You're probably familiar with the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe religious group of anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-kindness-in-general people infamous for picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers, protesting charitable organizations, showing up with hateful signs after national tragedies, and for being generally terrible, terrible people. This week the WBC's spokesperson announced the group's plans to picket at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Here are 10 nonviolent counterprotest techniques — used previously or newly planned — that we may see in action if Westboro shows up in Newtown.
1. Strap on angel wings
Angel Action is an organization that helps counter-protesters organize and construct 10-foot-tall "wings" for protesters to wear, which are used to block the WBC members and their signs from view. The group was informally founded during the murder trial of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and killed in 1998. WBC founder Fred Phelps staged a protest at the courthouse, and Angel Action founder Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard, devised the wings and set up around Westboro protesters. The organization is still involved in thwarting WBC pickets, including the planned Sandy Hook appearance, and has set up a Facebook event to provide details as they are available.
2. Build a wall of humanity
At many funerals and events protested by Westboro Baptist Church, anti-WBC protesters will stand hand-in-hand to form a human wall around the venue to protect the victims' families or event attendees from seeing protesters, and also to prevent Westboro members from accessing the site. One such human wall was formed at Texas A&M after alum Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale was killed in the July 2012 Fort Bragg shooting, and again in August 2012 at the Palm Bay, Fla., funeral of Army Specialist Justin Horsley, who was killed in Afghanistan by an IED.
3. Bring better singers
While they often sing at protests, the Phelpses are, it seems, not Foo Fighters fans. The church picketed a Kansas City Foo Fighters concert in 2011 because instead of using their fame "to encourage obedience to God," Dave Grohl and Co. "teach every person who will listen all things contrary to him." (The list includes adultery and idolatry, which without the Foo Fighters would surely not exist.) Undeterred, the band put on a bonus performance across the street from the Westboro folks. Dressed in overalls and fake facial hair of varying fabulousness, the band sang "Keep it Clean (Hot Buns)," which just happens to be a song about the lonesome life of a gay long-haul trucker. The band even made a great video, which begins a minute in to remove most of the NSFW language:
4. Don't fix a flat
In 2010, Army Sgt. Jason James McCluskey died in combat in Afghanistan. When WBC showed up to picket his funeral in McAlester, Okla., they were met with a mostly unremarkable counterprotest; people held their own signs and yelled across the street. But when Westboro's protesters tried to leave, they found that the tires of their minivan had been slashed. As they drove through town on shredded rubber and rims (followed by a police cruiser), it became clear that no person or business in McAlester was going to help them repair or replace their tires. Eventually, the WBC had to pull over in a parking lot and call AAA to have the van towed to a location willing to assist them. While we don't suggest vandalism, maybe consider not lending a hand should you find a Phelps with a flat. OK, that one was kinda violent. Moving on...
5. Turn the protest into an LGBT fundraiser
At almost every WBC protest venue, you'll find an equally-vocal group heavily armed with signs and message T-shirts and megaphones. What you don't often find is a real method for turning Westboro's presence into something positive. That all changed in 2010 when University of Illinois at Chicago student Jason Connell had an idea. When Margie Phelps and other members of WBC showed up in protest of the university's Jewish United Fund, Connell set out an empty pretzel jar and took donations. Funds raised by Connell were donated to charitable organizations the WBC targets specifically (mostly Jewish-, LGBT- and AIDS-related charities). But the real kicker was the thank-you notes mailed to Fred Phelps and his family. Without their protest that day, the couple hundred dollars raised by Jason Connell and the dozens of copycat campaigns that followed wouldn't have been possible.
6. Invite zombies
Eight Westboro members found themselves surrounded by several dozen zombies when the group showed up to protest at a Seattle-area military base in July 2011. The zombies were such an interesting (and numerous) diversion that no one paid much attention to the Westboro people. The protest's organizer said, "It was the easiest way to divert attention from something so hateful."
7. Invite other terrible people to steal some thunder
A large portion of Westboro's energy goes toward pushing the idea that American soldiers die in combat as a result of the country's increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. That's why, in 2011, they picketed at Arlington National Cemetery during the president's address on Memorial Day at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The turnout against WBC was enormous, and included a separate-but-equal response from a group of KKK members. The Klan, who were cordoned off from the general protesting population, passed out flags and made it known that they were there in protest of WBC's anti-military message. And it looks like even the KKK is disgusted with Westboro's latest move, because rumor has it they're planning to make an appearance in Connecticut if Westboro goes through with their picket. (You know you're beyond reprehensible when other terrible, terrible hate groups align with the public against you.)
8. Diversify the protest agenda
When six members of Westboro showed up at the University of Chicago to protest the school's employment of Barack Obama, more than 100 students organized various counterprotests, which ran through the duration of WBC's "visit." Student events included a simultaneous picket featuring signs warning of America's doom-by-figs, flyers deploring fig-eaters and speakers who told of God's vengeance upon fig-loving nations (all sourced from a reference to evil figs in the book of Jeremiah). Down the street, a ragtag dance troupe of frat boys did a little song and dance to "It's Raining Men." And in a nearby courtyard, passersby were distracted by a diversity fair featuring s'mores, more scantily clad dancing men, hot cocoa and petition-signing. Basically the idea was to outnumber and out-distract people who weren't protesting, which seems to be the most common action (aside from just making funny signs) to detract from Westboro's presence... which brings us to the next point:
Anonymous opened a WhiteHouse.gov petition to "legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group." (They also released a list of WBC members' personal information, which is not at all a thing we advise being involved in.) Anonymous' motion is not the first and unlikely to be the last such petition, and it may even go unrecognized by the government (though it already had more than 207,000 signatures as of this writing). But it's worth noting that a hate group's actions — which include intimidation and harassment directed at a person, institution, or any other entity that "manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity" — may be investigated as domestic terrorism by the FBI.
10. Good old mockery
There are no shortage of examples of signs mocking the WBC. Large, funny, meaningful and/or well-placed signs can be effective in reducing Westboro's negative impact in a community, and though there are no records for this sort of thing, we doubt there has been a WBC protest that hasn't been mocked relentlessly by civic-minded citizens.
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