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Westboro Baptist Church incites counterprotests

Four members of the Westboro Baptist Church staged pickets across the state to protest the first day of Rhode Island’s recognition of same-sex marriage Thursday morning. They were met by crowds of counter-protesters at Providence City Hall, the Rhode Island State House and the University.

Brown students flocked to the intersection of Waterman Street and Prospect Street around 10 a.m. to await the arrival of Westboro Baptist Church members, who came and stood by Prospect House holding signs with anti-gay slurs.

Around 200 students also assembled in front of Robinson Hall and the Carrie Bell Tower carrying signs, waving noisemakers and releasing glitter to celebrate the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

Their cheers aimed to drown out the singing of the Westboro Baptist Church members, who had altered lyrics to popular songs like Maroon 5’s “This Love” and Lady Antebellum’s “I Need You Now” to express their view that the United States’ tolerance of gay people goes against their religious beliefs.

“The deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are signs of God’s righteous judgment” against the country, the organization’s website claims. The group has previously told the media that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the bombing of the Boston Marathon were also signs of God’s anger.

Church members also visited Cranston City Hall and Pawtucket City Hall.

Some counter-protesters expressed surprise that only four Church members came to Rhode Island. The organization consists primarily of founder Fred Phelps and some of his children and grandchildren, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center website.

Phelps founded the organization in Topeka, KS in 1955, describing it as an “Old School Baptist Church,” according to its website, though national Baptist organizations have repeatedly denounced the church and its  actions.

Edwin Silva ’16 also helped to organize the student counter-protest, along with Paul Wotjtal ’16. The LGTBQ Center hosted a discussion to prepare for the WBC’s on-campus picket two weeks ago, he said.

During that discussion, students strategized about how to respond most effectively to the WBC, he said. Some students brought up the idea of ignoring the protestors altogether since the group thrives off media attention, while others suggested creating signs that directly attacked the WBC, Silva said.

But students ultimately decided to create positive signs “focused more on celebrating ourselves and our identities,” he said.

“To let voices of hatred go unchallenged only further empowers them, and the only way you can take away from their power is not by ignoring them but by being a presence of love in contrast,” Silva added, describing the counter-protest as “wildly successful.”

Kelly Garrett, the coordinator of the LGBTQ Center, organized fundraisers for two Providence-based organizations that support LGTBQ youth — PrYSM and Youth Pride Inc — in response to the WBC picket.

She also organized two debriefing sessions following the picket, the first of which Silva said was primarily attended by high school students interested in learning more about activism.

Students from Alpert Medical School also joined in the counter-protest efforts. Several medical students set up a Sexual Health table where they distributed pamphlets, condoms and lubes.

“We wanted to show positivity, that Brown supports the LGTBQ community,” said Fei Cai ’12 MD’16, a former Herald staff writer.

Some students arrived at the campus counter-protest after following the WBC protestors around the city all morning.

Counter-protesters assembled at Providence City Hall around 8:30 a.m., holding signs and cheering as same-sex couples emerged from the city clerk’s office.

“City Hall was quite possibly my favorite because people kept coming out with marriage licenses that they had just gotten,” Emily Walsh ’13 said.

Passing cars also contributed to the festive atmosphere, slowing down to honk and celebrate the counter-protest.

At one point, a group of motorcycles decelerated in front of the WBC picket and revved their engines to drown out the group’s signing, which elicited applause and happy hollers from the counter-protesters across the street.

“I’ve been waiting for the Westboro Baptist Church to be in the same city as me for a very long time,” said Providence resident Yo-Landi Fizzure, who attended the City Hall protest dressed in drag.

The size of the counter-protest crowd sent the message that “love is prevailing,” he said.

Katrina and Savanah Kite traveled from Winthrop, Mass., where they were married in May, to participate in the counter-protests.

“We just wanted to support gay marriage,” Katrina said. “It’s just nice to be able to put a positive message out there,” she said, describing the WBC members as “a little lost.”

As the convoy of counter-protesters walked from City Hall to the State House, they were joined by three people in full-body monster costumes. One monster shouted that the other two had come to Rhode Island to get a marriage license, so that they too could wed.

They were not the only counter-protesters in costume. Pawtucket film director Richard Griffin attended the downtown counter-protests dressed as the pope.

“True Christianity and Catholicism is about tolerance, it’s about love, it’s the message of peace — everything these people are against,” he said. “Rhode Islanders do not accept hatred.”