Chasing away the bigots

Todd Dewey reports on a counter-demonstration against the Westboro bigots.

Protesters prepare to unwelcome Westboro Baptists in Woodbury, ConnecticutProtesters prepare to unwelcome Westboro Baptists in Woodbury, Connecticut

HUNDREDS OF people gathered in Woodbury, Conn., on short notice in mid-December for an emergency protest against the vile Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), led by hatemonger Fred Phelps. The protest was called because the horrific WBC announced it was planning to "picket" a service for Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung, who was killed in the school massacre in Newtown.

No doubt SocialistWorker.org readers are aware of this hate group and its disgraceful history, including its appearance at the funeral for Matthew Shepard, the gay youth who was tortured and murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Incredibly, in the last 20 months, the WBC has won a "freedom of speech" case before the U.S. Supreme Court as well as held onto to its tax-exempt status for religious organizations.

However, the hundreds of people who showed up in Woodbury were going to make sure that these bigots didn't disrupt a commemoration for a woman who tried to save the lives of her students. People came to this town of just under 10,000 from all over the state and the region. To show support for our side, a local diner donated water bottles and donuts, while a coffee shop provided endless cups of hot coffee.

This was likely the most diverse gathering Westbury has ever witnessed. It included about 125 bikers from all over the Northeast, many from the Patriot Guard Riders, a group that attempts to counter the WBC at all its hate-filled appearances. Parents brought children as young as 4 years so, as one said, they could "see that they live in a place where there is more love than hate."

Students from local middle and high schools came out to show support and express their disgust that a group like the WBC would try to bring "more pain to people while they are going through the most painful situation imaginable," one said. An LGBT couple, who said this wasn't their first anti-WBC rally, traveled from Manhattan because "this kind of hate under these or any circumstance just has to be confronted." Three young African American women from nearby Waterbury had tears in their eyes as they said they "couldn't believe the turnout and amazing solidarity."

At 3:30 p.m. a member of the Women's Center of Greater Danbury, one of the organizers of the protest, announced that the WBC "decided to stay away after receiving news of how many of us are here today--we did our job!" The crowd greeted these words with an eruption of applause. Even after the announcement, though, at least 100 people stayed to make sure the bigots never showed their faces.

Having lived in this area for much of my life, and knowing that the only public gatherings are for the Fourth of July, it was incredibly inspiring to be a part of such a spirited demonstration in a place that I never thought would have one of such importance.

The hundreds of people who came out in force showed that the best way to confront such unimaginable hate is not to "ignore them," as some believe. Time and again, the history of struggle shows that it's people coming together in an organized effort that can stop the bigots from spewing their bile.