at a weekend rally held by Operation Save America. File photo

Eight federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are preparing for an anti-abortion protest from July 16-23 in Wichita that’s expected to attract hundreds of people from around the nation.

The weeklong event is planned as the 25th reunion of “Summer of Mercy,” the anti-abortion demonstration that spanned the summer of 1991 and resulted in nearly 2,700 arrests as protesters blocked access to clinics where abortions were performed.

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Capt. Brian White of the Wichita Police Department said the department has been working to prepare for the event for months and will give a roughly five-hour training session next week to 100 to 150 officers who are specifically assigned to policing the protest. White said the training session would cover a briefing about the event, applicable laws, officer expectations and policing strategies.

“We want to make sure people have the right to protest in a safe and legal manner, and we want to make sure the businesses have the right to operate in a safe and legal manner,” White said.

White said he’s been involved in planning meetings and said the Police Department has a 60-page document that outlines its plan for the week. He said the department has 638 officers, and they will all be on call for the week.

He said the law enforcement agencies have talked with the abortion clinics and the protest organizers. All have been cooperative, he said.

White said the department was not aware of any threats in connection with the event.

Bleckley, the street that runs along the entrance of Trust Women South Wind Women’s Center, the only surgical abortion clinic in Wichita, will be closed the week of “Summer of Justice,” White said. He said he wasn’t sure if protesters would be able to stand in the street during the closure.

FACE Act

During the “Summer of Mercy” in 1991, protesters blockaded access to abortion clinics and blocked streets entering the clinics, so patients had to walk through hundreds of protesters who tried to keep them from entering.

In 1994, Congress enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, also called FACE Act. The act made it a federal crime to injure, intimidate or interfere with someone who is trying to receive an abortion, which is a legal procedure.

According to the FBI website, it was created in reaction to “blockades, arsons, use of chemical irritants, bomb threats, death threats, stalking, and vandalism” at abortion clinics and toward providers that rose dramatically in the mid-1980s and early ’90s.

The FACE Act applies to any business, not just abortion clinics.

For this year’s reunion, “Summer of Justice” protesters will be able to carry signs, chant, sing hymns, distribute literature and shout as part of their First Amendment protected rights. But they won’t be able to threaten people or block access to the clinic.

Rusty Thomas, director of Operation Save America, an anti-abortion group based in Waco, Texas, is one of the main organizers for “Summer of Justice.”

He said he respects the blockade tactic but doesn’t think it would be effective in preventing women from receiving abortions, given that he and the other protesters would be arrested.

Nobody’s intending on going there purposely to be arrested – that’s not the goal.

Rusty Thomas, director of Operation Save America

“Nobody’s intending on going there purposely to be arrested – that’s not the goal,” Thomas said.

Nonetheless, he said, it sometimes happens. He estimates he has been arrested between 40 and 50 times.

“Put it this way, I’ve done a lot of jail ministry that I didn’t volunteer for,” Thomas said.

Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which operates Wichita’s only surgical abortion clinic, says law enforcement agencies have assured her they will keep the entrances to the clinic clear.

“If the antis block our entrances, they will have committed a FACE Act violation,” Burkhart said. “Hopefully there will be order.”

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

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