It happens every Saturday, with the same unvarying precision as a church bell. Anti-abortion activist Ross Foti, 79, pulls into a 24-minute parking space on Grand Avenue in South San Francisco. He gets out of the car and starts setting up chairs on the sidewalk, in front of a vacant building where a new Planned Parenthood office was recently approved to open. He pulls out a few signs, inscribed with graphic photographs of aborted fetuses, and waits for other protesters to join him.
And they do — usually six or seven at a time, according to real estate agent and former South San Francisco City Councilman John Penna, who owns the building. But lately, their numbers have ballooned.
"The crowd last week had gone up to like, 20," Penna recalled, trying to describe the situation that led him to scuffle with the well-known and controversial anti-abortion activist and another elderly protester.
"This city has an ordinance where restaurants aren't allowed to put chairs on the sidewalk, and there's also an ordinance against signs," Penna said. "This guy's signs are so horrendous. I've gotten calls from people complaining about the graphic detail."
Last weekend, he got so fed up that he sprayed Foti and retired priest Joe Richards with a power-hose — allegedly because Richards had threatened him first with a cane. The protesters made a citizen's arrest, and when South San Francisco police arrived, they gave Penna a citation for battery, if only to quell the situation.
What's curious to him is how tense the situation has gotten, given that South San Francisco has neither a strong protest culture, nor a particularly fervent anti-abortion movement. But though some anti-abortion groups occasionally picket outside another Planned Parenthood office in San Mateo, and others have a booth at the San Mateo County Fair, none has been as brazen or confrontational as Foti. Were it not for him, said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, the anti-abortion protests in the county — and even in San Francisco — would look no different than anywhere else.
But apparently, it only takes one individual to create the illusion of a movement.
Planned Parenthood Mar Monte spokeswoman Lupe Rodriguez says Foti's graphic protests, coupled with an appeal from an anti-abortion group called Respect Life, have become a cumbersome red herring.
"We're surprised by the vocal opposition in South San Francisco," Rodriguez said. "We know it's a minority community, but they're garnering a lot of attention."
Penna worries the protests will stymie efforts to set up affordable health care in an area that really needs it — not only is the proposed office surrounded by working-class immigrant neighborhoods, it's also right on a bus line, so prospective customers could get there easily.
"There's a real need for Planned Parenthood in the community," Penna said. "People don't have insurance, and they don't have medical care."
The South San Francisco Planning Commission recognized that need when it approved the office with a 6-1 vote in May, apparently not anticipating the weekly face-offs with anti-abortion activists.
The South San Francisco City Council will revisit the issue in August, when it takes up the appeal, and Penna says he plans to attend that meeting. He may also point out another irony of the protests — this particular clinic won't even offer surgical abortions.