Anti-abortion leaders seek to calm nerves ahead of protests

Rusty Thomas, national director of Operation Rescue National and Operation Save America (July 15, 2016)
Rusty Thomas, national director of Operation Rescue National and Operation Save America (July 15, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Leaders of upcoming events in Wichita marking the 25th anniversary of the “Summer of Mercy” abortion protests said on Friday that they will be peaceful and lashed out at those labeling them as “domestic terrorists.”

“What terrorist group contacts the police through letters, sets up meetings to cooperate with them so we can exercise our First Amendment rights” of free speech, asked Rusty Thomas, national director of Operation Rescue National and Operation Save America, which coordinated the 1991 protests of clinics in Wichita that performed abortions – with the primary focus on physician George Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Services on East Kellogg, which performed late-term abortions.

“What terrorist group goes before the media and shows our face and declares what our vision and mission is?” Thomas asked.

In a recent Eagle story, Corey Swertfager, president of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita, said “it’s one thing to have First Amendment rights, but it’s another to make people fearful of their lives. It’s an act of certain domestic terrorism.”

Thomas said he was speaking out Friday to “set the record straight.”

“That has left a false impression about who we are, what we believe, what we do and how we act,” Thomas said.

The Wichita Police Department said last week that it has assigned 100 to 150 officers to police the protest and has created a 60-page document outlining its plans for the week. The department wouldn’t release the plan, saying its release “would interfere with prospective law enforcement actions, could put citizens, physicians and law enforcement officers at risk and would reveal confidential investigative techniques not known to the public.”

People fearful that there will be protesters blocking access to the two clinics in Wichita offering abortions – echoing what happened day after day during 1991’s “Summer of Mercy” – need not worry, Thomas said.

“I want to alleviate those fears,” he said. “We are not here to do harm and, under God’s blessing, we are praying God uses us to prevent harm.”

Nevertheless, Thomas hedged a little when asked what the group’s plans are for the upcoming “Summer of Justice.”

“Our purpose is not to be arrested, but sometimes we find ourselves in jail ministry,” he said.

Thomas said he doesn’t know how many people are going to take part in the weeklong activities. Last year’s national protest in Montgomery, Ala., drew about 400 people, he said.

Thomas and other leaders of Operation Rescue National also rejected descriptions of the organization as a splinter group, saying that Troy Newman copyrighted the Operation Rescue name after the “Summer of Mercy” so they had to come up with a different name for the original entity. Newman led the Operation Rescue West chapter during the 1991 protests and continues to have the support of Operation Rescue National, Thomas and others said.

On Monday, a torch was found placed against the side of Operation Rescue’s national headquarters at 3013 E. Central, according to an e-mail sent by the organization. The torch was charred at the end, but didn’t appear to have been lit, according to the e-mail.

“It was either a failed attempt at arson or an attempt to intimidate us,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a prepared statement. “In any case, we will not be frightened by terror tactics. We continue our work to expose abortion abuses and close abortion facilities through peaceful, legal means even in the face of danger.”

Thomas and other leaders of the “Summer of Justice” protests distanced themselves from the torch incident on Friday, saying they knew nothing about it and continue to support Newman’s group.

Activities related to the protests begin Saturday, with a tent set up near Century II downtown for 24 hours of prayer. An opening rally will be held Saturday night at Word of Life Church, 3811 N. Meridian.

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger

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