ORONO, Maine — It was a busy, emotional Monday on the University of Maine mall. Demonstrators from the Genocide Awareness Project debated and sometimes clashed with students in front of a display showing graphic images of well-known instances of genocide alongside those of aborted fetuses.
Yards away, two gay marriage opponents announced during a press conference that they would form a political action committee to fight a November statewide referendum asking voters whether Maine should allow gays to marry.
Shortly after, a crowd UMaine students, officials and faculty stood in a circle, applauded and cheered as a rainbow flag was raised over the mall on the first day of the university’s Pride Week.
The Genocide Awareness Project, an effort of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, is an outdoor display of billboards and photo murals that liken abortion to the Holocaust, lynchings of blacks in the Jim Crow era and the Cambodian killing fields. Its aim is to reshape how people think about abortion.
The group argues that abortion is the extermination of a “national group” of unborn and unwanted children.
“I think that’s highly offensive to people whose families have suffered as a result of genocides,” said Kalie Hess, 22, of Orono, a fourth-year anthropology major and member of the UMaine Student Women’s Association.
“That’s not the real face of abortion,” Hess said, pointing to the billboards on the mall. She said the faces of abortion are “women who are making decisions for themselves.”
Most students passing by the display said they were disturbed by the images and offended by the content of the message. At some times, more than 50 students on their way to or from classes stopped at the display to listen to, debate or argue with members of the Genocide Awareness Project.
The arguments often became shouting matches, and one student called UMaine police and filed a harassment complaint against Darius Hardwick, the main speaker for the Genocide Awareness Project.
“I know [the students] are angry,” said Jeffrey Sneddon, a Genocide Awareness Project volunteer from Richmond. “I would be more concerned if people weren’t offended.”
Sneddon said people should be offended and outraged by the images but that anger should be directed toward “the people who are responsible” for abortion and genocide.
A “Free Speech Board” set up along a path on the mall near the display gave passers-by a place to write messages to share their thoughts on the demonstration.
Few comments on the board supported the program’s message.
“Ignorance is bliss,” one person wrote. Another shared: “People like these [expletive] idiots give pro-life people a bad name. I apologize for their hurtful words. — Sensible pro-lifer.”
At least one student was moved by the display and changed her viewpoint as a result. Amanda Rivers, 19, a UMaine student from Stratton who is studying social work, said she always had been against abortion except in instances of rape or incest.
When she saw the images, “I instantly started crying,” she said.
After speaking with several volunteers for the Genocide Awareness Project, she said her mindset changed.
“It’s never right to kill a baby, under any circumstance,” Rivers said.
The display will stay at UMaine through Tuesday. The display and demonstrators will relocate to the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus on Wednesday and Thursday.
Near the spot where students and Genocide Awareness Project demonstrators debated, gay marriage opponents called a press conference to announce the formation of the “No Special Rights” political action committee, which will fight to assure that gay marriage isn’t legalized in Maine in November.
Michael Heath and Paul Madore, the PAC’s leaders, argued that Maine voters were being intimidated to change their minds after a similar gay marriage referendum failed in 2009.
Madore said gay marriage advocates are turning to the legal system to “force people to accept the homosexual lifestyle.”
The men distributed pledges to passers-by that ask potential voters to oppose “sodomy-based marriage” in November and contribute to the political action committee.
“We intend to take the gloves off,” said Madore, adding that he expects his group will be heavily outspent by gay marriage supporters.
About an hour after the press conference, a group of UMaine students, officials and faculty stood around a flagpole on the mall and cheered and applauded as a rainbow flag was hoisted into the air.
Evan McDuff, president of UMaine’s Wilde Stein Alliance for Sexual Diversity, said he was pleased that the demonstrations and announcement from the anti-gay marriage political action committee all occurred around the same time.
“It’s always good to have discussion, right?” McDuff said with a grin.
McDuff said that by and large people have become more accepting of gay and lesbian individuals over the years.
“One day, maybe I’d want to get married here,” said McDuff, who identifies himself as gay.