By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
it is a perfect late winter Saturday in Huntington Beach. The Santa Anas have scrubbed the sky an almost violent shade of blue. Volleyball players leap about the sand, surfers frolic in the waves, lowrider trucks and Harleys cruise PCH. Ambling toward the pier, a group of girls in bikini tops and cutoffs encounters Jeff White, a thickset man with small blue eyes and a graying blond goatee. He is handing out fliers alongside two more modestly dressed teenagers who hold between them a giant full-color poster of the severed head of an aborted fetus. ”Abortion Is Choice,“ the caption reads. The bikini girls cringe.
”Disgusting pigs,“ one of them says.
White responds with a tight-lipped smile, ”That’s Mr. Disgusting Pig.“
Today, accompanied by a few hideously gory posters and a dozen or so Christian teens, White is vastly outnumbered by the masses here assembled to worship the decidedly pagan gods of sun, sea and flesh. But a decade ago, the Zeitgeist flitting about his shoulders, White was at the very center of one of late-20th-century America‘s most heated battles. He was one of Operation Rescue’s top organizers, part of founder Randall Terry‘s inner circle, and was routinely mobilizing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people for mass sit-ins in front of abortion clinics all over the country. Today, White is the head of Survivors, an anti-abortion youth group he founded in 1998 (the name implies that every child born since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is a survivor of abortion), which parades on the pier once a month. He’s still doing what he‘s been doing in one form or another for almost two decades: fighting, as he puts it, for the babies.
That fight, whether configured in the language of life or of choice, of the body of Christ or of the wombs of living women, occupied America for much of the 1990s and has worked its way into the very fiber of our contemporary civil discourse. The trajectory of Jeff White’s activism over those years mirrors the fate of the movement he once helped to lead, that bizarre hybrid beast, a radical, grassroots, far-right, Christian movement which borrowed its tactics and much of its rhetoric from the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s. Its story is littered with all the paradoxes of American civil life, with hopes both great and petty, with pieties and hypocrisies equally grand, with ashes and rubble and too many corpses and lives destroyed. It is a story that is day by day still being told and telling itself, its battles not yet over, its victors and losers for now still undetermined. It‘s not too soon to ask, though, whether the movement’s visibility has declined and its crowds dispersed because they overreached and self-destructed, or because they‘re winning.
For Jeff White it began in the mid-1980s, when he grudgingly caved in to his wife’s demands that he watch the film The Silent Scream at church. Before that, he says, ”I was against abortion, but I was not an activist. I may have even been antagonistic toward an activist kind of mindset.“ To his surprise, he says, ”When I saw the reality and horror of abortion, it just changed my heart.“ It was one of those falling-off-your-ass-on-the-road-to-Damascus moments, an experience of revelation similar to those described by others who would go on to devote their lives to fighting abortion. It brought with it a newfound certainty that a great evil existed in the world, a conviction grand enough to elevate a staid suburban life to a plane of biblical absolutes.
Within a few years White had sold the BMW parts store he ran in Santa Clara and devoted himself full time to the cause. The strict demands of Operation Rescue‘s battle cry, ”If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it,“ appealed to him, and, whether you agree or not about abortion, the motto’s integrity merits some respect. I do not believe abortion is murder and have a hard time entertaining a notion of human life abstract enough to include an embryonic growth, but if I believed as White does, and as all who call themselves pro-life claim, that every abortion kills a living human being, that an undeveloped fetus is no different from my 5-month-old niece, I hope that I would be out in the streets with the believers, and not simply content to vote Republican, write my congressman and wait for a Supreme Court justice to die.
The issue, of course, is larger and more complicated than that, but for White and others like him, it seemed that simple. His commitment and ambition pushed him quickly through the organization‘s ranks, from Southern California director to national tactical director and police liaison. He joined one of a small circle of men who helped Randall Terry put abortion on the evening news again and again throughout the late ’80s, organizing massive blockades at clinics around the country. Protesters chained themselves to doors, hurled themselves in front of patients‘ cars, hollered ”baby-killer“ as loud as they could, fell on their knees and prayed, did whatever they could to stop what they saw as the greatest holocaust the world had ever known. White was arrested, by his own reckoning, more than 60 times, and spent, all told, about 18 months in jail. He has been slapped with legal judgments adding up to more than $1 million, which will prevent him from ever drawing a salary or owning anything in his own name again. It was all, White now insists, done out of passion and love of God: ”Why would I sell my business?“ he asks. ”Why would I take my family on the road? Why would I go to jail? Why would I miss my daughter’s birthday, my son‘s birthday, my daughter walking? All these things happened while I was in jail. Why would I be in jail during Thanksgiving? Why would all these men and women do those things?“
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