Large crowds of counter-demonstrators turned out in the early morning darkness in Coeur d’Alene today to answer the small group of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church that plans a second day of denouncing gays, soldiers, Jews, the United States, and private and public colleges and schools.
The seven members of the extremist group from Topeka, Kan., were out holding signs at the corner of Fourth and Dalton streets, next to Coeur d’Alene High School, by 6 a.m., while at least 50 counter-demonstrators met them with messages of their own.
“I don’t like the way they treat veterans at the funerals,” said Greg Prado of Hayden, a Marine who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Prado attended with his son Cade, 6, and wife Amy.
“We can’t let people come into our town and bully us without saying that’s not right,” Prado said. “They’re hiding behind the First Amendment.”
Darby Lopp, 12, a Woodland Middle School seventh grader, displayed a rainbow-colored sign she had made to show support for gay people. The sign stated “This is our community,” and also included the Star of David.
“I don’t think this is right. I think we need to stand up for what we believe in,” Lopp said.
The Westboro group moved on to Lake City High School, where school administrators held an indoor assembly for students to keep them inside. About 100 people demonstrated against Westboro outside. The counter-demostrators took up three of the four corners of the intersection of Ramsey and Hanley avenues and numerous cars and trucks honked while passing, drawing huge cheers from the group.
The next stop was North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, whose presentation of the play “The Laramie Project,” sparked Westboro’s appearance in the region. At NIC, there were an estimated 200 counter-demonstrators and a significant police presence surrounding the Westboro demonstrators, who set up in the middle of campus, across from the student union building.
The counter-demonstrators included carloads of students who drove north this morning from the University of Idaho in Moscow.
At NIC, one counter-demonstrator whose boyfriend is in the military and who wore a T-shirt that said “I love my soldier,” ran up to the police fencing surrounding the Westboro group waving her sign and yelling her message of love.
Shaun Winkler, of Spirit Lake, a former member of the Aryan Nations under the late Richard Butler, appeared with a sign saying, “May there be plenty more Matt Shepards,” a reference to the young gay man murdered in Wyoming.
Winkler’s sister, Christine Newman, carried another sign that said, “Keep fags from our schools.”
Shepard was found alone and cold and tied to a split-rail fence in a remote area east of Laramie 12 years ago this month. He died a few days later from a severe beating by two men from the region.
One UI student, Caitlin Boland, 22, said, “It’s inspiring knowing there are that many out there who believe that love is the most important thing. By their protesting,” she said of the Westboro group, “they are bringing us all together.”
On Thursday, the Westboro group demonstrated at Gonzaga University, Moody Bible Institute, Whitworth University, Ferris High School and Eastern Washington University. Hundreds of local residents turned out to counter the group.
Westboro picketers 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.