The "Walk for Life" March and Counter-Demonstration

This is a photographic record of the "Walk for Life West Coast" march and counter-protest that happened in San Francisco on Saturday, January 21, 2006. The theme of the day was abortion, or the lack thereof. Because this is a very sensitive issue to many people, I will keep the editorializing to a minimum and for the most part let the photos speak for themselves. I will also refer to each side in the debate by its own chosen appellation: those who favor abortion will be called "pro-choice" and those who don't favor abortion will be called "pro-life."

The page is not meant to be an argument for one side or the other, nor does it analyze the merits of either position. It is simply an essay about what happened that day, and what people did.

Even before the march began, trouble was brewing. While the Walk for Life organizers set strict guidelines for behavior to keep the march peaceful, the pro-choice crowd actively encouraged wildcat actions to disrupt the planned event at any cost (as the calendar listing said, "Autonomous direct actions to shut down the march are also encouraged").

Throughout the morning, a colorful array of pro-choice activists -- sporting homemade signs like this one, for the most part -- gathered on the Embarcadero, along the San Francsico waterfront.

The pro-life contingent assembled across the street in Justin Herman Plaza, and were repeatedly admonished: Do not respond to any provocations. Stay together. Don't yell. Many of the pro-lifers were members of Christian organizations from all over the state. Some were from the group "Feminists for Life." Very few carried individualized messages, which had been discouraged by the organizers.

The same can not be said of the other side. Any and all messages were allowed -- there was no one in charge to enforce rules, in any case.

An extremely long column of pro-lifers began to line up for the march, protected by hundreds of police officers.

It looked like the precautions were necessary. The pro-choicers were in no mood for compromise. The police didn't want the ideological clash to become a physical clash.

If there was any overall theme to the pro-choice rhetoric, it was that the pro-life crowd was part of a right-wing fascist agenda to drag America back to the theocratic Dark Ages.

Heterosexuality and procreative sex were not particularly popular either.

While the pro-life crowd got physically and mentally prepared for the march, a counter-rally was staged at Pier 7. All sorts of groups showed up to take part: the Communists....

...the Socialists...

...the Cindy Sheehan Fan Club...

...the Raging Grannies...

...Code Pink (who, in this environment, ranked as practically right-wing by comparison to the other groups)...

...and the ISO, among many others.

Speakers spoke their minds. This woman, for example, said, "The greatest threat to women in the world today is the United States government and depleted uranium!"

The fabled wild parrots of Telegraph Hill flew over from their regular turf to observe the proceedings.

The Black Bloc (an anarchist group) showed up as well, looking to incite chaos.

Uh oh. They didn't have long to wait. I spotted this guy walking through the crowd and knew the fireworks would soon begin.

He was one of a small group of independent fundamentalist Christians who occasionally show up at Bay Area radical left-wing events. Wherever they go, they draw a crowd. They started to unfurl their signs.

The Black Bloc-ers spotted their prey and immediately made a beeline toward the sign-bearers.

Before the Christians could even raise their banners, they were already surrounded by detractors.

Their "Rebellious Jezebels" sign elicited sneers of derision and gasps of outrage.

But once the Socialists caught sight of this sign, they couldn't control themselves any more.

While the Socialists tried to cover up the Christians' signs (their standard tactic)...

...the anarchists yelled taunts and insults.

When one young anarchist expressed infuriated incomprehension that the Christians could be allowed to display their messages, a friendly but stern policeman patiently explained to him the definition of "free speech." The anarchist retorted, "But who the hell do they think they are, saying that shit here?"

Finally the march started. In perfect formation, the pro-lifers surged ahead in silence.

As the march set off, the pro-lifers had to run a gauntlet of verbal abuse from the pro-choice crowd. I walked along the curb and took this hair-raising video of what the experience was like (QuickTime mpeg video, 3.1mb). (Clicking on the link above -- and the video link on the following page -- will open a QuickTime video file in a new window.)

If police officers hadn't been stationed every few feet along the march, the situation could have seriously escalated.

The column was stopped periodically to clear counter-protesters out of the road.

As the link at the top of this report shows, the pro-choice crowd had planned not to simply make their voices heard, but to stop the march entirely: "We are calling on the people and workers of San Francisco and the Bay Area to rise up and completely stop them in their tracks and shut down their march."

In fact, three separate attempts were made to derail the march. All failed. The police came prepared and did not pussyfoot around.

The first attempt was almost comical in its futility. The woman on the right is part of a group trying to stretch a pro-abortion banner across the road. Her smile indicates she has no idea what's about to happen.

The cops told them in no uncertain terms to take it down, and rode their motorcycles straight ahead anyway.

After a momentary retreat, the march-blockers tried once more to stretch the banner across the road. The cops' solution was quite simple: Keep riding. Don't even slow down.

The line of motorcycles plowed right into the banner. It was torn from the protesters' hands and soon was covered in tire tracks.

The next blocking move was attempted by Code Pink.

Their front line crumpled almost immediately. Just the roar of the oncoming engines made them flee for the sidewalk.

The senior Code Pinkers just weren't up for the job.

It was up to the "Word Can't Wait" brigade to hold the line of scrimmage in a last-ditch effort.

But the banner was too valuable to risk it acquiring a motorcycle-shaped hole. A few "voice of authority" commands from the leading cop was all it took for the WCW people to pack it in and proffer the not-too-believable excuse that they were "just crossing the street."

The march continued northward toward a culture clash in Fisherman's Wharf. We're just getting started!

Click HERE to continue to Part 2 of the report...

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