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Monday, March 02, 2009

When Hate Comes to Town

I was recently reading the musings of a Buffalo, NY blogger about the recent appearance of "representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church when they showed up to protest the services for the victims of the Continental Airlines plane crash. Nice to see that these nitwits got nowhere with their shenanigans, thanks to lots of local people who showed up to basically marginalize them and make them invisible," including said blogger's parents; more Clarence Center pictures here.

Mow Fred Phelps and his sorry band are making their way to Albany and Plattsburgh, NY on Friday, March 6. There is a silent vigil planned for Thursday, March 5 at 5:30 p.m. in front of the Albany City Hall. (Don't know how "silent" it will be as there will be a rally against the severe budget cuts at the State Capitol - and across the state - at 4:30 p.m. on that same day.)

Then Friday, the WBC is planning to spread its message of hate at Albany High School at 7 a.m. and at SUNY Central (353 Broadway, the old D&H building) at 8:15 a.m. Regarding the former, I have it on reasonably good authority - as I suspect the folks at this website believe, Phelps will be thwarted at the high school. As they write, "This is NOT going to happen."

Whereas Phelps WILL likely do his thing at SUNY Central, where the counter-demonstration should take place. The folks at God Is Love Albany are recommending gathering at 8:15 a.m. on March 6. I plan to come down as soon as I can, on the theory that the WBC people will end up there early as well.

There has been a lively debate on the Facebook page called A stand against the Westboro Baptists Church coming to Albany about the appropriate response to Phelps' presence. As one person said, "I would advise nobody to actually show up. You're giving him exactly what he wants: attention. Let him and his followers stand out there all by themselves and be humiliated."

I appreciate the sentiment but strongly disagree for a couple reasons. I don't think them standing by themselves humiliates them. There are, for instance, people who have demonstrated for peace in front of the state Capitol every Wednesday at noon pretty much since 9/11/2001. Sometimes the group is large (e.g., in the run-up to the Iraq war in the fall of 2002 and early 2003), and sometimes it's just a handful of people. In no case do I think the group does, or should feel humiliated.

Moreover, how does one measure the difference between ignoring Phelps and mere indifference? I feel an obligation, as a Christian, as twice a SUNY graduate, and as a person to respond to the hate, to address the hate. Now it is true that Phelps wants attention. My recommendation is that people not address him or his group - they're notorious in looking for grounds to sue someone - but to be present, ignoring the WBC, but expressing sentiments of love and justice.

It is not quite equivalent, but I'm reminded when the Springboks rugby team from South Africa came to Albany in 1981 and a number of people - yes, including me - came out to protest the match. (Albany writer Paul Grondahl has a great chapter about this incident in his book about long-time mayor Erastus Corning.)

To paraphrase some Kentuckian, history will little note nor long remember the number of people who "ignored" hate; history will only note the number that stood up against it.
Yes, the title is a takeoff of probably my favorite U2 song: When love comes to town, with B.B. King.



Rebecca Hickman said...


Demeur said...

Who is this clown Phelps? He shows up at disasters around the country saying that the victims are somehow associated with homosexuals. If he's getting deferred from federal taxes then I think they need to pull his non profit status.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Roger, I'm so glad to hear you're going to counter Phelps and his cult. As you know, I've long said that there's a desperate need for real Christians to stand up to the lunatics who are are destroying the faith by claiming sole ownership of the name. Thank you for doing what I, as a former believer, could not do (be sure to blog about it!)

To answer Demeur, and anyone else who's wondering, Phelps and his cult believe in a form of Calvinism in which most of the world is already divided into "saved" and "damned". They believe there are still some folks who should be saved who will be damned because they don't do as Fred thinks they should. Specifically, he preaches that 9/11, soldier's deaths in Iraq, Katrina, that plane crash are all evidence of his god damning the US for its "tolerance" of homosexuality. So, it's not that the people he's protesting necessarily have any personal connection to homosexuality or GLBT people, but rather they're the victims of a vengeful god.

Apparently many of his family members—and his "church" is nearly all family by blood or marriage—work for government in Kansas. Fred himself is a disbarred lawyer.

The Phelps clan was recently barred form entering the UK when they threatened to go there to picket at a local production of the play "The Laramie Project" (about the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard). The cult wanted to place a monument in a park in Casper, WY saying the date that Matthew Shepard "entered hell" (the date of his death from murder), the city council refused (and this week the US Supreme Court ruled that cities don't have to accept monuments).

About a month ago, the cult showed up to protest at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. The school emptied out—encouraged by teachers, administration and parents—to counter-protest. They filled three corners of the intersection, the Phelps cult one. The haters eventually scurried away, vastly outnumbered (the news video is on YouTube).

The main thing for me is that when people stand up to obvious haters like Phelps, it gives them and others courage to stand up to other, perhaps less obvious bigots. That's got to be a good thing for us all.