Fred Phelps Brings Road Show of Hate to San Diego; 500 Protest Against Him

author: 
mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

Fred Phelps, founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and a man so far on the fringes of the radical religious Right even the late Rev. Jerry Falwell called him “a certified nut,” brought his nationwide road show of hate to San Diego the weekend of October 16-18. Along with a number of synagogues and Jewish community groups, one of his picketing targets was San Diego High School for its alleged tolerance and acceptance of Queer students. A counter-protest drew 500 people as opposed to the 10 or so Westboro Baptist Church members on the opposite side of Park Boulevard from the school.

Fred Phelps’ Road Show of Hate Comes to S.D.

Anti-Queer, Anti-Jew, Anti-American Religious Leader Draws 500 … Against Him

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom:

Fred Phelps’ minions of hate

“Don’t hate! Masterbate!” [sic]

“I’ve Accepted Satan”

Joalby Lopez

Orange-shirted anti-Phelps protesters

“Fred Phelps can bite me!”

“Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”

San Diego High students vs. Phelps

Anyone driving down Park Boulevard past San Diego High School on Friday afternoon, October 16, would have been forgiven for misunderstanding the scenes on either side of the road. On one side of the street they would have seen up to 500 pro-Queer demonstrators, chanting and using sticks to bang on saucepans and other improvised percussive devices, carrying hand-lettered signs affirming the dignity and equality of all human beings and — if they mentioned God at all — saying that God is love. On the other side they’d have spotted 10 rather bedraggled-looking people with signs like “God Hates Fags,” “God Is Your Enemy,” “The Jews Killed Christ,” “America Is Doomed,” “Obama Is the Antichrist” and a couple of stick figures, arranged in a pose to suggest one was butt-fucking the other, with a caption identifying this as the true nature of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) on school campuses.

But in fact it was the handful of anti-Queer, anti-Semitic, anti-American demonstrators who had called the action — and the huge crowd of pro-Queer, pro-equality activists on the other side of the street who were counter-protesting. The 10 or so protesting Queer rights and a ragbag of other hatreds were members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), nominally based in Topeka, Kansas but usually out on the road communicating their spiritual message to millions of Americans, most of whom couldn’t be less interested in it. The founder of Westboro Baptist Church, and its pastor since 1955, is a unique religious leader named Fred W. Phelps, Sr., a former civil-rights attorney turned minister who has adopted 16th century Swiss theologian John Calvin’s five points — including his controversial doctrine of “predestination,” meaning that God has already determined who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell — and put them on steroids.

Phelps’ version of Calvinism is an aggressive theology that sometimes seems to regard only the members of his own church as the Calvinist “elect,” predestined for Heaven. He spends much of his time on the road, leading church members — most of whom are related to him either by blood or marriage — to picket a wide array of enemies. Some of them, including Queers, are predictable targets for a radical-Right religious leader. Others are more unusual. While most of America’s religious Right is hyper-patriotic and gave total support to President George W. Bush and the so-called “global war on terror,” Phelps organized protests at the funerals of servicemembers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan and said God denounced those wars and all Americans who participated in them. Phelps operates a wide array of Web sites showing the sheer scope of his hatreds: godhatesfags.com, godhatesamerica.com, godhatessweden.com (he said the devastating tsunamis in Southeast Asia in 2004 were aimed at punishing Sweden for allowing its people to go to Thailand for sex tourism), godhatesireland.com and others.

Though Phelps has been organizing pickets since he started his church in 1955 — in 2001 he estimated that his church had averaged 40 protests a week for the previous 10 years — he first cracked the mass media in 1997. When 21-year-old Wyoming Gay man Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten by two straight men he’d met in a bar, Phelps picketed his funeral and the trials of his alleged assailants. Phelps and his crew carried signs saying “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell” and “AIDS Kills Fags Dead” as well as their standard “God Hates Fags.” Phelps unsuccessfully sought permission from the cities of Cheyenne and Casper, Wyoming to erect six-foot monuments with Shepard’s picture and a legend that Shepard “entered Hell” on the day he died because he ignored “God’s warning” against homosexuality in the Book of Leviticus. Phelps has mounted an ongoing campaign against performances of the play The Laramie Project, which depicts Shepard’s death and the aftermath of his murder in a Queer-friendly way.

Phelps’ decision to picket the Matthew Shepard funeral drew criticism from an unlikely source. In 1999, Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and one of the acknowledged leaders of the radical Right, denounced Phelps as “a certified nut” with no influence in the legitimate religious Right. In a PBS interview, Falwell said, “Anybody who goes to the funeral of a little boy who’s dead, and his parents are looking up at a big placard Fred Phelps put up saying, ‘Matt is in hell,’ is either mean as the devil or a nutcase. Either way, he doesn’t represent anybody credible.” In the same interview, Falwell said that while he still opposed homosexuality for Biblical and moral reasons, he thought churches should be more welcoming towards them and that parents who rejected their Queer children and cited the Bible were wrong. Phelps’ reaction was all too predictable: he put Falwell on his hit list and in 2007, when Falwell died, Phelps’ crew picketed his funeral.

Joalby Lopez, who joined in the counter-protest against Phelps October 16, said he first heard of Phelps “when Matthew Shepard’s funeral was going on and they decided to picket that funeral.” Lopez said he was appalled “that they would choose to use someone’s tragedy to spew out hatred,” and said that for the past six years he’s been “extremely up against them.” Lopez said the main message he wanted to convey by joining the protest against Phelps is that “their message is ill-founded, and that it’s O.K. to be homosexual and O.K. to embrace who you are.”

Asked about the common belief among anti-Queer religious people that homosexuality is a choice, not an inborn characteristic like race or gender, Lopez said, “I really don’t understand how people would say it’s a choice to have to live your life under scrutiny, where people are constantly trying to diminish who you are and throw negative messages on you. I don’t think it’s a choice to have to suffer hatred, negative messages and either physical or emotional abuse. It’s not something that anybody would choose to be. You just are who you are, and you learn to live with how you were made.”

Another participant in the counter-protest, a 20-year-old Gay man named Juan Clark, also said, “I don’t think it’s a choice. If I could have chosen whether to be Gay or straight, I would have chosen straight because it’s much easier in the world. But I’m Gay because that’s the way God made me.” Clark attended the event with Ricardo Lopez, his boyfriend of seven months, and said that Phelps “had no effect on me.” But he wanted to protest against Phelps anyway because “I was really mad that he was going to try to tell students, minors, that Gay is wrong. That’s a problem with society. If you teach kids Gay is wrong, they’re going to grow up to think it.”

Phelps brought his road show of hate to San Diego for three days, October 16 through 18. Not everyone on his target list thought he should be met with counter-protests at all. Morris Casuto, head of the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, told local online reporter Joseph Peña, “In general, [Phelps’] greatest ongoing need is for media attention. … [O]ur suggestion is to not counter-demonstrate. … If there are counter-demonstrations, you can be certain there will be media attention. And that is, in fact, what they want.” But the editors of CityBeat, a San Diego alternative weekly, disagreed so strongly that they not only urged readers to attend protests against Phelps, they published the complete itinerary for his San Diego trip to make it easy for readers to find his minions.

The motives for Phelps’ picketing San Diego High School were unclear — the school didn’t have a Gay-Straight Alliance, though event organizer Sara Beth Brooks announced that one had just formed in response to him — but most of his San Diego targets were synagogues and Jewish community groups. Phelps’ crew was scheduled to be at the school from 2 to 3 p.m. — timing their protest so students could see it when school let out at 2:20 p.m. As it turned out, they were a bit late but still arrived well before the school day ended. A few police officers were stationed on the corner with the Phelps demonstrators to protect them, and the counter-demonstrators were strictly instructed to stay on their own side of the street and not confront Phelps and his crew.

That wasn’t a demand of the police; it was a policy laid down by the organizers of the counter-protest. “Nobody, nobody is to cross that street,” Sara Beth Brooks, marriage equality activist and one of the protest organizers, told the crowd at the start of the action. “These people make their money by suing us after we go over there and yell at them and get into an altercation with them. So make sure that you stay on this side of the street. There will be peace monitors stationed over there to make sure everything stays peaceful today. Other than that, scream as loud as you want, because that’s what we’re here to do today.”

The leaflets advertising the action had announced “music instead of hate,” but though there was a guitar player there — incongruously dressed in a 1960’s-style bushy wig and a Sex Pistols T-shirt — the “music” mostly consisted of endless hammering on saucepans and other noisemakers. Most participants obeyed the organizers’ instructions to stay away from Phelps and his crew, though one man reported that he had sneaked over and got into an argument with Cindy Phelps. One San Diego High School alumnus was surprised that the students were allowed to leave by the front exit when the school day ended instead of being hustled out the back of the campus, away from the demonstrators on both sides. A contingent of San Diego High students set up signs supporting the Queer counter-protest and hung them over the school’s official entrance sign.

The demonstration against Phelps sucked energy away from another, long-scheduled progressive protest the same day: an action called by the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice to demand that the Obama administration withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Activist San Diego and other local progressive organizations encouraged people to attend both actions, and a number of people — including legally married Gay activist and Coalition for Peace and Justice organizer Drew Searing — helped produce both. But an attempt to stage an impromptu march from San Diego High School to the Federal Building downtown, site of the antiwar action, drew only seven people.
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