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Video: Anti-abortion group Genocide Awareness Project riles emotions at UMaine

University of Maine Police Department Sgt. Robert Norman talks with Darius Hardwick, the midwest regional director for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and a member of the Genocide Awareness Project, after a harassment complaint was filed with the police regarding Monday's demonstration.
Beth Kevit | The Maine Campus
University of Maine Police Department Sgt. Robert Norman talks with Darius Hardwick, the midwest regional director for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and a member of the Genocide Awareness Project, after a harassment complaint was filed with the police regarding Monday's demonstration.
The Genocide Awareness Project, a photo exhibit organized by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, set up a display on the University of Maine mall early Monday morning, coming back to campus for much of Tuesday.The display, which was arranged in front of Stevens Hall, included large-scale, graphic photos depicting the purported effects of abortion, as well as images of genocide and the Holocaust, surrounded by a fence.The group likened abortion to genocide in what some students referred to as a “shock value” campaign.

“It’s America’s Holocaust: 4,000 babies a day get butchered. … It’s the crucial issue of our time,” said GAP member Frank Diorio.

Howard Segal, a UMaine history professor who talked at length with Diorio, said he wasn’t impressed with the group’s efforts.

“Most people are not in favor of abortion, but what’s always paradoxical is the huge number of people who are against abortion but seem to lose any interest in the welfare of the mother and the baby if and when the baby is born,” Segal said.

Darius Hardwick, the center’s Midwest regional director, engaged students in discussion in the late morning, leaving them with varied emotions.

“It is not your body. I reject that assumption … it is inside your body … you have a baby inside you … you’re not allowed to kill that baby,” Hardwick said on Monday as he argued with students, a statement that set the tone for the day.

“[A fetus is] a human being. … The question is, are we going to grant [them] rights?” he said later as he stood on a small stool to be heard above the crowd. “We have killed more babies in America than Hitler did.”

Amanda Rivers, a second-year social work student, saw the display when she walked out of a morning class.“I’m so glad that they’re here,” she said.Rivers said she always knew she was pro-life but didn’t understand the extent of her commitment to that mindset until she saw the photos, which she described as “graphic.”

“I came out of class and just did the walk around and honestly started crying,” she said.

Her views on abortion were cemented after she spoke with a GAP protester, and she said she doesn’t believe there are any circumstances in which abortion is a moral decision. She now describes herself as firmly anti-abortion.

“I am now. One-hundred percent,” she said.

She said she understands why students gathered around Hardwick to argue with him.

“These people, hell yeah they’re pissed off. … They’re pissed off that they’re forced to realize this is real,” Rivers said. “They’re going to scream and they’re going to go off, but you can’t take it personally.”

But Rivers’ views seemed to be the minority, as students continued to cluster around Hardwick at a corner of the display and seemed more agitated and offended by his presence.

Paige Pendarvis, a second-year nursing student, also did not know GAP would be on campus. She was one of the students engaging Hardwick in conversation, saying a woman’s right to make choices regarding her own body is paramount.

Pendarvis didn’t describe herself as either pro-life or pro-choice, saying instead that she believes a decision should not be forced on a woman in any situation.

“I’m personally not saying that it’s one way or another, but each woman gets freedom of choice over her own body,” she said. “It’s not in accordance with what this country stands for, that a woman doesn’t have a choice.”

Caleb Rosser, a fourth-year political science student and student body vice president, said GAP’s methods were crude.

“While I understand the importance of free speech, I feel like there are more civil ways to go about expressing an ideology position,” Rosser said. “I acknowledge their right to free speech … but there are other ways to debate issues civilly.”

At one point, Hardwick likened abortion to slavery in an attempt to prove his idea that one human being has no superiority over another.

“It is not my civil right to own a black man and I can’t kill a black man because he’s black,” Hardwick said.

“Yeah, but you don’t have a black man inside your body, do you?” asked Jason Harris, a third-year political science student, drawing laughter from a number of surrounding students.

Former University of Maine student James Fields said many of GAP’s image choices were confusing.

“In particular, the pictures of black men hanging from trees and concentration [camp] victims are not only emotionally provocative … but completely irrelevant,” Fields said.

Approximately 100 feet away, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Robert Dana stood with Senior Associate Dean Kenda Scheele for Monday’s flag raising that marked the official start of UMaine’s Pride Week.

“I came out to raise the pride flag,” Dana said. “We’ve heard from a good handful of students who are concerned and upset and feel confronted by the situation.

“We’ve had a long history of anti-abortion protesters on campus,” he continued. “This is a bigger display than we’ve seen before. … It’s always jarring.”

At least one person felt so confronted that a harassment complaint was filed with the University of Maine Police Department. At about 11:56 a.m., UMPD Sgt. Robert Norman arrived to take down Hardwick’s information in order to follow up on that complaint.

“We’ve had no problem at all,” Norman said. “This [the protest] was already cleared through the University of Maine.”

According to university policies, an event likely to draw more than 200 people at one time needs to fill out an event management form. In an email, Dana wrote that GAP did not have to fill out this form. He wrote that GAP had received prior permission to be on campus and was sponsored by the student group Life Support.

Calvin Mako, president of Life Support, did not want to comment before the group met as a whole. The meeting was scheduled to occur after press time.

Leslie Sneddon of Richmond, the center’s Northeast regional director, confirmed that GAP was hosted by Life Support.

“We want to show you the humanity of the child and the inhumanity of abortion,” Sneddon said. “Words alone cannot convey the evil that abortion is.”

Sneddon said she hopes women who are in their late teens and early 20s would take the message to heart since college students make up a significant percentage of those who opt to have abortions.

“I’m here because I’ve had four abortions. … I know that I’ve been forgiven [after becoming religious],” Sneddon continued. “I just want to let other women know that it’s not just a 5- to 7-minute operation. It’s with you for the rest of your life.”

On Tuesday morning, a group of students formed a human chain around the display and in front of Roy Spears, a GAP member from Arizona, who was speaking to passersby. Alesha Coffin, a member of the line, repeatedly told others that the people in the line were not there due to pro-life or pro-choice sentiment but because they took issue with the arrangement of the display.

According to police records, UMPD received four reports of harassment and one report of disorderly conduct regarding the display on Monday. UMPD also received a report of trespassing from the GAP members after a male spectator went behind the fence that blocks access to the photo display.

UMPD received four calls related to the display on Tuesday. One was a report of disorderly conduct, and another was an unfounded complaint of erratic vehicle operation in which the complainant said GAP’s large van cut him or her off while driving. The other two were information calls, meaning the caller did not file a formal complaint. One of the two information calls was to inform UMPD of a bare-breasted woman on the mall.

“One of the females took her top off and was saying something,” said UMPD Detective Keith Mercier.

Mercier said no charges will be filed as the result of any of the 10 complaints related to the display.

“Pretty much everything was unfounded,” he said.

GAP  visited the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday and Thursday. Students there planned a carnival to offer a distracting activity for those hoping to avoid the display.

“We want to give people something else to do,” Timothy Zabihaylo, a USM senior history student and an organizer of the carnival, told The Free Press, USM’s student newspaper. “They want us to get riled up, break the law so they can sue the college. But we’re not going to rise to their bait.”

USM police officer Jeffrey Soper told The Free Press that no “significant incidents” related to the display had been reported as of noon on Wednesday.