Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Counter Protest Part One...

So, on Monday, Valentine’s Day, I headed over early to School for the counter  protest to the Westboro Baptist Church. Like really early. I had contacted my teacher that morning and told her that I would be late to class due to the possible Picket line by Westboro Baptist church because of the Anatomy of Hate, Dialog of Hope documentary that was being screened that night at my campus. My going over early had a lot to do with parking concerns – parking is always tight, and I figured that if you started to add in protesters, and people coming to the documentary on top of students fighting for spaces for night classes, I’d better get there early if I wanted a shot at parking at all. Also, I have to admit I was a little wound up. As a member of the GLBTQ community, having WBC come to picket us was pretty big! My small all women’s college has a small Gay Alliance Group and I knew they would be front and center on this, but I wasn’t sure how many others would be there.
            Also exciting  for me, I had contacted my teacher  to tell her I would be late to my not very conveniently scheduled class because I was participating in the counter protest and why, and that I would get there as soon as I could. It had made me a little sad, because I would have to miss the actual documentary, but missing classes in Grad school is just not a good idea. Imagine my delight, after getting a return email from my teacher saying she had not heard anything about this, and was going to look into it, I then received a second email, sent out to my whole class –
            Hi all,
Part of EDU683 Advanced Techniques is developing cultural competency and awareness when working with clients, as the syllabus indicates. We have a really great opportunity tonight to take advantage of. As part of Black History Month, Converse is showing the film, Anatomy of Hate: A Dialogue to Hope at 7:00 pm. I’d like for us as a class to attend the showing.  The maker of the award winning documentary, Mike Ramsdell, will be present to lead a discussion following the showing.  Honestly, I think this will be a great learning experience, much better than a class lecture.  I’ve copied below some information about the film that was published when it showed in Atlanta and pasted it below.  We’ll meet class at 5:30 as usual, have a brief lecture, and then attend. We’ll go at 6:30 in order to get a seat.  As you’ll note in the Dean”s email below, members of a church have threatened to protest the showing of the film. If they follow through, they will have to stay off campus. In a counter-protest, the students are staging a “Love-In” to show their support.  See you tonight.

How wonderful! So instead of missing my class, we would all be going over together! 

After some waiting around, I finally tracked down where the counter protest was setting up and found a miraculous nearby parking space.  That was when my jaw dropped…close to a hundred students were crowded in the open area next to the student union building (where they were going to show the documentary, picking up t-shirts and magic markers. 

 Here was the idea behind the counter protest; since WBC’s message was Hate, our message would be Love. So, the “Love in” had been provided with T-shirts (free, I found out later, by the campus services) that said “Love is….” And we were all provided with magic markers to write in whatever we wanted the shirt to say. 

I waded into the crowd, snagged a shirt, a magic marker and this is what I wrote out on mine, which I had carefully chosen with WBC in mind – “They that Love not, know not God, for God is love… 1 John 4:8” Since the WBC relies so heavily on out of context scripture from the Bible to support their hate, I wanted a verse to counter it. (I was not the only one to use that particular verse, either. ) 

Set up to the side of the open square was, believe it or not, Fox News, filming us milling around and writing on shirts. About that time, Dreamweaver, who was on her way over, had called and was on the phone with me. She reached the campus, and began circling the school. No one knew where the Westboro’s were going to set up – they were not allowed ON the campus itself so it could be a sidewalk anywhere around the outside. The main gates at the entrance were, of course the most likely spot. For a moment, Dreamweaver thought she had spotted them at the Gates, but it turned out to be ANOTHER group of counter protesters from the outside community and other colleges set up to counter Westboro. The WBC was supposed to get there at 6:15, and the minutes were ticking down. Dreamweaver kept circling – we figured if she could spot them, I could let the group know, and we could all head that way.

Meanwhile, the 100 or so, excited, milling counter protesters, including myself, had grouped up in front of the Fox News camera’s, begun waving our signs, wearing our t-shirts and cheering and singing – yup. Singing. Seems like music goes with protests the world over! We had really good harmony going with “Lean On Me”, I might add. The minutes ticked by, getting closer and closer to 6:15. The Fox news team decided to tear up to the gate and get footage of the counter protesters there. It was getting darker, as the sun set. 6:15 came and went, then 6:30.

So my class trooped over to the Student Union and got in line for the documentary. I went and found Dreamweaver who was at the head of the line to try to get us front row seats due to my hearing disability. The crowd at this point had swelled to twice its number and maybe more, with alumni and teachers joining. One teacher, herself a lesbian, came over and threw her arms around me and said how proud she was of all of us! Then we heard that a picket line had indeed formed out at the front gate moments before the Documentary started. At first, we assumed it was WBC, late to the party. I have to admit, I was frustrated – I knew that they were being met and countered by the public protest out front, but I wanted to be there myself, and there was no way to get there at that point – too far to the gate. However, we then heard that it was not Westboro, but a local church that had turned out to support THEM! Unbelievable. I have to say, I have never heard of anybody supporting a Westboro Picket Line. That was a first. 

Then, we were in our seats and the room was packed out, every chair taken, people sitting on the floor, standing in the back. Mike Ramsdell was introduced to speak, before his film ran. He was amazed – I was too. You know how documentary films go at colleges. 20 people show up, 5 of which want to actually see the film, and 15 who are there because they are required to be for a class report. There were easily 200 and more jammed into that room any way they could fit, and he was awed. 

Mike Ramsdell spoke of the purpose of the film, and why he made it. That he wished to counter Hate with dialog, with compassion. With seeing each other not as the Enemy or the Other, but as human beings, even if we disagreed, and not demonizing the Other. He then said this, which made me so proud of my fellow students, prouder than I ever have been. “Whenever I speak at showings of my film, everybody asks afterwards ‘What can I do?’ Well, you people have already done it. You could all go home, now. You have done it. Countering Hate with Love, and peaceful intervention. I am amazed!”  Wow. 

And then the lights went down, and the Documentary started. And make no mistake, despite its powerful message of hope – it was a trip into Hell. Continued in part two.  


  1. Sounds like Westboro chickened out, eh? Like true bullies, they don't want to deal with real opposition.

    Great counter-protest! That was the perfect Bible verse to choose. And your professor rocks!

  2. Actually, the Westboro's are known for missing as many as they make. They "schedule" everything they want to make an appearance at, but if they truly went to everything, they would never be at home or hold their day jobs. They actually picket the Anatomy of Hate - this is what Ramsdell told us btw - in order to increase its veiwership with controversy. Besides which, I've seen video footage where the Westboro picket lines have stood up in the face of Motorcycle gangs organized to disrupt them. WhatEVER else you may say about them, they are not cowards!I doubt our fluffy love fest would have fazed them! LOL! They feel that even though they are being presented as a hate group, their signs and messages are seen in the movie, which gets their message out, so they actually WANT people to see it. So, even though they didn't show, the possibility that they might show boosted attendance, and that is what they wanted. I don't think they are actually realizing that its having rather the opposite affect on the audiences then what they suppose it might. So, no, actually, I don't think they chickened. Another example from here - we went to see the Laramie Project, the play about the death of Mathew Shepherd at a local fine arts school. The students actually contacted the Westboro church and invited them to come picket. They received a very polite email back that thanked them for inviting them, and that their schedule was so packed, that they would be unable to make it. 0.o We live in a strange world sometimes.

  3. So amazing. All I can think to say is I wish I could have been there.

  4. Yes indeed, Cameron, "strange" doesn't begin to cover it sometimes, LOL!

  5. Coolness. This was significant, worthwhile work you did.