PORTLAND, Maine — A Portland business owner rallied an abortion rights demonstration on Friday to counter the regular appearance on his street of anti-abortion protesters he called “obnoxious.”
The dueling demonstrations set the stage for chanting, arguing and sometimes yelling, as dozens of Planned Parenthood supporters turned out in opposition to what have become weekly protests outside organization’s Congress Street location in Portland.
The rally was organized by Mike Fink, owner of the pawn shop Guitar Grave and Mike’s Rock Deli, which provided coffee and free sandwiches Friday to anyone with an abortion rights sign or T-shirt.
Fink, whose businesses share the same block as the building housing Planned Parenthood, said he organized the rally after watching for months as the anti-abortion protesters gathered every Friday to demonstrate against the clinic.
“They get up in people’s faces and scream,” he said. “They’re obnoxious, horrible and stupid.”
Fink said he supports the protesters’ right to assemble but supports the creation of a city ordinance providing a 35-foot buffer zone around the building in which the clinic is located.
Fink said the protesters had been accosting people entering the clinic as well as passersby, including customers of his businesses.
“They’re stupid and out of touch with reality,” he said. “They don’t have normal interactions with people. They think they’re driven by God’s word.”
Lt. William Pries of the Portland Police Department estimated about 75 to 100 people had gathered on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood. Despite the confrontation between the two groups, Pries said there had been no arrests as of mid-morning Friday.
Donna Hebert, 46, of Waterboro has been protesting outside Planned Parenthood most Fridays since July. Hebert said Friday she was unfazed by the counterprotest.
“They’re silly, it doesn’t cause much of a reaction for me,” she said. “We’re coming from different worlds.”
Hebert said she first began protesting alone outside the clinic every Friday back in July and as the months went on friends, family and like-minded people joined her until about 20 people were present most Fridays.
According to Lt. Pries there have been complaints about the protesters, although nothing out of the ordinary.
“Like with any protest, we’ve gotten some complaints, but it hasn’t really been any different than what you’d expect from any other protest,” said Pries. In recent months he said an officer has worked overtime — paid by Planned Parenthood — on Fridays to ensure safety. Pries took six officers from their regular duties to cover the protest Friday.
Planned Parenthood staffers were initially worried a counter-protest might exacerbate the stress for patients and staff trying to access the facility Friday, according to Public Affairs Director Megan Hannon.
“No matter what, our primary concern is the patients,” she said. “They’ve ended up being great, very supportive, but we were worried at first.”
Tensions Friday morning were highest on the section of sidewalk nearest the entrance to the Planned Parenthood building. There the two rallies met and some of the opposing protesters shouted at one another.
Louis Sigel, 69, who drove an hour from Wayne to attend the rally, said he didn’t have much hope for dialogue.
“It’s not useful with people who have closed minds,” Sigel said. “These people deny the legitimate constitutional rights of the women of Maine.”
Sarah Knights, 19, of Raymond, an anti-abortion protester, said she felt sorry for the protesters who had showed up in support of Planned Parenthood.
“I’m sad they’re trying to kill babies, that they want babies to die,” she said. “I’m sorry they’re in darkness.”
Knights suggested many had simply shown up for a free breakfast sandwich, which abortion rights protester Al Hill scoffed at.
“I haven’t even stepped inside Mike’s,” said Hill, 26, of Portland. “I’m here because I support health care without judgement.”
Fink, for his part, makes for an unlikely character to appear at the center of such a public political event. Describing politics and religion as “huge wastes of time,” the pawnbroker and sandwich seller said he couldn’t have seen himself organizing a protest a year ago.
But he said the confrontational tone of the protests — especially, he said, in the last two months — was too much to bear, especially when it affected his customers. So beginning in November he decided to confront the anti-abortion demonstrators.
“The first time I responded in a way that wasn’t very appropriate,” Fink said. “I told ‘dead baby’ jokes.”
Fink’s tactics evolved from that original response, which he said upset people on both sides of the issue. On following Fridays he put a sign on the sidewalk, a cardboard cutout of characters from The Wizard of Oz with the Scarecrow asking “Why are the stupidest people always the LOUDEST?!?”
Fink said he was happy with the outcome of the counter-protest and plans to organize similar events on first Fridays of each month as long as anti-abortion protesters keep coming.
“The turnout was way better than I expected,” he said Friday as demonstrators began to flee the cold. “We did great.”