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Spin Magazine, June 1994

Rock In A Hard Place
by Craig Marks

Pearl Jam travel to Pensacola, Florida to show support for abortion rights.

Outside the Pensacola Civic Center on a blustery March evening, the post-concert ritual was nearly the same as it ever was: kids drenched in sweat, sweetly replaying their favorite Pearl Jam or L7 moments, swapping mosh-pit tales, trying to remember where they parked. Yet even these time-honored rites of teenage passage weren't enough to fully mask the sad and alarming reason behind this show: the one year anniversary of the murder of abortion provider Dr. David Gunn.

On March 10, 1993, Dr. Gunn was killed outside a Pensacola clinic by anti-abortion zealot Michael Griffin. The shooting galvanized both sides of the abortion debate. Unrepentant pro-lifers such as Rescue America's regional director John Burt, a key figure in the ensuing trial of Griffin, condoned the violence, saying that "the use of lethal force was justifiable provided it was carried out for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children." Pro-choicers took the slaying as the final affront to legally guaranteed freedoms, and emphatically stepped their battle to protect family planning and abortion-related facilities. Although a Pensacola jury had found Griffin guilty of murder on Saturday, March 5, just four days before the Pearl Jam-L7-Follow For Now benefit concert, not everyone was satisfied.

"Frankly," says David Gunn, Jr., the 23-year-old son of Dr. Gunn, who spoke at the show and helped organize the Rock for Choice event, "the police here didn't do a good job. The leading anti-abortion person here in this city (John Burt) was given immunity within ten days. Just the fact that there was a policeman at the clinic at the time shows how repugnant the Pensacola police department treats women's health care. They just blow their nose at it."

Pearl Jam, which has consistently supported abortion rights and Rock for Choice, sought out Gunn, Jr., after his appearance on a TV talk show. "Eddie Vedder called me after I had been on Donahue about a year ago, just to say 'Hello and I'm sorry.' He genuinely felt bad for me and the situation I was in."

"When Dr. Gunn was murdered," says Katherine Spillar, national coordinator for the Feminist Majority, which oversees Rock for Choice, "Eddie called our offices looking to see how he could get in touch with David. This concert brought the issue home to Pensacola, where some of the most severe anti-abortion violence has erupted, and showed support to the men and women who work in the clinics and to the courage of Dr. Gunn and his family."

Catherine Meaux, an 18-year-old who made the trip from Robertsdale, Alabama, for the Rock for Choice benefit show winced when asked about supporting abortion rights in the deep south. "You get a lot of hassle if you're pro-choice," she said. "My friend at home loves Pearl Jam, but she said she wouldn't be caught dead at a pro-choice concert."

Inside the sold-out Civic Center, nearly 8,000 rock-starved fans cheered Rock for Choice founders L7's caustic putdowns of Domino's Pizza, as well as their pleas for local involvement in clinic defense training. Those cheers were dwarfed, though, by the swell that greeted Pearl Jam's entrance, and by Vedder's moving solo take on Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." Throughout the show, Vedder chose his words carefully, eager to allow his band's actions to speak for its politics. Except for a few brief "you know what we're here for" testimonials, Pearl Jam was (big) business as usual, with ex-Pensacolan Mike McCready particularly fired up, as years of teenage angst were channeled into a hail of feedback. At the concert's end, Vedder introduced an emotional Gunn. "They try to take our lives away from us," Gunn, Jr., told the crowd, "by taking our choices away from us."

Back outside peace prevailed, a few anticipated protests kept at bay by both the weather and increased security. Still, propaganda from the abortion war littered the parking lot. A pamphlet found on the pavement was seductively titled, "Pearl Jam: The Blood." Once opened, its intentions became clear: "There is only one PEARL worth jammin' out for... The 'PEARL OF GREAT PRICE'... If you continue on the road you are on, rejecting Jesus Christ... you will have a front row seat in the hottest concert in dark, burning, eternal hell. When the doors close," it read, "you are in forever."