Editor's Note: This article includes descriptions of aborted fetuses and references to genocide.
On Tuesday, March 29, students gathered at Toomer’s Corner in a demonstration protesting the graphic images displayed on campus that week by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, which was brought to Auburn University by Auburn Students for Life, an anti-abortion campus group.
They joined the usual Toomer’s Sit-In crowd with signs such as “TIGERS AGAINST HATE” and “NO UTERUS NO OPINION” and cheered at honks of support from cars passing by.
A counter-protest formed only a few feet away in support of CBR, a national anti-abortion organization that works "to establish prenatal justice and the right to life for the unborn,” per its website.
The opposing side also brought signs — large, black signs that read “CHOICE” with depictions of aborted fetuses in the first trimester. A few of them showed dismembered fetus body parts in comparison to a quarter.
This was nearly a direct reflection of the demonstration that was held on Haley Concourse by CBR, which included a display that spanned between the Melton Student Center and Haley Center. On either side of the display, signs read, “WARNING GENOCIDE PHOTOS AHEAD.”
Several people said they were not prepared for the comparisons of abortion to various genocides throughout history — a depiction of a lynching, the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust and the Battle of Wounded Knee. C. Fletcher Armstrong, Southeast region director for CBR, said they aren’t trying to demonize women who’ve had abortions.
“We're not saying that women who’ve had abortions or people that support abortion are Nazis or racist or anything like that,” Armstrong said.
Buried between pictures of genocides, dismembered baby parts and medical procedures was a poster defining misogyny. The poster below claimed “'Transgendered' Biological Males are Destroying Women’s Sports.”
And to the left, a poster proclaimed that “ABORTION SUPPRESSES THE BLACK VOTE."
Lincoln Brandenburg, who works for the Southeast regional office of CBR, said he thinks a lot of what they do, using “shocking” photos and messages, is based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that was written to people on King’s own side.
“They told him he needed to go about it in a way that was less in your face,” Brandenburg said. “That was less controversial, but he pointed out that as long as people are comfortable with the injustice there was no incentive to end it. So his whole thing was causing discomfort and causing controversy and tension.”
For Brandenburg and the volunteers for CBR, this approach of intentionally causing discomfort was working — they were having conversations that they said were “remarkably effective.”
“People can see [that] there’s controversy, protesters with big signs, and whether they agree with this or not, they walk up and talk to us, and we have a conversation that I think is very productive,” Brandenburg said.
While CBR called the demonstration a conversation starter, many students felt that the graphic images were not relevant to the group's cause.
Chandler Ross, freshman in microbiology, was one of the many students who spoke to the volunteers during their demonstration.
“Yesterday I talked to him because I don't understand why they felt the need to start this conversation with this type of imagery,” Ross said. "Once you start a conversation like this people are more hostile and less likely to listen because you're giving all of this information out of your mouth, but behind you is a picture of a Black man being hanged that has nothing to do with what you’re saying right now.”
For some that attended the rally at Toomer’s, the issue wasn’t the ideology of the organization but rather the tactics used — and the University allowing it to be displayed.
Micah Persyn, junior in wildlife science, expressed this sentiment on Tuesday night.
“I’m out here not because of my stance on abortion; it’s just because I really don’t think these images need to be on our campus,” Persyn said. “I’m all for expressing your opinions, but giant displays of these pictures aren’t what people want to see without their consent. I just don’t want it on our campus.”
According to the University’s Expression and Demonstration Policy, students, employees and invited guests of student organizations may engage in demonstrations in certain sections of campus without prior notice or reservation, but to set up a display on the Haley Concourse, Students for Life had to reserve a space through Student Involvement.
CBR reached out to the Auburn Students for Life group to share their Genocide Awareness Project on campus, said Omarr Peters, the Southern regional coordinator for Students for Life of America.
“I do not think my students were fully in the know of what was going to happen or any of the images or of the organization,” Peters said. “I do think they were a little bit blindsided in that regard, and didn’t have the time to fully research what this organization was.”
Peters mentioned that the student groups are mostly independent of the national organization and can bring anyone in, as long as it’s within the rights of the school, though he personally advised against bringing in CBR.
Though Peters attended the counter-protest on Toomer’s on Tuesday, none of the students supporting CBR's display said they were attending on behalf of any on-campus organization.
“I’m all for them coming on campus through the right methods and expressing their views,” Persyn said. “They have a right to do that, everyone does, so it’s just having this giant display. I don’t think it’s fair to have it on our campus, permit or not.”
Students for Life went through the proper channels detailed in both the Expression and Demonstration Policy as well as the Campus Events Policy, said Kathryn Ruth-Sasser, manager of Student Center reservations, in an email sent to The Plainsman.
“Freedom of speech and diversity of ideas are at the foundation of higher education,” Sasser wrote. “As such, all registered student organizations are allowed to reserve space on the concourse to promote their viewpoints, which are protected under the First Amendment.”
Despite the demonstration following the steps to set up on the concourse, and not violating any rules, the images forced some students to adapt and change their daily routine.
Maddie Wellbaum, senior in hospitality management and business, is a student recruiter who gives tours to interested high schoolers and their families. She was giving a tour while the displays were on campus and had to adjust her route after seeing the images.
”It was a surprise to say the least,” Wellbaum said. “We were unaware that the display would be in place on the concourse and have definitely taken actions to avoid the area during tours as to not make any potential students and their families uncomfortable and to not put our student recruiters in a position to receive questions that they don't have answers to.”
Bailey Blake, an Involvement Ambassador in the Office of Student Involvement, said that as of now, there are no restrictions on the content of the displays that are set up on campus — they will be approved as long as they follow all of the guidelines for concourse banners, posters and flyers.
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My Ly, junior in journalism, is the news editor of The Plainsman.