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Dispatch: Locals Take on Phelps’s Hatemongers

AV correspondent Lucy Yau reports from yesterday’s protests:

3302220328_81f96ba7ecThe 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.

3302221680_30c167245d_mWhen WBC demonstrators showed up, they numbered a paltry three.

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 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.

3301380489_d2fbf4d31aWhen 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.

  • D. Welling

    On October 6th 2010 a case will be presented in the Supreme Court called Snyder v Phelps, and it will be about the freedom of speech. This is my opinion on the case.
    When has one of our most cherished and guarded freedoms gone too far?
    Common sense tells us not to yell fire in a crowed theater, if there isn’t one, because of the ensuing mass hysteria that can cause emotional and bodily harm that may result in the death of innocent people.
    In my humble opinion this is an issue that does not concern constitutional law on whither or not Phelps and his group has the protection of freedom of speech; and never should have been taken as thus.
    It is an issue that has violated the privacy of a grieving family and one of premeditated slander and harassment. It is an issue that has violated a time ordered unwritten code of our society of a free people. The one unwritten code that allows our citizens to bury their dead and grieve in peace. A code that respects the privacy of a family and of which does not allow biased hatred to be posted in the media of not only a fallen solider, son, but of a person that the Phelps and Westboro church did not even know.
    It is at heart an issue, a subject that can border on a hate crime. No, not the burning of a religions book that has been in the news, but the slander and emotional fallout caused by an anti-war religious group protesting at a private funeral of a dead solider, and the posting on the internet of hate filled remarks.
    As a citizen of the greatest country in the world I have no argument with the Phelps beliefs or the use of their freedom of speech to entice the media and ACLU to their side. After all we endured protesters that held up signs of dead children, fetuses, at the front of abortion clinics. We also endured the same in tone signs that were used by anti-war protesters calling our troops baby killers. Yet, in my fifty-thee years I have yet to see, or have never witnessed, anything but support from my community of any grieving family. As a long time anti-war protester, in my opinion, I believe the Westboro church led by Fred Phelps did cross the line of human decency and violated this unwritten moral code in our society.
    In looking at this issue I have to ask: Did any member of the group personally know the deceased? Did anyone of them have first hand knowledge of the deceased sexual preferences? Did they respect the privacy of his grieving family? Or did they just want their fifteen minutes of fame?
    While I defend the freedom of speech we hold so dear, (and the right of the individual one to have verbal opinions that may be so far out that they make the group or person look mentally imbalanced), this particular group crossed the line and it was premeditated. The action in itself reeks in many ways as a hate crime, in my opinion.
    Moral sense and human decency should prevail and rule on the side of the deceased man’s family. In my humble opinion this group not only targeted this grieving family, they slandered the name of the dead son with their unfounded sign about his sexual preference and internet web posts. A generalization they claim in the name of God. Yet, a premeditated one they chose to evoke causing undue stress and harm upon not only this family, but other families as well.
    My heart goes out to the Snyder family and to all of our brave men and women serving in the armed forces and to their families that have to endure such hate groups.
    I can only pray that common sense prevails and that the hate group led by Phelps is held accountable for their actions.
    D. Welling