Mike Fink is an unlikely candidate to lead a political protest against religious zealots. “The two biggest wastes of time in this world are politics and religion,” says Fink, a pawnbroker who also runs a sandwich shop in downtown Portland. But when the crowds of anti-abortion activists that gathered outside his Congress Street businesses every week went from bearing witness to harassing women in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic next door, Fink stepped up and stepped outside, protest sign in hand.
This week, Fink is preparing for the largest counter-protest yet. Meanwhile, police are preparing strategies to keep the peace this Friday, and city officials are considering implementing a protest-free “buffer zone” to quell the growing civic unrest taking place a block away from City Hall.
It started last summer, when members of an anti-abortion group based in Richmond, called Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, began assembling on the sidewalk on Friday mornings to protest the clinic, which performs abortions and provides other health and family-planning services. Come fall, the turnout had grown to more than 20 protesters each week, including young children, who held posters of fetuses and preached on the street.
Eventually, the group grew more aggressive, Fink said. The stretch of sidewalk in front of his businesses became “a gauntlet” where protesters “scream at any women who walk by,” whether they’re heading to the clinic or not.
At first, Fink tried to ignore the situation, but by last month his conscience had conquered his apathy. He set up a life-sized cardboard cutout of characters from “The Wizard of Oz” on the bricks outside his pawnshop. A conversation bubble taped to the cardboard has the Scarecrow and the Wizard asking, “Why are the stupidest people always the LOUDEST?!?” while the Tin Man listens.
Fink wants to keep his counter protests humorous and fun, though another sign his side has held up asks passing motorists to “HONK and wave your middle finger if you think these self righteous protesters are stupid, obnoxious and WRONG!”
This Friday morning, from 8:30 to 10 a.m., Fink is organizing what he half hopes (and half fears) will be a huge rally against the missionaries, with dozens, if not hundreds of people holding signs, honking horns and making obscene gestures. A notice he posted on Facebook offers a free coffee and breakfast sandwich to anyone who shows up to stand against “these insane, stupid people.”
In an effort to keep things from getting out of hand, Fink is meeting with police in advance of Friday’s action and has typed up a list of “Ten Commandments and/or Ten Commitments” for those on his side. “Stay as peaceful as possible and remain vigilant,” the first one reads. “Ignoring the anti-abortion protesters is recommended,” reads the second. The third: “With motives similar to Jihad they try to incite others. Don’t play their game.”
I asked Fink if he tried to have a calm, reasoned conversation with the missionaries before resorting to counter-protest tactics. He said he had not. “There’s really no talking to them,” he said. Attempts to reason with them “fall somewhere between frustrating and useless.”
Fink readily admits he doesn’t know the best way to handle the situation. “I’m kind of leery about what I’m getting myself into,” he told me. His list of commandments also asks participants to provide him with the name, address and phone number of the Congress Street missionaries. He’s floated the idea of organizing protests outside their homes and workplaces or calling them to politely ask them not to intimidate people outside the clinic.
That last method is one employed by Voice of Choice, a group formed last year that uses e-mail, phone calls and social media in an effort to convince anti-abortion protesters to abandon their most aggressive tactics. Fink’s tenth commandment is to visit Voice of Choice’s website (vochoice.org) and listen to the interview its founder, Todd Stave, did with Howard Stern.
Therein lies the conflict Fink faces and the key to its resolution. The approach someone like Stern would take in this situation, and which Fink resorted to at first — name-calling, bird-flipping, likening the protesters to violent extremists — will only heighten the tension outside the clinic. Stave’s approach, which acknowledges anti-abortion activists’ right to protest, while respectfully asking them to be respectful, is a much more dignified and productive way forward.
“They’ll keep doing this unless a lot of people come up against them and say, ‘Enough’s enough,’” Fink said of the missionaries. I’m not so sure about that, but Fink’s right about one thing: Enough is enough.