Sep 302002
Authors: Sarah Laribee

The display is huge. Taller than the student center it seems. And when you grow weary of craning your neck, and weary of looking at the images, turning around and watching spectators craning their own necks to see seems just as interesting.

One of the things so markedly notable about this week’s Justice For All billboard display is that silence is just as prevalent around the circumference of the display as is dialogue. There are pockets of discussion here and there as staffers wait behind metal grating for puzzled or confused or vehemently furious onlookers to pose puzzled, confused or vehemently furious questions.

But often, those who spend the most time craning their necks stop and read the display, frequently conversing with no one in particular, walking away in a cloud of silence. Except for those who leave a brief word of thanks. And those who quickly say, “This is disgusting. You all need to get a life.”

This is Tammy Cook’s life. Tammy Cook is the Administrative Director of the Justice For All traveling billboard display, an incredibly graphic anti-abortion display that is this week dominating the Plaza for the second time in six months. The display features full-color story-sized photographs of aborted and dismembered embryos and fetuses, as well as printed questions and facts designed to shock the audience into discourse. Exterior or interior discourse? You pick.

“We want to create debate about an issue that many people think is a resolved issue,” she said, standing outside the exhibit as a small army of staff and volunteers methodically constructed it. “The word ‘abortion’ has lost its meaning to the public. Our exhibit puts a face on it.”

Several faces in fact. The exhibit is full of wrenching and grotesque photographs that seem almost unreal. One photo shows a partially dismembered head being held by a small pair of tweezers. It’s gross.

But so is abortion, said staffers defending themselves. Four thousand babies killed a day is gross too. And yes, abortion is an emotional issue. How can it not be? But saying that it’s an emotional issue does not automatically jettison it violently from the realm of reason. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Cook speaks to emotion. “Abortion is an emotional issue,” she says “and it’s something that people have experienced first hand. We are trying to save them from subjecting themselves to even more harm.”

Tammy Cook joined the organization seven years ago, and travels with it full time as it erects its catalyst at around 12 campuses a year. She is soft-spoken and petite, and doesn’t seem to be of the proper stature for an activist. But she is.

“I felt a deep compassion for women, men and children who were vulnerable to unspeakable harm,” she says, explaining why she took her position. “I really care about people and want to help them. I want to save them from hurt if I can.”

The people craning their necks generally do not feel protected or helped. A lot of them feel comfortable using the word “violated.”

Cook understands that, but urges observers to not go with their gut reaction. “I would ask people to put anger aside and have an open mind. Read the exhibit, talk to the staff. We really do care about them.”

A small, severed hand resting on the face of a dime burns its image into my mind. I grow weary of craning my neck, and grow weary of looking at the images that disappear when issues like this are sanitized into the realm of legislative and political discourse. The Plaza is full of students who slow their steps or quicken them, based on how much they are willing to digest at this point.

Tammy Cook stands stalwart as the students pass. “We’re simply trying to show the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts.” It also happens to be the only thing worth defending.

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