Buffalo Operation Fizzle

The cameras loved the stage-managed spectacle. But the battle over abortion was largely a symbolic contest, and the clinics were not closed down

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NEW YORK GOVERNOR MARIO Cuomo called it "democracy at work," and to those who watched the street fight over abortion in Buffalo last week, it seemed a fresh expression of America's divided conscience. But on the ground, the confrontation had all the emotional subtlety of a tantrum and the animation of a trench-warfare standoff. It left Buffalo lost between two realities. On the television screen, the city served up all the passion and props that courtroom terms like "strict scrutiny" and "compelling interest" cannot deliver. In the Buffalo area, however, the clinics were not closed down, traffic was hardly disrupted, and citizens focused on the 28 homicides this year and the $70 million deficit projected for next. "This performance seems out of place, out of synch and out of time," said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that Operation Rescue was outmaneuvered from the start. Organizers last January promised their protests could rival those last summer in Wichita, which drew thousands of participants, lasted six weeks and produced more than 2,600 arrests. But the opening of the Buffalo campaign drew only 300 members to the area -- a battalion whose weakness led at least one leader to resort to sophistry. The women who kept their appointments at the clinics, said the Rev. Robert Schenck, were "no one of any consequence, I can assure you." By midweek, Buffalo's anti-abortion rights mayor, James Griffin, was backpedaling. After offering the group his "open arms" last October, he insisted last week that the gesture had not been "a formal welcome."

When the showdown began, Buffalo had studied Wichita and was prepared. A federal judge issued an injunction two months ago that threatened antiabortion protesters with $10,000-a-day fines for coming within 15 ft. of a clinic door. Police and sheriff's deputies in the past month were given everything from "sensitivity training" to drills in how to protect their back when bending over to pick up limp bodies. Barricades were erected around the clinics before dawn, so Wednesday's charge against one in the suburb of Amherst, which resulted in 194 undramatic arrests, was reduced to an exercise in crossing the street and crouching.

Part of Operation Rescue's failure comes from a misunderstanding of the area's political personality. "The assumption that Buffalo is an old-line, blue-collar sheet-metal town is absolutely archaic," says Gerald Goldhaber, who runs his own polling firm. "These days you tend to get a type of person who would not be receptive to Operation Rescue's message." For one thing, Buffalo is home to the largest school in New York State's massive university system. At the same time, two streams of financial fortune, one from an overheated economy in nearby Toronto and the other from the 1988 free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada, have helped replace the city's dying manufacturing base with a large white-collar force.

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