Troubling display on Northrop Mall disrupts daily life

by Josh Linehan

As the noon hour trickled away with a whimper Thursday, Andrew Williams wouldn’t say which side of the abortion debate gradually overtaking Northrop Mall he favored. But he had no reservations about making another point.

Williams mans a grill for University Dining Services, serving up hamburgers, hot dogs and chips to hungry mall lingerers. The stand sits directly below the plaza where images of bloody aborted fetuses have been placed since Monday.

All of the hullabaloo certainly hampers business.

“They’re trying to get something through someone’s mind,” Williams said, gesturing toward the graphic display above him and the circle of protesters below. “But they’re messing with people’s appetites as well.”

Usually he and his cohort at the cash register do a brisk trade. Students with a little time to kill between classes – lured by convenience, or perhaps the chance to dine on bratwursts al fresco – line up 10- and 12-deep.

They’re on duty from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., or 1:30 p.m. if the line is especially long, Williams said. This week, that hasn’t been a concern.

People fidget. They tuck their hair behind their ears. Noses are vigorously rubbed. Arms are folded, wiggled and then refolded the other way.

But feet remain frozen, unable, for a time, to walk away from the billboards screaming “genocide” on a crowded campus.

The display’s imagery prompted Kelsey Collier-Wise and the University Choice Coalition to organize a rally of their own.

“They say they’re trying to create a dialogue, but something so shocking and disgusting, how can it do that?” she asked. “They talk a lot about partial-birth abortions. It’s representing something as the norm when it’s not.”

“They” is Justice For All, a national anti-abortion group with a chapter on campus who brought the display to town from Wichita, Kan.

JFA President David Lee, who brought his representatives down from the plaza to the mall to debate the abortion-rights group, had no trouble characterizing his group’s stay in Minnesota as strange.

“It’s been kind of a three-ring circus, to tell you the truth,” Lee said. “You had us, you had some guy named Brother Jed and you’ve had various other groups. I’m sure students are going, ‘Did I miss something? Is this the week the crazies come out on campus?’ “

Lee stresses that his group and its display serve merely to spark a debate. But both sides acknowledge honest discussion is hard to come by.

“They’re very well prepared to answer any argument,” said Rev. Nadean Bishop, who has been on the plaza all week representing the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Choice. “The usual answer is they don’t like killing babies. So then to me it becomes a dogmatic exercise.”

Despite such a visually dominant presence, reactions have been muted. There have been no screaming throngs, no shouting matches and no violence.

“You could blame it on ‘Minnesota nice,’ ” Collier-Wise said. “I try to stay out of the debates with them because it never goes anywhere and it just wastes your time. We’re certainly not here to convert anyone.”

Andrew Williams, for one, will be glad when all the dissonance recedes and he can go back to cooking for a hungry crowd.

Packing up his stand shortly after 1 p.m., he pulled plastic-wrapped meat out of a cooler and threw melting ice onto the mall grass.

“It hurts us. People come up to me and say, ‘You know me. I’m starvin’ like Marvin by the time I get here. But today I don’t have any appetite.’ “

He gestures as he speaks, toward the protesters above and those below.

“They talk about freedom for choice, freedom for life,” he said. “What about respect for the next person?”