There’s nothing like an extremist hate group to bring out the best in Spokane residents.
Hundreds arrived to counterprotest Thursday and advocate for peace, love and inclusion in the face of bigotry preached by Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka, Kan., organization that has gained national notoriety for its brash denunciations of gays, soldiers, Jews, the United States, and private and public colleges and schools.
About 600 people met eight Westboro pickets at Gonzaga University and dominated a stunning October morning with a raucous yet respectful demonstration of hugs and laughter, cheers and music.
Another 200 students staged a sit-in across campus, bringing a rainbow of balloons.
Within an hour the activity spread to nearby Moody Bible Institute, along East Indiana Avenue,
Although Moody students were told by administrators to avoid the pickets, about 300 people did their best to drown out the Westboro message.
To some, the event was tragic.
“The fact that they have their children holding those kinds of messages – at that age – is troubling,” said Adam Pospychala, at the Moody counterdemonstration. “It leaves you wondering just what sort of life those children are going to have. It’s sad.”
Westboro member Megan Phelps-Roper said that her family chose the Inland Northwest because North Idaho College, in Coeur d’Alene, is presenting “The Laramie Project,” a play about the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in 1998.
The Westboro members, all of them relatives of the independent Baptist church’s founder Fred Phelps, also picketed on Thursday at Whitworth University, Ferris High School and Eastern Washington University. The group plans to picket at both Coeur d’Alene public high schools and at NIC today.
Westboro pickets have gained national attention by shouting anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual remarks and for carrying insulting signs at funerals for victims of violent homophobia and U.S. military casualties of war.
“Sometimes you just can’t be quiet,” said Linda Kobe-Smith of the Logan Neighborhood, who said she came to support Moody, which she said “has been a good neighbor.”
After the picket at Moody, the Phelpses loaded their signs into a gold-painted minivan and drove to Whitworth University.
Beck Taylor, Whitworth’s newly inaugurated president, said he doesn’t know why Westboro members targeted the university, but said students and faculty showed up in force to “celebrate our values and proclaim God’s love.”
Nearby, at the intersection of North Waikiki Road and West Hawthorne Road, a traveling band of counterprotesters was joined by Whitworth students, including Nicole Conner, of Spokane, who said she “had to see it to believe it.”
“I’m surprised there is still that much ignorance in the world,” Conner said.
Ferris High School students were released from school before the Westboro members arrived to avoid congestion because of all of the protesters, said Terren Roloff, Spokane Public Schools spokeswoman. Administrators also said they didn’t want students to have to be exposed to the church’s hateful and offensive messages as they left, she said.
Most of the high school students went straight home and did not participate in the counterprotest, Roloff said. However, about 400 people – mostly university students – did show up to voice disgust with the church’s messages.
Westboro’s last stop was Chavurat HaMashiach, a Messianic Jewish synagogue. About 150 counterprotesters gathered outside, but inside, people ignored the noisy gathering. The synagogue held “Love of Israel Night,” which included prayers, singing and dancing. Elders wanted the night to be about “the things God loves,” not about protesting Westboro, said Elder William Burnam. People of all faiths were invited to the gathering.
“We’re not here to confront them,” said Elder Gary D’Angelo. “Confrontation doesn’t do anything but cause more confrontation. In His words, He says ‘overcome evil with good.’ ”
Several people donated $1 for every minute Westboro was outside. The donations will go to Rescue Israel, an organization in Tel Aviv that aims to reduce drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness.
Westboro was met by the largest crowd of counterprotesters at EWU, where at least 1,000 people heckled the Phelpses and carried signs with messages such as “Bigotry Is a Lifestyle Choice” and “I’m for Separation of Church and Hate.”
Sandy Williams, coordinator at the EWU Pride Center, said the “celebration of diversity and dance party for love” along Washington Street was an appropriate “response to hate.”
At each stop, the Phelpses were greeted by the “Traveling Pride Festival,” comprised largely of members of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and the Inland Northwest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center.
“The Inland Northwest LGBT Center respectfully acknowledges Westboro Baptist Church’s constitutional rights and wishes to thank them for raising awareness within the Inland Northwest, bringing us together and making us stronger,” said Carol Ehrhart, LGBT Center board president.
The traveling counterdemonstration was organized largely through Facebook by Taylor Malone, 21, an Eastern Washington University student.
Malone said it was important to show that “we are willing to unite as a community with our different backgrounds and support all different lifestyles.”
Doc Kinney, one of a dozen Combat Vet Riders from Spokane Valley, said he came to the counterdemonstration at Gonzaga to show his displeasure with Westboro’s tactics.
“All they want to do is tear down our country, not build it up,” Kinney said.
Kyle Richardson, 24, of Spokane, said, “I’m here to send the world a memo: there is hatred in this town, but there is way more love.” Richardson is with the Spokane AIDS Network.
On the GU campus, some students wanted none of the street-side theatrics and staged a “sit-in for justice.”
Westboro Baptist recently defended its tactics before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court has not yet issued a ruling in that case. Shirley Phelps Roper, who represented Westboro before that court, was in Spokane on Thursday.
Roper said her group targeted the educational institutions because they teach “adultery, fornication and to worship idols.”
Someone in the crowd at the Whitworth gathering shouted at one of the Westboro picketers who was standing on the U.S. flag, “Hey, that flag you’re standing on gives you the right to hold those signs.”
Dozens of sheriff’s deputies, Spokane police, State Patrol and Cheney police were stationed at the events. Spokane police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said the SPD spent $9,000 to $10,000 for overtime Friday. No citations were issued or arrests made, she added. PJALS founders Rusty and Nancy Nelson said they were pleased that Spokane had grown so much on the issue of gay rights since the early 1990s, when their headquarters windows were blown out because of the organization’s support for the cause.
“Now we’re in the mainstream,” Rusty Nelson said.
Staff writers John Stucke and Chelsea Bannach contributed to this report.Replay of video livestream from Eastern Washington University Replay of video livestream from Gonzaga University Replay from Whitworth University
Map: Planned pickets and counterprotestsPlanned Westboro pickets are marked with red pins. Counterprotests are marked with blue pins.
View Westboro Baptist Church counterprotests in a larger map