I remember reading from textbook, one time, I think it was one written by Joan Ferrante, a statement that said something like, “Sociology is a window through which we can see both the absolute best and the absolute worst of society.” I used to really like that quote, until I realized that I didn’t need sociology in order to see the best and the worst. Instead, all I needed was to look around and watch things happen.
People can be terrible beings. That isn’t to say that people are somehow all bad. It is simply the case that some people suck and it is the people who suck less who have to fix the damage done by those who suck.
One major thing that makes people suck is bigotry. Hatred toward people for some arbitrary thing, like skin color, country of origin or even sexual preference. Some of the current, most famous bigots that we encounter in the news, today, is the Westboro Baptist Church. Fred Phelps an his family have made hatred a way of life. If you’re not aware of who WBC is, please see here (yes, it is wiki, but the reference, in this case, is justified).
On October 21st, I got to see that hatred, but I also got to see how it can be dealt with. I got to see hate and anti-hate on that day. The following is an account of what happened.
I found out that Westboro Baptist was to visit our area right around the beginning of October. This only gave us two and a half weeks to plan something. I started making plans that same day, what, exactly, I had to do, though, wasn’t entirely clear. I just knew that I needed people. I contacted people I knew, talked to people who ran local organizations and the whole putting something together thing became a big blur. I helped, I think, but I can’t really say how much help I was because so many others were working on it, too. In fact, within days there were planning meetings set up and we became pretty well organized from carpool planning to sign making.
On the day of the protest, we (myself and a few others I had helped plan with) had estimated there might be about 60 or so people counter protesting the WBC. We estimated this based on the groups we knew of getting involved. We didn’t think it would be a huge gathering, but we knew we’d have a bigger presence than WBC. That was important to us. We wanted to deflect their message. We wanted to simply make a bigger impact than they could.
I started my day by walking from Gonzaga over to the Coffee Social, where I met up with some other counter-protesters, got some coffee and breakfast. I was dressed as a pirate. My short walk, as it turns out, taught me a little lesson in social hierarchies. Everyone gives pirates the right of way. I didn’t have to wait to cross any streets and I had people happily honk and wave as I walked by. The life of a pirate is good.
We left the coffee shop to head over to the nearby Gonzaga to find a few hundred people already crowding the sidewalk. It turns out, my acquaintances and I suck at estimating attendance for these things.
Example from a High School we were at later that day:
At Gonzaga University, this happened:
Gonzaga ended up being an impressive start to a great day. There was a band and a dancing gorilla (see above images), hundreds of people gathered and sang as they held up their signs. At one point, the whole crowd sang Lean On Me using song sheets that had been handed out, entitled, “Welcome to the Traveling Pride Festival!” Other songs included were, People in your Neighborhood and Gentle, Angry People.
The next stop in our journey was Moody Bible school. Moody is set in a small neighborhood, so it was tough to see how many were there. It was crowded and there were random trees. It was at Moody that I found counter-protest dog:
I also met this lady:
A Christine O’Donnell/Sarah Palin hybrid, she warned the crowd of the dangers of mastication and made sure that everyone knows that God hates bags.
Gridlocked by other counter-protesters, getting interviewed twice and posing for pictures with everyone who asked (pirates makes for great photo ops), led to me not really exploring the crowd at Moody very much, but it felt bigger than the crowd at Gonzaga. We were growing.
Visiting Whitwoth and Ferris is strangely blurred for me. I, again, had a lot of people stop me for photos. It was at one of those places that I met this guy:
Light saber + anti-hate = I became an instant fan of his.
Another thing that happened is that, at some point, a group of people gave the WBC people little glasses of kool-aid. One of the people I was with had this sign:
While I appreciate the morbid joke that is a reference to the People’s Temple when Jim Jones convinced his congregation to drink poisoned kool-aid, it made me uncomfortable. The last thing we need is more death because of dogma and even crazies like the Phelps clan don’t need to be martyrs to their own nonsense.
Another thing that made me uncomfortable was a moment when part of the crowd began chanting “go home” at the WBC. I, again, understood the sentiment, but the message was, itself, hate-filled, which doesn’t help matters when it comes to the message the WBC is already sending. Furthermore, I am a fan of problem-solving, not problem hiding. Sending the WBC home doesn’t solve the problem, it just moves it. We don’t want them in our communities, but we’re not helping if we push them off into other communities.
Eastern Washington University was the climax for the day:
The estimates I have heard claim that 1,000-1,200 people were at Eastern Washington University for the counter-protest. The crowd had seemingly grown, throughout the day, at each location and at EWU, it was at maximum. The sidewalks were full and security people walked up and down the streets to help remind us to stay on the sidewalk. One guy at EWU got arrested for causing a disturbance, he had been walking through the crowd, telling people they were sinners and going to hell. There was music and activities at EWU, but I chose to go to the synagogue instead of staying with the festivities.
At the Synagogue, the Rabbi had asked that counter-protesters not stay outside, and requested that they come inside for a meeting of peace. I was more than happy to accept that proposal, as I can at least understand why he preferred that approach. His belief is in not reinforcing confrontation and promoting peace by simply advocating it. There were some problems, though. One was, like the rest of us, he’d underestimated the size of the crowd. The synagogue is very small and could barely hold a few dozen, it certainly wasn’t big enough for a few hundred. We were a tad early, so we went to the synagogue, anyway. They had parked a bus and other vehicles in front of the building to block the WBC. Counter-protesters gathered at the street corners with their signs. Before entering the synagogue, we were asked to leave our signs outside. I was cool with that. Once inside, though, I learned that the meeting of peace was more of a Jewish presentation, and the conversation my friends and I had with the Rabbi was highly religious. Also, instead of sharing his perspective as his belief, he shared it as if it were absolute reality, which made my friends and I, who had various systems of belief and non belief, rather uncomfortable. We ended up leaving. Most of the people I was with chose to continue their counter-protest outside the synagogue. I still felt it was important to respect the wishes of the Rabbi and not protest outside his synagogue, so I walked to a nearby store and called for a ride home.
Here are some other pics from the counter protest:
I wish I could have gotten more pictures of signs, but after Gonzaga, it was just impossible to navigate the crowd.
Overall, the day was made of win. We were able to make our own messages of peace and acceptance much louder than the WBC could ever be. Along with all I mentioned above, a few other things are worthy of note. Firstly, there were multiple fund raisers going on, some of them a bit, … uhm … not congruent with what we were legally allowed due to lack of time to get permits. The Inland Northwest LGBT center did a lot to help keep people organized alongside several other groups that I didn’t get the name of. Thomas Brown of the Spokane Secular Society started a fundraiser on facebook for various groups that raised $115. Postcards from Equal Rights Washington were handed out to help send a message to our legislators in favor of equal marriage rights. Members of a Patriotic Motorcycle Club, which I didn’t get the name of because everyone had a different answer and when the cyclists walked by me, I got flirty with one’s daughter (*blush*), also showed up and made lots of noise and showed off their patriotism.