Monday, November 12, 2012

Seeing Hatred Eye to Eye

Westboro Baptist Church has stirred up my hatred since the first day I heard about them – their hatred, their protests, their tax-exempt status as a church, their seemingly untouchable civil liberties…  I have long said I wanted to picket their leader, Fred Phelps’, funeral with a sign that simply said “God Hates Fred Phelps”.

So when I read that they were coming to my town, Arlington, VA, practically in my backyard, I knew I needed to go.  Their hate filled website confirmed the picket schedule – November 12th (Veterans Day) – 7:40 am Yorktown High School, 8:50 am the Pentagon, and 10:00 am Arlington National Cemetery. 

I knew I wanted to counter-protest, but I also wanted to not let them get to me.  To not let them spark the hatred in me, in everyone, that they are so adept at kindling.  I lost a night of sleep worrying about what I should write on my signs.  It seems silly to lie in bed awake thinking about something like that, but I did not want to volley their hatred with more of the same.  I wanted to let them know that I disagreed, and that they were not welcome here, but that I am a caring person.  I decided on a two sided sign – one side read “Give Peace a Chance” and the other “I Don’t Presume to Know What God Hates” (in response to their ever-present “God Hates Fags” signs).  David also made two simple and peaceful signs, “Be Kind” and “Those Who are Free of Resentful Thoughts Surely Find Peace – Buddha”. 

The night before the protests I was discouraged.  I hoped others would be supportive, perhaps come along.  But comments, probably not intended to be mean or disheartening, made me feel as if my caring about this issue was an overreaction or passé. 

We got to Yorktown High School at 7:30 am and there was a crowd of around 90 YOUNG PEOPLE.  It was amazing!  This was a day off of school – their chance to be lazy and sleep in – yet here they were at this horribly early hour!  Many had made signs, and in the tradition of teenagers, many signs were bizarre, off topic, and seemed to scream, “Look at me!  I am unique!  I made a sign that doesn’t really have anything to do with this protest” (ironically enough, just like the kid next to me did…).  But it didn’t really matter what their signs said – what mattered is that they CARED.  They understood that equality is something to fight for and to protect.  A local Unitarian Universalist minister was there.  A few reporters were there.  A group of around a dozen veterans in leather biker gear was also there.  They, too, were inspired by the young people.  The veterans had the song, “I’m Proud to be an American” playing over and over and big flags waving in the morning breeze. 

Look, I am not particularly patriotic.  But the whole experience – the flags, the music, the signs, the sunshine, made me cry. 

The Westboro Baptist people never even showed up.  I had considered that might be a possibility, but instead of being disappointed (as I suspected I would in that event), it didn’t bother me.  I was HAPPY.  Happy to be there, happy to see the supportive people, happy to be awake and alive. 

When the allotted time for that venue was over, we drove to the Pentagon to see if they would show for that one.  We were not allowed to park on-site, so David dropped me off with my sign and a mom asked if her teenage daughter could walk with me.  She and I walked to the Pentagon metro exit where a cop told us they were meeting.  And as we walked up, I saw the signs of hate I have seen so frequently on the internet.  The Westboro people WERE THERE.  They were just setting up.  And it was THEM and the teenage girl and me.  That was IT.  No veterans.  No flag wavers.  No other sign holders.  Just the hate filled Westboro people, a teenager, and me.

And I was not scared.  I walked right over.  I was proud to go.

The girl got frightened.  “Where is everyone??  When are they coming?  Where are those vets?  Where is everyone else on our side?  Where are our other people with signs???” she asked me a bit desperately.  And as we arrived at our spot on our side of the barricade – right across a sidewalk from the “others” – I gave her a squeeze and said something like, “It is just US.  It is ok.  This is where we are supposed to be.”  And I hoisted my sign.

I feel like I stood THIS CLOSE to hatred.  I looked it in the eye.  There were six Westboro protestors.  Two women, each holding FOUR large hate filled signs, seemed to be the leaders.  There was a young teenage boy.  “Look – he is YOUR AGE,” I showed my new friend.  “Hate is all he has ever known.”   They had a boombox playing songs of hate.  They re-write lyrics to well known songs – they must have karaoke versions that they sing along to because they have pretty good music in the background.  The one I remember vividly was a remake of Barry Mannilow’s “Mandy” (seriously – HOW could that song be hate filled, right??).  They changed it to “Sandy” and sang the praises of Hurricane Sandy and expressed how happy they were that it damaged so much of the east coast and hurt so many people.  It would be humorous if it were not so hateful.

The girl’s mother came, David arrived, and one sophomore boy who had been at the high school, too.  And that was IT.  That was “our side”.  We didn’t engage the Westboro people – just held our signs.  Some people getting off the metro, ending up in the middle of the circus, DID talk to them.  It only got heated one time (when a military guy flipped them off violently and started talking loudly to them).  The guards came and had him move on.   The guards also served as time keepers – giving them (and us) a “ten minutes left” call, then “five minutes”.  And at precisely the end time, they turned off the music, took off their hate filled t shirts, packed their professional picket signs into clean black carry cases, and left.

When we arrived at Arlington Cemetery the Westboro people were already there but had not yet started picketing.  A large group of young vets was there ready to counter them.  When we walked up with our signs, a serious young vet (Marine I think) came up to me and asked respectfully that we NOT bring our signs.  He explained that they were not there for political purposes, but to try and block the view of the people coming into the cemetery so they didn’t have to see the hateful signs.   Normally this situation would have made me nervous, and I would have acquiesced and put the signs away.  But today, I calmly said, “Thank you for your service.  We appreciate what you are going to do by shielding them.  We would like to hold our signs, but we will not hold them by you.  We will stand apart so that we do not interfere with your work.”  And that was that!  I, little me, stood up to a MARINE!  One other woman came with a sign, and she, David and I started walking toward the protestors and were followed by the group of vets. 

For a while, we stood on the same side of the street at the protestors and the vets.  It didn’t take long for the vets to turn from shielders to antagonizers…  When things started to get crowded and a bit heated, the cops asked that those with signs move to the other side of the street, which we welcomed.  It felt like we were now set up as a “hate filled side” and a “peace filled side” – and I was glad to stand for kindness and peace.  We soon realized that, sadly, the vets ended up looking like part of the “hate filled” side and passersby on our side had the impression it was about six measly peaceful protestors to 100 hate filled ones (as opposed to the actual 6 hate vs 106 peace)!  We explained to people who asked what was happening and why.  It is difficult to explain to tourists with limited English the complex topics and issues at hand!  One man from Italy was especially sweet.  When he finally understood, he said (in broken English), “This would not happen in Italy.  In ten minutes of this there would be a huge fight, and the police would not get involved”.  We let people who expressed an interest hold our signs and you could sense their pride in being involved.  We got handshakes, thank you s, and “God Bless”es. 

I am thankful to have had today.  I feel as if I understand them a bit better now.  I had no conversation with them, but I SAW THEM.  Eye to eye.  They are real to me now, not just images on my laptop. 

And they didn’t make me hate.  I stood for peace and equality. 

I am proud.

(For more photos see my Flickr site)



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