In case you’ve been living under a rock: members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas are notorious for traveling around the country and delivering hate-filled diatribes against those they feel are causing this country to go to hell. Most of their ire is directed toward homosexuals, but they also take out after Jews and Muslims. Church members are best known for their protests staged at funeral services for U.S. soldiers. They’ve also protested at the White House, the U. S. Supreme Court, and Arlington National Cemetery. On Monday, Feb. 6, they showed up at Clayton High School in suburban St. Louis.
Their visit was not a surprise. The church posts its protest schedule in advance on its web site, www.godhatesfags.com (I am not making this up). An administrator at Clayton High School told me that school officials had engaged in “courteous correspondence” with church members prior to their visit. The Clayton Police Department was alerted. To the credit of everyone involved, the protest went off without a hitch. And it was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.
At 7:45 on this cold, foggy Monday morning, five church members gathered on one side of the lawn in front of the school. Led by one woman, they brandished their signs (“God Hates Fags!” “God Hates America!” “Soldiers Die 4 Fag Marriage!”). The woman who seemed to be in charge stomped on an American flag and pretended to use it as toilet paper. She led her small crew in several choruses of “God Hates America.” An older man was interviewed by TV news crews.
On the other side of the lawn, separated from the protesters by orange barrels and fencing and a number of serious-looking Clayton police officers, approximately 500 students, faculty, and other members of the community gathered. They also had signs (“Love Conquers Hate!” “Teach Tolerance!” “God Hates The New Facebook Timeline!”). They had a rainbow flag, which they held proudly aloft. They also gave media interviews.
At 8:15 am, it was all over. The church members packed their signs in their van and headed off to the next protest site. The students went to class. Everyone else went for coffee.
What is one to make of such an event? To their great credit, teachers at Clayton High School used it as a teachable moment. They reminded the students that, in this country, people have a right to speak out, even if their words are hateful. They have a right to demonstrate, even if it costs a community thousands of dollars to make preparations to keep everyone safe.
Among those who just showed up, there was ambivalence. Many said they were there not to protest the protesters, but to show their support for the school and the students. Some felt it would have been better to ignore the whole thing; that if nobody paid attention to the protesters they would eventually go away. Others felt that they were “sick”—mentally ill—and might benefit from psychiatric care.
After spending a few minutes on the Westboro Baptist Church web site, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I think these people are smart and sophisticated. I also think they are full of hate, fixated on homosexuality, and completely sure that their worldview is correct. They are not crazy or stupid, they are not going to go away, and they don’t give a damn about anyone else. (Their web site has a column titled “Numbers.” One of the entries reads: “0 nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeellllliiiiiings.”)
History should have taught us that it can be dangerous to ignore people like this. On the other hand, maybe they are just a bunch of kooks from Kansas.
[Images courtesy of Bobbi Clemons]
Barbara L. Finch is a writer and former public relations practitioner. In 2005 she and three friends founded Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice, an organization of progressive women now numbering more than 500 members and friends.