Taking on Westboro’s hate

March 10, 2011

Jon Van Camp, a teacher at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., explains how students took action against bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church.

ON MARCH 1, the Westboro Baptist Church, an outrageously bigoted hate group from Kansas, chose to picket Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., where I teach.

An outpouring of anger and support from the community led to a counterprotest of nearly 300 students, alumni and community members who rallied for gay rights and support for our students. They were met by five Westboro protesters carrying about 15 crazed and hateful signs, who, by the end, became almost irrelevant to the main demonstration.

As many readers may know, Westboro is a church in Kansas whose members openly despise gays, Jews or any mention of tolerance. They have been known for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, Jewish Community Centers and, in recent years, the funerals of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan--reasoning that their deaths is simply God's punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality.

It's unclear why Westboro targeted Northwestern. Its Web site calls Northwestern students "worthless brats" who are "good for nothing except the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan and/or the filthy streets of Doomed america (sic) where your young are prostituted by sleazy pimps."

Whatever reason they chose Northwestern, many people viewed the fact that the student body here is overwhelmingly Black and Latino as hardly a coincidence.

From the beginning, students and staff were divided as to how to respond to this provocation. Dr. William Hite, the county superintendent, made it clear that the school system would not support an organized response to the Westboro bigots. The principal also discouraged students from confronting the protesters and instructed faculty to be in their classrooms when their contract hours began at 8:45 a.m. Westboro's protest was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.

Quite a few faculty and administrators made the argument that many Northwestern students lacked self-control and as a result could be subject to arrest or even violence from the police.

But dozens of students ignored this advice and organized a counterprotest. They came to school over the weekend and after school to make posters and rainbow streamers, and to come up with chants. They contacted their friends and acquaintances inside and outside the school, and resolved to make their demonstration positive and supportive of all students at Northwestern, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

ON THE morning of March 1, three different police forces were deployed. Most of the parking lot was cordoned off. The fire alarms in the school were deactivated. The bomb squad was alerted.

All this was directed at the possibility of violence not from the crazed bigots of Westboro, but from the student body of Northwestern.

But students, alumni and community members showed a different side of Northwestern. There was an air of celebration as University of Maryland students mingled with senior citizens. Small children and even a baby sported signs proclaiming tolerance and love for everyone. The local Unitarian Universalist Church was represented, as was the International Socialist Organization, but most seemed to be unaffiliated and many were on their first demonstration.

Some community members remained silent, while students started chants such as "Black, white, gay, straight. All unite to fight your hate." As College Park resident James Fenessy declared, "I feel angry that people could show just hate, but I'm happy at the great show of solidarity for the LGBT community--my community."

The Westboro protesters were stationed across the street from the high school and held signs decrying tolerance and even one proclaiming "Thank God for Dead Soldiers"--but in the end, few paid much attention to them.

The demonstrators in support of Northwestern were much more concerned with interacting with each other and promoting a gay rights and anti-hate message. In fact, although the Westboro gang was forced to end their protest at 9:30 a.m. when school began, the counter-demonstrators remained until after 10 a.m.--when the principal had to ask them to leave.

The principal then went on the PA system to commend the student body for their outstanding behavior. A representative of the Hyattsville Police Department felt compelled to do the same.

Ironically, the Westboro protest may have actually helped further the cause of LGBT rights at Northwestern. Many of the students who organized the protest resolved to do more to support the LGBT community inside the building, including wearing ribbons, holding days of silence and using our display cases to promote LGBT rights and respect for all.

I and many other faculty were proud of our students that day...and glad that they did not live up to the cynical expectations of so many adults.

Further Reading

From the archives