Westboro Baptist Church picketers make first Savannah appearance on Sunday

We’re just a couple of days away from the first pickets by the Westboro Baptist Church here in Savannah.

Over two weeks ago, I wrote about the news of the WBC’s appearance here, about some of the choices regarding community response here, and some of the actual planned responses here.

One of the most disappointing things regarding this issue over the last few weeks has been the snarkiness and rudeness with which some citizens who think it is best to ignore the WBC entirely have attacked those who plan various types of public protest or response.

As I’ve said before, I totally respect individual choices to ignore the hate marketed by the small fringe group, and I have even published here a logo created by Teddy Gongaware at the request of her brother Hartford Gongaware to say symbolically “Solidarity and Silence: The Only Welcome Hate Receives in Savannah.” Feel free to post it wherever you wish. I plan to put it as my Facebook profile pic for part of next week.

I think those who oppose an active response have a lot of good arguments on their side, but Americans do not typically ignore hate speech like this — nor should they typically ignore it. The WBC will be picketing schools, for example, which can hardly choose simply to ignore the hateful signs and chants. And I wonder if people would favor ignoring them if there were in fact a military funeral on their week’s schedule? There have also been some chuckles in recent weeks among gay rights proponents about the choices of religious institutions to picket, since at least a couple of them routinely espouse anti-gay views. Nothing wrong with a protest that speaks out against those longstanding biases at the same time that it counters the WBC.

There are solid arguments on both sides of the engage vs. ignore argument, and there’s no need to morally condemn those who disagree. For more background on this tricky issue, Patrick Rodgers has a great piece in the current Connect Savannah: “Ignore or engage”.

Some folks are going to turn out for sure, although I don’t know if Sunday’s planned counter-protests will attract anywhere near the 2,300-plus people who have rsvped yes on Facebook. You can find that event on Facebook here.

I also must note that the Savannah Morning News, for which I write freelance columns three days a week, has opted for “ignore.” There have been a couple of letters to the editor mentioning the WBC that I have seen, and a piece about the impacts on Sunday’s parking and driving downtown here. And that’s pretty much it. So the next time someone claims that the Savannah Morning News or “the media” generally is only interested in selling papers and generating web page views, point them to this SMN decision. It’s a decision I respect, but I don’t agree that the daily newspaper should ignore the serious questions raised by the WBC’s appearance regarding free speech, the limits of public protest, the strain that this additional work might have and maybe will create for local law enforcement, etc. The Savannah Morning News has decided to leave its voice out of the public discussion, and I think that’s too bad. But it’s a decision I respect.

I remain personally undecided about attending the protests, in part because I might have to spend some time Sunday putting the finishing touches on a long-planned talk at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home at 3 p.m. that day: “When Evil Comes to Town”. But I will probably attend some of the public protest activity for part of the time wearing my columnist hat, even if only the planned Peaceful Candle Light Response on Wednesday evening in Forsyth Park organized by Savannah Unite.