The infamous Westboro Baptist Church cult, en route to Washington D.C., made time Tuesday morning for a pit stop outside of the school I attended as a teen: North Hagerstown High, in Hagerstown, Maryland. Eight protesters and their children stood across the street from school grounds during the opening hours of the school day, waving the signs they’ve become notorious for: “Pray for Dead Children,” “Your Pastor Is a Whore,” and, of course, the classic: “God Hates Fags.”
About two hundred counter-protesters showed up too, as well as the Freedom Riders, a group of motorcyclists who obstruct Westboro’s chanting with the noise of their engines. Although the cult’s presence outside of schools is basically harmless, this group has done a great deal of good for the families of dead soldiers whose funerals Westboro has protested.
About half of the counter-protesters attended out of genuine outrage or sadness. This perplexed me: why legitimize such people? Since Westboro is a cult, it should be mocked, I figured, not argued with. There seemed to be a consensus amongst the religious believers that I interviewed: the event served as an excellent way to demonstrate the loving nature of their religion, especially when juxtaposed with fanatics. Raymond S. of Hagerstown attended to “stick up for Christianity…they give a bad name to the Bible.” Rae F., also of Hagerstown, agreed: “That’s not my Bible…we as Christians have been passive for too long and it’s time to stand up.” They were there, they said, to spread their message to anyone who might wrongly think that Westboro represents a legitimate strain of Christianity. “If they want attention, we’re gonna give it to them!” said student Amber R.
Half of the counter-protesters were there for, as Jennie H. of Frederick put it, “the lulz” — an Internet slang term for off-color humor. They understood the no-stakes nature of the event (well, unless those stakes were used to hold up signs) and their signs included mocking phrases such as “Eat Mor Chikin,” “Hi Mom,” “Jesus Died For Our Signs,” and, most amusingly, a lengthy discourse about the life of a giant pink rabbit. The man holding that sign, adorned as the rabbit himself, explained his presence thus: “If they’re going to do this, I might as well take advantage of it and get some self-promotion in.” That’s the spirit! PlasticFarm.com is the rabbit man’s website.
The scene itself was kept in perfect order. I parked at a grocery store down the street, since the school itself — which was in “modified lockdown mode” thanks to the hoopla — was blocked off. About a dozen policemen monitored the street, the road serving as a strict line of demarcation between Westboro and others. Much to my chagrin, no one was permitted to speak with the cult members: they were kept strictly separated from journalists and counter-protesters. And like clockwork, at 8:45, they were shuffled out of the area as quickly and efficiently as they came in, driving away without incident. As they left, I was overcome with the sense that the event, in the final analysis, was rather…boring.
“Party’s over,” I said, looking at a friend. The event came and went, just like that. Nuts walk around with tacky signs for thirty minutes, everyone whips themselves into a frenzy, and then we all go home. All in all, it was a very successful morning for everyone in attendance.