With Westboro Baptist Church coming in two weeks, Savannahians plan a variety of responses

First let me share a bit of completely unintentional irony.

As some of you know, I’m president of the board of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home (term expiring this summer). The board members coordinating our spring lectures asked me to do a talk and I decided to talk about the drifters that wander into O’Connor’s stories. The title is “When Evil Comes to Town.” Many weeks ago, that talk was scheduled for Sunday, May 22nd at 3 p.m. at the O’Connor Childhood Home on Charlton Street, just across Lafayette Square from where, earlier that same day, picketers from Westboro Baptist Church will be at the Cathedral of St. John.

I mentioned that WBC was coming to town here, and I talked a little about whether the media and the public should respond here. In recent days, as the news has spread more and more widely, area residents have been organizing responses of considerable scope.

In this post, you’ll find some thoughts from me as well as a roundup of some of the protests of which I’m aware.

First off, I should say that the WBC’s odd picketing plans do not include any soldiers’ funerals. If they did, I think many of us would feel compelled to turn out specifically to support the families of the fallen.

One of the most thoughtful responses is being planned by Hartford Gongaware, who is promoting the idea of acknowledging the WBC’s presence essentially by ignoring them. His sister Teddy has designed the logo you see at right to signify three S’s: Savannah, Solidarity, Silence. He imagines a tagline like this: “Silence & Solidarity: The only hospitality hate receives in Savannah.” Feel free to spread the word about that — and to pass along the logo, or the alternate one with the hat that’s a nod to an older Savannah logo.

Using the logo somewhere like Facebook could be a great way for those who don’t wish to dignify the picketers with their presence to nevertheless make a statement. I love the idea.

I also love the idea of a “Phelps-a-Thon” fundraiser. The event encourages citizens to make direct contributions to the schools and institutions that are being picketed. Click to find the details for the Savannah Phelps-a-Thon on Facebook: Phelps-a-thon Savannah: AN ANTI-PHELPS EFFORT Please Help Spread the Word.

But there are significant physical counter-protests in the works.

I’ve been invited to the following via Facebook:
WestBoro Baptist Church Counter Protest. They’re coming to Savannah. The event has nine creators and so far over 1,500 yes rsvps, with over 500 maybes. I don’t know if these events will draw a higher % of those rsvps than most Facebook events, but that’s a sizable number in any case.
Westboro Church – COUNTER PROTEST has been primarily organized by Act Out Savannah and has over 200 yes rsvps.
Peaceful Candle Light Response against Westboro Baptist Church Visitation, planned for Forsyth Park on Wednesday, May 25th, does not actually involve direct confrontation with the picketers. It’s organized by Savannah Unite and also has over 200 yes rsvps as of this moment.

One important note about all of these protests: while WBC does not need permits for its gatherings of under 100 people, these events will need them, as I understand it. Also, it’s worth noting that there’s some bickering on Facebook about the largest of these counter-protests. Some see it as essentially a Christian exercise, while others do not.

There’s been considerable lauding of the actions in Brandon, Mississippi, when WBC tried to picket a funeral — there was an assault and cars were used to obstruct the movement of picketers. It all seems mighty fitting, somehow, but I cannot agree with violent actions or potentially illegal ones like these.

Others around the country have taken more absurdist approaches to the WBC, for example Super Heroes vs. the Westboro Baptist Church. I love the idea of countering hate with absurdity — or just countering absurdity with absurdity.

Other responses have involved essentially neutering the entire message of the group by pointing out their penchant for lawsuits. As stated on the excellent Savannah-based blog Yo Yenta:

Phelps and his crew of sick aren’t trying to save anyone’s souls—they’re trying to bait us into violating their right to free speech so they can file a lawsuit. The site God Hates Fred Phelps has a comprehensive timeline on WBC shenanigans if you feel spending your precious time on earth caring.

At the end of the day, individual citizens (including the parents, teachers, school administrators, and religious leaders who might find themselves in particularly tough spots) are going to have to decide how or if to respond. As I said in a previous post, I totally respect those who choose to ignore the WBC while they’re here. And I respect the choice of the Savannah Morning News, which so far has not covered any of this. But the WBC provokes such visceral anger and has figured so prominently in the most extreme tests of Americans’ freedom of speech that folks are going to respond in one way or another. Constructive dialogue about those responses could make us a stronger community, even when evil comes to town.