On May 22, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) came to Savannah to picket outside various local churches. WBC is an independent Baptist church based out of Topeka, Kansas. The church is known for its extensive protest activities against things like homosexuality, Judaism and Catholicism. It has protested everything from soldiers’ funerals to Comic Cons. It even protested the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
Hundreds of counter-protestors, organized in part by local GLBT group Act Out Savannah, crowded the squares of Downtown to demonstrate in peaceful opposition to the WBC. Counter-protestors followed the church members—of which there were only six—as they moved through Downtown according to the WBC’s predetermined schedule.
Church members held inflammatory signs with messages like “GOD HATES FAGS,” a slogan that is also the namesake of WBC’s website. The counter-protesters had shirts and signs of their own, many with messages intended to ridicule the WBC, but most reflecting a message that “GOD NEVER HATES.”
According to Jonathan Phelps, son of WBC pastor Fred Phelps, the WBC’s protests are part of “a commission from the King of Eternity … to go into all the world and preach the gospel.” WBC believes that sinful behavior has damned America, so it protests to raise awareness and warn those they believe need to change.
As to why the church came to Savannah, Phelps said: “Savannah is like any of the other cities that the 310 million reprobates, Americans, live in. It just so happens that [Savannah residents] were the lucky ones this week to be blessed with these words of life and truth.”
City officials were very anxious about the arrival of the WBC. While WBC is vocally non-violent and always protests in a legal fashion (even going so far as to get the proper permits for each protest site), counter-protesters are not always so peaceful. Subsequently, over 200 officers were on duty Downtown during the protests.
At a press conference, city officials like Mayor Otis Johnson and Police Chief Willie Lovett advocated that WBC protests should be given as little attention as possible because counter-protests can create a spectacle that lends more weight to the WBC’s views.
Local counter-protesters like Act Out Savannah members did not feel they were helping WBC’s cause by protesting.
“We wanted to make sure this was a positive and peaceful counter-protest to a hateful group,” said Chris Fleischman of Act Out Savannah. “As long as the counter-protest is peaceful and nonviolent, it’s a way that people should vent their frustration with over-bigotry.”
Act Out event organizers, dressed in orange shirts, helped lead crowds and made sure that all counter-demonstrations were civil. Organizers also made sure that the counter-protesters complied with police instructions, which included keeping a certain distance away from WBC picketers and ensuring that sidewalks and streets stayed unobstructed.
Fleischman explained that Act Out hoped the counter-protests would “be perceived as representative of a city that is tolerant of all people.”
WBC is expected to return to Savannah May 27.Contact Allen Duncan.