Confronting Westboro protesters

November 13, 2008

On Monday, Joseph Graumann (SFS `11), a member of GU Pride, stood up on a park bench near the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to speak to a group of about 30 students. They had gathered to protest a demonstration by the well-known anti-gay group, the Westboro Baptist Church.

“We have to stick to the sidewalks,” he said. “They are going to try to, like, get us angry, and they are going to try to get us to do things that are illegal, so don’t. If you feel in any way threatened or endangered, we have a code word, ‘rainbow.’ Keep it positive, stay safe, stick together, let’s go!”



The group then walked to a rotary behind the Kennedy Center to protest the presence of the WBC. Led by Fred Phelps, it is a group best known for creating the website and disrupting the funerals of soldiers who died in the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars with incendiary, anti-gay protests.

On Monday, they appeared at the Kennedy Center to protest George Carlin’s receipt of the Mark Twain Award for American Humor. When the group from Georgetown arrived, they stood on the sidewalk facing the rotary, where WBC members stood holding signs that said “Fags Doom Nations,” “God hates you,” and “Obama’s grandmother is in Hell.” Timothy Phelps, Fred Phelps’ youngest child, estimates the group does ten to twenty protests a day.

“[George Carlin] made a living off of making a mock of sin… so what we’re saying here today is, look, God is not mocked. George Carlin is in hell,” Steve Drain, a member of the WBC, said. Drain added that author Mark Twain was “another God-hating fool.”

Throughout the event, approximately 40 people, including students from American University and George Washington University, held signs, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and shouted messages like “God does not discriminate.”

“I hope that passers-by see that this is not a one-sided argument, that these people have definite opposition,” Tanisha Humphrey (SFS `12), another member of GU Pride.

Timothy Phelps estimated that about half of the WBC’s protests face counter-protests.

“Since they all have the same goofy behaviors, it’s just white noise … I guess I just ignore them for the most part,” he said.

Graumann said the WBC’s message turns a wide variety of people against them.

“[Their actions] subsequently does a lot for the perception of gay people in the U.S. as almost a group worth defending,” Graumann said.

During the protest, people on the street stopped to express their support for the counter-protesting students. Grauman said he viewed the counter-protest as a success.

“[The protesters from the WBC] left early, they left around 7:30, so we just sang, ‘Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,'” he said. “During the protest, someone made a sign that said ‘Honk if you’re against hatred,’ and we got a lot of honks. It was just a really positive experience.”

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