Westboro Baptist Church Resistance Report: Friday, January 30th 2009

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the Resistance does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog.

Westboro Baptist Church takes a shotgun approach to protesting. Spending no more than 30 to 45 minutes at a single location. We followed them through several different locations throughout Phoenix according to their schedule, which they posted loud and clear in order to attract counter-protesters. Especially they were probably interested in media attention. They don’t do a very good job of actually getting their message across—especially in the media—because instead of focusing on their message, the media makes them look like insane people.

The first location we visited involved a military funeral for a soldier who died in Iraq.

As Kazz was pulling his sign and some other things out of the back of his vehicle we were passed by a suspicious looking man. Overweight, sunglasses, greasy hair, and sauntered past and then back again and started to ask if we were going to the protest. He then identified himself without credentials as a police officer. “We just want everyone to have a safe, good time,” he said. So did the Resistance so there was no reason to have much concern.

We got there ten minutes before they left the funeral protest. They had set up over 100 meters away from the actual location of the cemetery, far out of line of sight, and even out of sight of the freeway. The Resistance and at least three others—including a photographer—set up across the freeway exit ramp. One man, who went to every single protest, stood with a two meter length US flag.

Outside of the German Consulate—which we still don’t know where it is because it was so nondescript—the counter-protesters ran into an issue with a person who identified themselves as the groundskeeper of 1002 Missouri. He blurted out, “Keep them off of the property!” at the counter-protesters. He then went to the police, spoke with them, and then threatened the counter-protesters with arrest if they went on the property. At no time did the counter-protesters, the Resistance, or anyone even appear to be going on the property he was protecting. He behaved belligerent and rudely. Perhaps he was in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church protest which was across the street from the counter-protest? Maybe mixed them up? Or perhaps he just didn’t care and simply likes to threaten people for doing things they weren’t. The police appeared thoroughly uninterested in his complaint (possibly because the counter-protest was small, didn’t move towards the property, and weren’t as scary as the WBC.)

After that final protest the police approached the counter-protesters to talk about what might be happening at the high school—which would turn out to be the hugest part of the protest. The WBC obviously chose the Desert Mountain High School venue because it would draw a great deal of attention. Media, and otherwise. They were going to put their riotous protest right in front of a school, after all, in the vicinity of a middle school and a grade school. The police decided that it would be best to cordon the area. Not because they were concerned about counter-protesters; but because the high school students probably wouldn’t be as disciplined as adults.

To their credit: the high school students were nothing short of awesome.

The Resistance set up their tripod and speaker at the front of the student cordon, surrounded by signs admonishing bigotry, elevating humanity, professing love and adoration for all people—students and counter-protesters alike were invited to use the speaker to provide speeches to the WBC.

“We can see you dancing to our music over there; if you want to put down your sign, and come over to this side, you’ll be welcome over here!” They said the Fred Phelp’s granddaughter.

The counter-protest drown out anything that the WBC hoped to say: music, speeches, hopeful words…

And at least one rickroll.

With a turn out that exceeded three hundred people, it was the largest protest. The presence of media, counter-protesters from across the state, FOX News, and other media. Apparently the rickroll elicited some unhappy grimaces from Shirley Roper-Phelps as a news interview took place.

A member of the Resistance, Brian Key, managed to make the news broadcast, as did the Resistance speaker, and my top hat.

During the protest at the high school, I spoke with Greg and Jose, two Catholic priests (at least, I believe so because they were wearing Roman collars) who had come with cameras and regularly counter-protest the WBC. They told me about an inititive that they are part of called “No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice” (http://nolongersilent.org/). This group is especially rankled by the WBC because the behavior of the family-cult pollutes the public perception of Christianity, churches, and the proper behavior of religious figures. They appear to be a primarily Phoenix based group.

The final leg of the protest circuit happened in Tempe, near the Chyro Arts Venue where they were going to show Closet Drama: A Hetero/Homo Collision. The counter-protesters visited the parking lot, received information on the play, and even spoke with members of the venue about the play itself and the existence of the protest. If nothing else, the presence of WBC coming out to their venue greatly increased knowledge of the play for the surrounding community.

For those interested, here is a web resource about Closet Drama:

http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/events/closet-drama-a-homo-hetero-collision-1031932/

http://www.chyro.org/

The TEAM security were the poorest behaved of the would-be security. When they approached the Resistance and the other gathered protesters they went through the same spiel that the police did elsewhere, but instead of presenting the problems of a protest they immediately threatened violence. Stupidly undiplomatic talking about Macing people if things got out of hand. “If anything happens, you’ll get Maced, and then we’ll handcuff everyone. I mean everyone.” The actual police took a far more peaceful and hopeful tact of talking about how they were cordoning off the area and where the do-not-cross lines were. They did not threaten to Mace the protesters, they did not threaten anyone with arrest; they were civil, thoughtful, and lent their presentation to giving the protesters a safe place and manner to protest.

In the future TEAM may want to revise their tactics for talking to protesters because threatening people with assault is a bad idea. It sets up a violent atmosphere and makes the entire situation inherently more dangerous. Or, just wait for the police to arrive before they say anything more than, “This is private property, the venue here doesn’t want to be connected to the protest, since they’re not,” and avoid making violent threats. TEAM are not police officers, if they Mace someone they can and will be arrested, they cannot handcuff people; they are not extensions of the policing force and if they commit assault they themselves will be arrested and charged accordingly.

Shame on those TEAM security workers; please act smarter next time.

The WBC set up far away from the venue, on the corner with Skysong visible on the horizon. Counter-protesters flooded around the Wells Fargo there, trying not to clog the drive-thru ATMs while they drown out the bad singing, and petulant slogans of the WBC. Although, this was to be their longest protest, they only stayed an hour total. The gathering reached at least seventy people at its largest, a snowball second only to the high school counter-protest.

I saw a good number of people from the high school there as well, including visitations by the Phoenix Anonymous.

Overall, everything went great. As an experience this was wonderful, the turn out against WBC was solid, the media did not protray them as anything other than wackjobs, they managed once-again to build stronger community ties through bringing together gay activists. They have helped the gay community by bringing light to a play that had little notice before.