Dispatch: Locals Take on Phelps’s Hatemongers
by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:55 am, February 23, 2009
AV correspondent Lucy Yau reports from yesterday’s protests:
The adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows was evidenced today when veterans, students, and members of the LGBT community came together to counter protests by members of the Westboro Baptist Church led by pastor Fred Phelps.
The WBC planned to stage a protest this morning at Zion Lutheran Church, which was conducting a memorial service in Clarence for the passengers of Flight 3407. Counter-demonstrators stood in below freezing weather in windy conditions while a snow storm wound through Clarence Center. OUTspoken for Equality, led by Kitty Lambert, organized a silent vigil, wearing angel costumes fashioned from white PVC pipes and white cloth. University of Buffalo students held white banners. Together they formed a white wall in the hopes of warding mourners attending the memorial service from intimidation by Phelps’ group.
On hand also were the Vietnam Veterans Legacy Club of Buffalo, who held flags and chanted the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We’re not here to address Phelps. We’re not a counter-protest. We’re not here to outshout them. We’re here to stand in solidarity with the families of Flight 3407. We’re here to protect their right to grieve. The people of Buffalo won’t stand for this type of harassment especially from people not even from this community,” said Michael Yeh, one of the angels.
Erie County Sheriffs kept groups on separate corners at a safe distance from one another. Todd Warfield who has field experience demonstrating for various causes, admonished angels not to engage the WBC. “Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them. They want to engage you. They want a confrontation. That way they can claim they were assaulted by you. They will then sue you for millions.”
The WBC has a habit of engaging in such tactics. Fred Phelps, who at one time was a civil rights lawyer, is well versed in the techniques of protest. Before he turned into a hatemonger, he championed the rights of African Americans and was even awarded twice by the NAACP for his efforts against school segregation and Jim Crow laws.
These days Phelps leads a congregation that the Southern Poverty Law Center deems a hate group. The WBC travels the country protesting at funerals, usually of fallen soldiers carrying banners that proclaim things such as: “God hates fags,” “Planes crash God laughs,” “Fags doom nations.” Phelps’ wrath is directed towards anti-homosexuality and tragedies he deems are God’s way of punishing sodomites.
The WBC site godhatesfags.com proclaims they are protesting here because as they rant, “God, in his longsuffering mercy, spared the lives of those in the plane that crashed into the river at New York City. Rather than take the incident as another warning from God to repent of their manifold and filthy sins of the flesh—(i.e., sodomy, fornication, divorce, adultery, etc.)—Americans went right on sinning against God. Is there any wonder that, GOD HATES AMERICA? Nor is there any wonder that God, this time, did NOT spare the lives of those in Flight 3407.” The rest of the site is one lengthy harangue after another about various politicians, groups and countries.
One talent Phelps has is universally offending the sensibilities of both those on the right and left. “He actually helps my cause,” says Kelli McMillian, a member of OUTspoken for Equality who organized the angels through Facebook.
In the afternoon the process was repeated at the University at Buffalo’s South Campus. This time a larger counter-protest group assembled for the memorial service of human rights activist Alison Des Forges. Two hundred angels, students, and veterans awaited the arrival of the WBC. Communication had been established beforehand with campus police giving tacit approval among local groups who were to be placed closer to campus to shield mourners.
When the same three members of the WBC arrived they were immediately charged at by the veterans group. Students immediately swarmed over, followed by angels. The three WBC members were then escorted to their cars by police.
There is also anger about using this incident as a publicity stunt. “We’ve had enough of people tromping through our city and then to have a terrible tragedy like this and tell us what to do,” says Lambert.
For those who hoped for a confrontation, the day was anti-climatic. “Sometimes winning the war requires diplomacy,” says Lambert.