Anti-abortion activists said a masked man lashed out and vandalized some of their materials at a demonstration on Ohio University's campus late last week.
As part of the demonstration, members of Bobcats for Life set up a number of signs at Howard Park on North Green with photos of aborted fetuses. At one point, a man who had been standing nearby covered his face and began smashing some of the signs, Jacob Hoback, president of the group, said.
A video of the incident shows the man holding what appears to be a nightstick.
"I assumed at some point in the year we’d have something like this," Hoback said. "When we show the graphic images, the pro aborts (sic) are not able to hold a rational and resort to confrontation."
Hoback said the man had previously been mingling with pro-abortion rights activists who had organized a counter-protest.
Mark Harrington, director of Created Equal, a Columbus-based group that provided the signs and participated in the demonstration, said the man hit four signs, each of which costed $75. He said the Ohio University Police Department is investigating.
Based on the video, it did not appear the signs were significantly damaged. Hoback said some paint was scraped off from the signs, but that the images were still distinguishable.
Harrington said he's never experienced anyone donning a disguise or carrying a weapon before, but people have knocked the signs over.
"We're seeing (violence) increase across the country," he said. "It may have been isolated in the sense that he was acting alone, but we consistently see this happening everywhere we go."
Gabriel Mann, communications manager of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Pro-Choice Ohio, said there were some activists from his group at the scene, but added the man was not connected to them in any way, and condemned his actions.
"This was just somebody wearing a mask who wanted to try and cause trouble," he said. "We don’t condone engaging with anti-abortion protesters at all."
Mann said, rather than engaging with the anti-abortion demonstrators, his group was attempting to "reduce the stigma" of abortion. One activist donned a giant "uterus puppet" to present a "fun message about women's rights as opposed to a graphic one."
"Our entire purpose for being in Athens on that day was to show the students and the community that there's a great deal of support for the pro-choice movement, and that women who were there are not alone," he said. "This level of anti-abortion intimidation that this group (Created Equal) tries is not acceptable."
Sofi Trexler, secretary for Generation Action, a pro-abortion rights group on campus, also said the man was not connected with them, and that none of their members were present at the demonstration for more than 10 minutes.
"Our group believes in fighting for reproductive rights peacefully. ... We do not know anyone who might have done that," she said.
Though Mann encouraged the Created Equal's right to free speech, he said many of their tactics fall into the category of harassment, including setting up in front of abortion clinics and high schools, branding specific abortion providers as "murderers" and publicly sharing the phone numbers of abortion providers.
Friday's demonstration also included the Created Equal "Truth Truck" — a large truck with billboard-sized photos of aborted fetuses, which the group drove around campus.
Harrington acknowledged the group did those things, but argued they weren't acts of harassment. He said abortion providers "need to be known for what they do."
"There's no connection between any of this kind of exposure and anyone being hurt or harmed," he said. "If that could be proven, then that's something we'd have to take a look at."
Harrington said Friday's vandalism incident was an indication of what he believes to be an increase in threats to anti-abortion activists' First Amendment rights.
"I think the pro-choice movement needs to own up to the idea that they are violent (and own up to) the violence of abortion," he said. "They need to own up to that violence and condemn it."