It’s not every day you get to stand up against something that is undoubtedly wrong. If you get the chance, you should savor those moments. Treasure them. And you should hope that you do the best you possibly can in the moment.
These were some of the thoughts that made me decide to enter a counter protest against the Westboro Baptist Church.
The WBC made a stop on their Hate Across America tour in the town of Blacksburg, Virginia on Friday, April 9th. If you’ve heard of the town and are neither a fan of college football nor in possession of an engineering degree, you’re likely familiar with it because of the tragedy surrounding a guy named Cho and the shootings that popped April 16th out of the calendar, making it a date now free of the need to be associated with a year to underline its significance.
I had heard about Fred Phelps and his home grown hate machine years ago. I imagined each one of them some dynamo of malcontentment, capable of hours of shouting discrimination and vitriol, tireless in their small minded pursuit of a homo-free world. I viewed their arrival with a bit of both anticipation and disgust; anticipation because I wanted to see what sort of people would wish to build a memorial to the killers of Matthew Shepard and disgust because such people really are there to see. A counter protest was planned and everyone told to be positive and loving. I was told by someone who’d seen the tactics of the WBC before what I might expect and how talented they were at provoking people into not being positive or loving and thus giving them cause for lawsuits.
I made ready for a fight. First, I suited up for the conflict as appropriately as I could, wearing a kilt and a bright red shirt sure to make me hard to miss. Then I armed myself with a double sided sign. One side was intended as a response to any hate speech: “Is that the best you got?” The other was the one that faced the protesters more: “Do you guys just need a hug?”
So armed and armored, I said a prayer to the gods of battle and made my way downtown.
I saw the counter-protesters first. They played Madonna on boom boxes. They had signs like “Bigots Be Gone”, “God is Love” and “I’m on a boat!” Many were dressed as flamboyantly as I was or better. They chanted “Lets… GO! Ho…. KIES!” as they might have had this been a football game. They looked like they were having a good time.
And then I saw… them. Behind the orange barricades, there was the contingent from the Westboro Baptist Church.
3 adults. 2 Children. Lots of signs.
I’d like to say what ensued was an epic battle of Hope vs. Love, Tolerance vs. Bigotry. In truth, they only stood holding as many idiotic signs as they could in both arms and shouted things we couldn’t hear over wind and traffic while we stood around and smiled. Media folk interviewed us but people shouted “No more air time!” when the networks tried to do interviews with the WBC. People took pictures of good signs. Some of us hugged each other. Others waved flags and cried “USA! USA!” One or two people said something out of line, but for the most part, people just had a good time and there was far more mirth than there was anger.
After a while, they jumped in their mini-van and headed off to protest a school a couple of miles away. They looked like they forgot that they’d left a pie in the oven more than that they’d triumphantly finished spreading justice for their God. At the school they were met by many of the same and some new counter protesters and they went about their way to spread hate south then slink back to the Hatecave in Kansas.
In the end, I was amazed by not by the outrageous nature of their rhetoric, but at how lame and tepid their protest really was to witness. In a saner world, we’d have just popped these guys on the nose with a newspaper and sent them to a corner to think about what they’ve done, not put them on the nightly news.
This is not to say they don’t have a right to speak; the freedom of speech protects the innocent and hateful as much as it protects the wise and enlightened. If all were right with the world, though, I believe that there would be no need to protest the WBC’s protests. We would just have gone ahead, marked them as the unfortunate footnote in the history of religion they will still one day be and then have gone about our business.
But now we’ve fed the monster a diet of attention and enough bile for it to grow into a concern that cannot go unanswered. The words of the Phelps clan must be met with retort of love and reason, not because it will put a dent in their rocky hearts, but because in answering them, we warm the spirits of people who know that the worldview of the Westboro folks bears only a passing resemblance to any religion or any reality.
It is better that we make each other laugh than just shake our fists and sit angry at home. Plus, getting dressed up is fun.
In the end, I do have to give the Phelps crew a couple of points. First, if it was their goal to bring people together under a united clause, they succeeded... just not the cause of hating gays. Secondly, even in high winds, those guys can really hold signs. And lastly, I'm pretty sure that night a lot of people did more interesting things to each other in the bed room than they would have otherwise in Blacksburg, because the energy from the protest had to go somewhere and there is no better revenge than enjoying yourself in the face of your enemies.