It's Thursday morning and Darius Hardwick is driving his delivery truck around Portland, hoping to find a traffic jam. "We're quite content to be stuck," Hardwick says. "We're not really in a hurry to get anywhere. There's nowhere to go. The only purpose of having this truck on the road is so people can see it."
Hardwick is not your average truck driver. For one thing, there's his job title: "Northwest regional director of education." There's also the 22 pounds of tactical body armor he's wearing— a blue Kevlar vest designed to stop a 9 mm bullet traveling at submachine-gun velocity. It's a full-metal jacket similar to the ones worn by the NYPD and soldiers in Iraq.
There's also the matter of the Mylar film covering the glass that surrounds his cab, glass designed to withstand the impact of heavy bricks and rocks. "[The film is] made by the same company that makes Scotch tape," Hardwick says with a lift in his voice.
"We used to have to wear helmets, too," adds Hardwick, 27, who has a sturdy build and Popeye forearms ballooning out of his black polo shirt. But after an incident in Ohio, he explains, where police stopped a driver for his group because he looked suspicious, they abandoned the headgear.
Then there's the off-white Crown Victoria safety car that closely follows Hardwick's truck with a dash-mounted video camera, noting his routes and keeping an eye peeled for possible aggressors.
Clearly, this is not the ice cream man.
Hardwick's precautions really aren't that preposterous considering his line of work. Drivers for his organization average a dozen death threats annually, and anyone who has seen his truck can attest to the outrage its images incite. All it takes is one view, one gaze at the graphic display of high-definition color images it showcases, to realize that Hardwick is no mere driver. He's a shock trooper, a soldier with a diesel engine in what he believes is the most important crusade of the day.
"Just shakin' up the world," says Hardwick. "We're making people feel guilty." He pulls onto Southwest Broadway downtown as a man with an umbrella gives him the finger. "People don't like feeling guilty."
Hardwick's employer, if that's what you can call it, is the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit with an annual budget of at least $2 million and more than 30 employees. You could say that the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is a marketing company. Hardwick's truck is just one of a fleet that's been traversing America since 2001, carrying nothing but a message that he believes "is gonna change the future." The center has also taken to the air, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars renting small planes that drag 200-foot banners with disturbing images over beaches and football stadiums throughout the country.
Hardwick, tooling up Southwest Salmon Street and stopping at a light where a man yells out a string of expletives, says he wouldn't mind being up in an airplane. "It's lots safer. You don't have people banging on your windows as often."
Later, driving west down Northeast Alberta Street, Hardwick says he believes that the images on his truck are no more shocking than showing pictures of his house. "It's the simple truth," he says. Meanwhile, a man with a mohawk outside the Alberta Co-Op yells, "Nice truck, dickhead!"
Most pictures are worth a thousand words, but the images on Hardwick's truck can be summed up with just one: nauseating. Without a warning label or NC-17 rating, the side of Hardwick's 27-by-13.5-foot trailer features a gigantic, high-resolution image of a bloody heap of dismembered body parts from a mutilated 10-week-old aborted fetus. The only discernible appendages are two doll-sized arms, which emerge from the carnage with their blood-soaked hands gripping a dime. The word "choice" appears in bold, white print. On the other side of his truck is an equally graphic image of a decapitated, 11-week-old aborted fetus with a torn chest cavity—sprawled in its own blood across the palm of an adult hand. The rear of the trailer features an 8-week-old aborted embryo's dismembered lower legs, left arm and ribcage, drenched in blood and being prodded by a pencil.
"Very few people have ever actually seen an aborted fetus," says Hardwick's boss, Center for Bio-Ethical Reform Executive Director Gregg Cunningham. He believes his group is at the forefront of an alternative-media revolution.
It's hard to be confronted with Hardwick's truck and not wonder if there should be a limit to free speech. Can such an offensive message, displayed so publicly, possibly be legal? Doesn't it violate some sort of code or rule? Was there a permit issued to allow this? "In Great Britain I think it would be illegal," says City Commissioner Randy Leonard, adding that in America—especially in free-speech-friendly Oregon—there is no more need to get a permit to show these pictures than one would need to share pictures of wounded soldiers in Iraq. "While it is absolutely abhorrent and irresponsible, it is absolutely protected speech," Leonard says.
Charlie Hinkle, one of the foremost First Amendment lawyers in the state, adds that offensive images are protected under free speech "even if there are no bounds to bad taste," Hinkle says.
Noted local civil rights lawyer Elden M. Rosenthal agrees, saying, "The First Amendment is all about protecting graphic, emotional speech." While pornography has somewhat fewer protections, virtually any other form of offensive speech is legal. Rosenthal pointed to the famous case of the Nazi march in the Jewish community of Skokie, Ill., in 1977 that was determined to be legal. "Anybody can say anything," Rosenthal says, "and we'll let the marketplace of ideas sort it out." Jann Carson, associate director of ACLU Oregon, adds, "A truck that says 'Gas the Jews' would be protected speech in Oregon."
Dr. Elizabeth Newhall, who has been performing abortions for decades, doesn't object to the photos on free-speech grounds. Her concern is over what she claims is a distortion of the truth. She points out that the decapitated fetus sprawling across a human hand has been painstakingly arranged by the photographer to give the impression it is giving the fingers a hug. Dr. Newhall wonders about the ethics behind obtaining the tissue and posing it with props. "They've clearly stolen tissue and posed it in order to horrify and maximize gruesomeness," she says. "They had to go to great lengths in order to produce this." But Cunningham, who would not reveal the source of what he calls the "victims," has a ready retort. People needn't question how he got his pictures any more than they should question how a picture was taken of a concentration-camp victim. The image is what is significant, he says, adding that there is nothing extraordinary about the fetuses. "It's all normative, garden-variety, everyday abortion."
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is not a believer in subtlety. Its website, abortionno.org, features a streaming video of an abortion, titled "Choice Blues," where the camera zooms in on a tiny fetus's arm being scraped into a tray. "This is completely staged," Newhall says. "First of all, the cervix is sticking outside the woman's body" she notes, referring to the doctor's unusual and exceptionally gruesome method of pulling the woman's cervix completely outside of her body during the operation. "I've never seen that done in an abortion," Newhall says. She also says that whoever is performing the abortion in the video is using crude, formidable-looking instruments like a curette and a ring forceps (generally reserved for rare third-trimester abortions only). "They had to go to great lengths to produce this," she says. "It's so pathetic." Predictably, Cunningham disagrees: "Different abortions use different tools and techniques," he says. "If she has some clinical issues she'd like to debate with fellow baby-killers, she can take it up with them."
Adds Hardwick, "The pro-abortionists rely on dehumanizing the baby." He's driving on Southwest Salmon Street past a group of elementary-school-age children. Startled by the bloody images, a scruffy-haired boy points the trailer out to the group. The children shoot looks of confused disgust, and one girl stops rolling on her skate shoes to cover her eyes.
Hardwick's truck has created some strange bedfellows. For once, abortion doctor Newhall and pro-life activist Sarah Nashif have something they agree on. Nashif was the chief petitioner of last year's Measure 43, which would have required parental consent for 15- to 17-year-olds seeking abortions. The measure failed, but Nashif has become perhaps the most vocal pro-life advocate in the state. Yet she has problems with the Center and the truck. She says that flaunting the images in front of unsuspecting children goes against the pro-life goal of defending the innocent. She notes that extreme groups like Hardwick's are mostly mocked in pro-life circles. "More than anything," she says, "they embarrass us."
This news hardly troubles Hardwick, who says he's not out there to get people to like him. "A lot of pro-life organizations are of the mistaken belief that you have to cover [abortion] up," Hardwick says. "We're of the belief that in order to oppose injustice you have to expose injustice." He wants to condition viewers' opinions, and sees no difference between what he does and what major news networks do when they show pictures of genocide in Rwanda or dead civilians in Iraq.
Driving in circles around Pioneer Courthouse Square, he paraphrases Abraham Lincoln on slavery, saying, "You don't have the right to do what's wrong," likening Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court's pro-slavery Dred Scott ruling of 1857. He compares his mission to that of the abolitionists of the 19th century, and goes on to compare the group's unpopular and disturbing imagery to pictures exposing racist violence during the civil-rights movement.
It's almost noon, and pedestrians clutching umbrellas and cups of coffee seem, for the most part, to ignore the image of bloody fetus parts on the back of Hardwick's rig. It's raining and gloomy outside, and he seems disappointed that more people aren't reacting to the truck. "It's great when people call up and think we're a clinic advertising to give abortions," Hardwick notes.
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is busy. In addition to the trucks and planes, the group has what it calls the Genocide Awareness Project, in which members travel to college campuses to incite controversy by erecting billboard-size pictures of aborted fetuses.
"The universities around here are fun," says Hardwick. In 1999, at both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, protesters trying to surround the motley display with white sheets were immediately threatened with lawsuits and forced to move the sheets back. Hardwick should be able to get all the action he desires at PSU, which "will be hit with a GAP project in the springtime," he says.
Hardwick has spent two years driving his truck throughout Oregon, whose liberal tendencies are a bit of an anomaly for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. Typically, the Center brings its message to swing states like Ohio, Montana and Pennsylvania. "They tend to be more open-minded," says executive director Cunningham. But it would be hard to imagine Oregon as a swing state when it comes to abortion.
Oregon has a long tradition of support for abortion rights, even when they were illegal. In the 1920s, Portland was home to one of America's most legendary abortion providers, Dr. Ruth Barnett, who performed about 40,000 abortions over 50 years. In 1969, Oregon became one of the first states to decriminalize abortion. Since then, every measure trying to limit a woman's right to choose has been shot down at the voting booth. This year, with a pro-choice majority in both the state House and Senate, organizations like the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League will have a good shot at passing the Access to Birth Control Act, requiring insurance companies who offer prescription-drug benefits to cover birth-control costs as well.
"Oregon is one of the more pro-choice states in the country," says Portland pollster and strategist Lisa Grove. In a poll taken of Oregonians in July 2006, 63 percent of respondents said they felt abortion should be legal—one of the higher margins of support in the U.S. "Oregon is more on the Democratic side than we'd like," says Hardwick. "The real liberals—they'll see the sign and get mad, and it's fun but it's hard to change their minds."
On Northeast Alberta Street, Hardwick pulls a move he calls "blasting" by taking a slow left turn at a green light in front of oncoming traffic—exposing the unsuspecting drivers to all his images in one fell swoop. "I just picture it parting their hair," he says happily through a mouthful of muffin as Mike Lisac, who is driving the Crown Victoria behind him, breaks in on the CB to suggest they call it a day.
Exiting I-5, a short-haired woman in a gray minivan sounds her horn to call Hardwick's attention to the middle finger she's waving furiously in his direction. She is met with a smile that hints of satisfaction.
"That's what we're trying to do," Hardwick says with earnestness. "Condition people to think of abortion and think 'dead baby.' The common denominator is pictures that disturb people."
Reactions to Hardwick's truck from bystanders in Pioneer Courthouse Square:
"At first I thought it was seafood. I don't think it's offensive...if it's for a good thing." —Armando Avila
"Freedom of choice, you know what I'm sayin? It's real, though. Its real. You can't sugarcoat it. That's what happens. That's the grim reality, man." —Adrean Williams
"It's better than bringing a clinic down. Look at the big truck wasting fuel just to promote that—why don't they get a banner or something where they're not wasting fuel? I don't know what a fetus looks like, but I know that if a woman wants to get an abortion it's OK with me." —Joel Sandoval, Honkin' Huge Burritos employee
"I'm ready for a burrito regardless." I think people need the choice. Personally, I'm against it." —Gary Unger
"I am definitely pro-choice. However, I don't think they need to have a picture that graphic on the side of their truck—it's ridiculous." —Carianne Forbes
"Obviously they're trying to scare people and change women's minds. I'm choice. The picture itself is gruesome—it's disgusting. It's not going to make me change my mind. I've seen him more than twice. I've had an abortion. I'm 35 now and I have two kids that I'm grateful for." —Jenny Webb
Hardwick works as a part-time carpenter in addition to raising nearly $43,000 per year for his driving job through speaking engagements.
Hardwick's parents first learned about his job two years ago— when he sent a flier covered with horrifying images instead of a Christmas card.
Hardwick rebelled into Christianity from a family of "proud atheists" in Independence, Ore.
Hardwick studied emergency medicine at Chemeketa Community College in Salem but gave it up because it was "emotionally hard work."
Hardwick's truck has been traveling throughout the state for six years, though he's only driven it for two. During his stint, he says, the worst thing that ever happened was having people bang on his cab windows in Salem.
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform also pickets churches it says "trivialize" abortion with graphic billboards including Bible verses.
The high-definition images are not permanently affixed to the sides of Hardwick's truck; they can be unzipped at any time.