The Sign People

Pro-life protestors come for the free soda, stay for the middle fingers


On Saturday afternoons, a stoic Raymond Rodriguez stands on the sidewalk between State Street and the back of Planned Parenthood's Boise clinic. In a neatly ironed button-down shirt tucked into black jeans, a black leather jacket and with a three-inch metal nail hanging from a rope on his neck, 21-year-old Rodriguez neither smiles nor verbally responds to passersby who honk and angrily thrust a rigid middle finger at him. When cars pull over and passengers scream obscenities at Rodriguez, he stares straight ahead and ignores the tirade. His response is the same when the honk is followed by a wave or a thumbs-up from supporters.

With chin-length dark hair and dressed mostly in black, Rodriguez looks like an unlikely pro-life activist. Standing in last Saturday's strong winds and intermittent rain, his white sign with black lettering read: "Adoption is a Loving Choice." Often accompanied by his 20-year-old brother J.D., Rodriguez has been sign posting outside the clinic several hours on Saturdays for just over a month. However, while the Rodriguez brothers have been noticed by Planned Parenthood staff and patients, Planned Parenthood spokesperson Rory Williamson describes the protests outside of the State Street location as sporadic and low-key.

"It's nothing like what is happening in Nampa," says Williamson. "There's no organized protest in Boise, and we don't engage with them." Unlike the Nampa protests, where both Generation Life and Idaho Chooses Life are heavily represented, the Rodriguez brothers choose not to display graphic images of aborted fetuses. Rather, they prefer their silent, non-interactive and almost unobtrusive form of protest.

As abortion again edges nearer the center of political debate, the issue--which has historically been a highly charged emotional issue on both sides--has become anything but unobtrusive in recent headlines. Last month South Dakota's legislature took what pro-life factions hope will be the first step toward overturning Roe V. Wade by passing a bill making it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion. This week, Mississippi state senators will duke it out over a bill passed by the Democrat-controlled House that would ban abortions in a state that already has one of the strictest abortion laws on the books. And on Friday, March 17, a federal appeals court in Tennessee overturned a lower court's decision that "Choose Life" license plates violated the First Amendment. The pro-life license plates will soon be available in both Tennessee and Kentucky.

Locally, recent headlines have focused primarily on protests. Outside Nampa's Applebaum Mental Health Center, where Planned Parenthood offers monthly health services for women--but not abortions--protestors have been a steady presence. When a Nampa woman used her car to block graphic signs in February, one protester was pinned against a sign. And last week, pro-life crusader Brandi Swindell's verbal scuffle with House Speaker Bruce Newcomb over pro-life legislation resulted in Swindell's banishment from House chambers.

With tensions increasing on both sides of the abortion debate, pro-lifers are changing the terms of the dialogue in their efforts to bully politicians anti-abortion legislation. Describing pro-lifers as "pro-aborts" and abortion clinics as "abortion mills" in the "abortion industry." One California-based organization with possible ties to Idaho goes so far as to equate abortion with the Holocaust. Survivors, an organization dedicated to promoting pro-life activism in high schools and on college campuses, describes anyone who was born after Roe V. Wade as a survivor of "the abortion holocaust" and alternates graphic photos of aborted fetuses with photos of corpses from Holocaust concentration camps in a promotional video on its Web site.

And yet, as intense as the debate appears to be growing locally, pro-life agendas appear to be powered mainly by hoopla of signs of a select few--and Swindell. The impending governor's race features one enthusiastic anti-abortion activist on the ballot: Marvin Pro-Life Richardson, a candidate who changed his middle name to reinforce public perception of his beliefs, but one who The Idaho Statesman deemed a candidate who would be an "ineffective lawmaker" in a 2004 editorial regarding Richardson's bid for state representative in District 11.

After spending several hours on Saturday afternoon enduring the verbal abuses of pro-choice passersby but entertaining conversation with anyone willing to join them on the State Street sidewalk, Rodriguez and his brother begin again on Sunday.

Together with their father Ray, the brothers attend church at Crossroads Christian Church until services end at noon. Then they head over to the corner of Milwaukee and Franklin and join what is sometimes a group of a as many as dozen protestors--including governor's office hopeful Richardson and his family--before attending evening church services at Cornerstone Community Church.

Rodriguez, along with Ray, J.D. and a longtime family friend moved to Boise from Yuba City, California, about a year ago after being unable to find sufficient work in Yuba City. Rodriguez, whose first task in Boise was finding a suitable church, describes himself as a former Marilyn Manson metal head.

"I used to get in a lot of trouble," he says, blaming his choice of music for his poor lifestyle choices. "I did whatever I wanted. I flipped off cops. I just wanted to be a rebel." In his junior year of high school, Rodriguez spent a day in juvenile detention and was expelled from school after throwing one of his spiked arm cuffs at a teacher.

Rodriguez remembers the moment when he got involved with the church, about two years ago: "We were walking down the street and my dad said, 'Hey this church gives free soda,' so we went inside." Rodriguez enjoyed his first visit so much, he began going back regularly, eventually finding work on odd jobs through the church.

Yet to receive his G.E.D., Rodriguez has found work in Boise through Cornerstone Community Church, though he says, it's getting increasingly difficult to get work that way since the church's building was recently sold. Instead, he fills his time by attending classes twice a week in hopes of fulfilling the requirements for his G.E.D., and hopes to soon further his studies toward becoming a pastor. He mentors and counsels his peers and is involved in Cornerstone's recovery program for formerly incarcerated adults, a program in which his cousin--who was recently released after serving time for robbery--participates. His business cards are full-sized sheets of lined notebook paper containing two handwritten lines with his e-mail address and phone number.

After first moving to Boise, Rodriguez contacted several area pro-life groups to get involved, but no one returned his phone calls. By chance, he drove by Richardson's mall-area group one Sunday, where his enthusiasm was immediately well received. Out on last Sunday's picket line, the larger group fails to materialize and the Rodriguez brothers stand alone with their father and two signs in the afternoon wind. Holding a black sign with white letters reading "Abortion is Homicide" while J.D. holds a red octagonal sign reading simply "Stop Abortion," the pair is undeterred by the absence of the larger group.

As mall traffic grinds to at halt at the light, motorists are just inches from the brothers. Some passersby avoid eye contact completely, some honk and wave, a few give a thumbs-up or flash a peace sign. One clean cut young man driving a truck with words "God is good" etched in the back window simply drives by, and another young man turns down his thumping rap music to give an eager nod and ask where he can get one of the signs for himself.

Rodriguez doesn't say anything in response. He doesn't break his silence until a young woman sums up what appears to be the collective pro-choice response to sign toting pro-life weekend activists. As she darts into the lane closest to Rodriguez and slows her car, she lets out a long honk and mouths "fuck you" while extending her middle finger.

"I counted once," says Rodriguez. "I got 52 fingers and 10 thumbs-ups."

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