Seattle faces down Westboro bigots

July 15, 2009

Lonnie Lopez reports on the efforts of Seattle activists to counter the bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church.

SEATTLE--When the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) paid a visit here over the June 13-14 weekend to spew their antigay, racist and anti-Semitic filth, 19-year-old Eduardo Brambila was angered and outraged.

But more importantly, he and others took action.

When Brambila--who works for Center for Multicultural Health and the American Friends Service Committee's GLBTQ Youth Committee--learned of the WBC's visit a week before it was scheduled to occur, he immediately began contacting other local activists to organize a response.

During this visit, the WBC didn't specifically target lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) institutions or people. Instead, the group planned to picket several Jewish community organizations, a Catholic church, an African American church and a high school over several days.

A small group of core organizers planned counterprotests for the WBC's Sunday pickets, backed by a broad coalition of community organizations including Jewish Voice for Peace, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Queer Ally Coalition and Voices Rising. Students at Garfield High School organized their own massive protests for the WBC's Monday-morning visit to their school.

Some of the more established LGBT activists in Seattle tried to dissuade organizers from planning any response at all, arguing that protests would only generate more attention and media coverage to this already marginalized extremist group.

But coming so soon after the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, the shooting rampage at the Washington, D.C., Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist and a right-wing conservative campaign to repeal the state of Washington's newly passed domestic partnership bill, many understood the need to stand up to discrimination and were eager to fight back.

A DIVERSE crowd of several hundred people turned out at Mount Zion Baptist Church on Sunday morning, June 14, to face down about half a dozen homophobes holding signs reading "God hates fags" and "God hates Jews" and one incomprehensible sign reading "Bitch Burger" depicting an infant in a hamburger.

Protesters drowned them out with chants of "Racist, sexist, antigay--right-wing bigots, go away!" and "Better gay than grumpy!" A group of high school students chanted "Two, four, six, eight--how do you know your kids are straight?"

When the WBC packed up and left for their next target, St. James Cathedral, the counterprotesters marched up Madison Street to meet them. As the protesters rounded 9th Avenue, St. James Cathedral church members began the Corpus Christi procession around down the block past the WBC.

Church leaders in white and purple robes lead the congregation; small children in bright-colored costumes marching with flags on poles marched along and choirs sang hymns as the procession passed--this was no ordinary counterprotest. One young woman in a girls' choir noticed the WBC and began flipping them off. The visually stunning scene, the chants, and the singing brought more people from nearby buildings out to protest the bigots.

When the WBC wrapped up and left this time, the crowd erupted into cheers before gathering to hear speakers and performers. A local Mexican restaurant donated food for protesters, and uneaten food was later taken to a local tent city and distributed to residents. Taking donations all day, including one from the pastor of one of the protested churches, organizers raised more than $360 for the Lambert House, a local LGBT youth center.

"A lot of times now we feel like we need not react to this--ignore it and it will go away," said Brambila. "But it's not happening. We're here, we're proud, and look, you can't even hear them...And we're not going to let this in our community."

The next morning, nearly 300 people gathered outside Garfield High School before classes started in order to meet the Phelps clan. The crowd swelled to nearly 500 after school buses dropped off more students. Students, teachers, parents, local church leaders, members of LGBT groups and others held hands and sang songs, with many donning purple--Garfield's school color--as a sign of solidarity.

"This is an affirmation of our community's strength," said Hanna King, a 15-year-old Garfield sophomore who organized the opposition rally. "It has nothing to do with them; they're crazy. This is about what we believe."

The battle to defend the rights we've won in Washington--and the fight for full marriage equality--will be heating up in the months to come, but this quick and large response offers clear evidence of a radical shift that's taken place over the last few months around the country.

Seattle's response to the Westboro Baptist Church shows that not only can we stand up to bigotry and discrimination, but that we can use such opportunities to build solidarity, confidence and a movement that can win full equality.

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