People across the United States have come together over the last 15 years to counter protests by the reviled Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Their tactics vary, as do their reasons and their values, but they all stand against pastor Fred Phelps and his cult of haters. Most notorious for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in combat, the WBC in effect celebrates such deaths as purported evidence of God’s judgment on the US for tolerating homosexuality.
Almost daily, members of the small congregation, made up entirely of Pastor Phelps’s own family, travel near and far to picket not only the funerals of LGBT people, soldiers, and public figures like Elizabeth Edwards, but also: the sites of tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, institutions like the Holocaust Memorial Museum, events like rock concerts or the Oscars, schools like Penn State or Harvey Milk High School, and even other churches. Whether seen by Pastor Phelps as defying God or representing God’s wrath, such targets now number in the thousands in over 800 cities. No wonder counter-protest across the US has become an equally recognizable force, though far more multifaceted considering the disparate groups and cultural arenas targeted by the WBC.
Pastor Phelps’s reach is diminishing, thankfully, with legislation safeguarding military funerals from protestors and the vigilante hacktivists Anonymous shutting down several of the WBC’s websites. As the Phelpses face their end, it seems the right time to take a closer look at how counter-protest has developed in the bizarre WBC era.
Back in 1998, loved-ones at Matthew Shepard’s funeral could not have anticipated WBC protestors, waving their “God Hates Fags” and “Matt in Hell” placards and spewing the same homophobic hate that compelled Shepard’s murderers. The widespread coverage of the funeral granted the Phelpses their greatest visibility to date, catapulting them from Kansas-bound kooks to internationally recognized extremists. When they protested the murder trial, however, Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson devised a ‘human wall’ plan that would come to be called Angel Action. A group dressed in white robes with large, makeshift wings effectively blocked the WBC protestors from view—immortalized a few years later in the award-winning film, The Laramie Project.
Patterson’s block/surround mode of neutralizing the WBC has been utilized for years now, though not always warranting the term “Angel Action”, per se. The Patriot Guard Riders, a large group of bikers founded in 2005 to guard funerals of fallen soldiers, choose to block WBC protestors with large flags and to drown out their so-called preaching with roaring engines. WBC’s warped logic that dead soldiers are divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality links bikers (many of whom are veterans) and LGBT people in an unexpected way, aligning them—however tentatively—against the WBC and its rightwing extremes.
When funerals are the target of a WBC protest, a dignified counterdemonstration is required. Tensions rise, however, and occasional scuffles break out. In Harrison, Missouri in November 2010, one soldier’s funeral brought out over 1,500 counter-protestors. After peaceably lining the long street that led up to the church, about a hundred or so splintered off to confront the WBC protestors, out-screaming them and hounding them off their lawfully designated corner. Footage shot from a news helicopter shows the protestors fleeing the scene with counter-protestors swarming after them.
An even scarier scene took place in May of 2006 in Seaford, Delaware. Some of the 1,000 counter-protestors threw eggs, stones, and water bottles at the 11 police-protected WBC members. One man broke through the police barrier to physically assault two WBC members before being arrested. A large portion of the counter-protestors then chased the WBC members to their van, crowded the van as the driver tried to pull away, and broke a window. The YouTube video’s title is “Westboro Gets Their Ass Kicked”.
At funerals and other events as well, counter-protestors in gaining numbers (often 100-1,000 people) will from time to time succumb to a hostile brand of mob intimidation as they surround the much smaller number of WBC protestors (often fewer than 12, including children). WBC protested the Chicago LGBT Center on Halsted Street in December of 2008 and footage on YouTube shows a modest number of smiling counter-protestors waving rainbow flags, chanting pro-LGBT slogans, and using tarps to block view of the Phelpses. As the conflict escalates, smiles fade and the Chicagoans crowd around the Phelpses, menacing them with the relentless chant “Bigots go home!” However effective, the change in tone unnerves as it thrills.
Out-harassing one’s harassers, satisfying as it may be, risks sinking to the level of the homophobic haters. And these are a mild, even reasonable examples. For some who cross such lines in their behavior, their angry words become like scattershot, insulting more than the WBC alone.
In February 2010, when the WBC picketed the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, a Jewish Defense League counter-protestor belligerently baited Pastor Phelps’s alpha-daughter Shirley. With bullhorn to mouth, he degraded her as a “redneck piece of shit” and suggested she’s a closeted lesbian. His cohort yelled excessively crude jokes about Shirley masturbating, one joke involved Jesus.
In an antagonistic crowd of counter-protestors at University of Wisconsin in April 2008, things went too far when one male student (filmed by his friends) screamed “You suck, bitch!” into the ear of a male WBC member and then mockingly flirted with him. He also called a female WBC member a “bitch” and “fucking cunt”. Such vitriol used to shut down free speech—versus counter it—is not activism, in these cases not even justified anger, but just axe-grinding.
Granted, if counter-protestors yell out “Shirley Phelps is a muff diver”, it could well be pretty damned funny, maybe even politically edgy. But if they scream “Shirley Phelps is a muff diver” and their angry or insulting tone suggests that a lesbian is a disgusting joke of a thing to be, then they’re doing more harm than good.
Same with degrading WBC members as rednecks from Kansas—when Kansas and most of its so-called “rednecks” would renounce the WBC. Same with degrading them as Christians—when it’s not necessarily Christianity but an egomaniacal distortion of Christian doctrine that should be addressed. So foul language and shock value in and of themselves are not at fault here, really; it’s the hateful tone of this bully-mode of counterdemonstration revealing its hypocrisy, an ugly little pattern that, however minor in the scheme of all the goodwill, should not go unaddressed. Furthermore, as London-based reporter Louis Theroux points out in his two-part documentary The Most Hated Family in America, hating the Phelpses in this manner only fuels their apocalyptic fire.