San Francisco Bay Area, CA: Fred Phelps of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group from Topeka, Kansas, is targeting San Francisco-Bay Area schools, organizations, and houses of worship to picket this coming week. We'd like to help facilitate community strategies for response.
Phelps has been spreading his message of hate for years, targeting Jewish institutions and those he considers gay-friendly. Communities across the country that have been targeted by him and other hate groups have chosen different ways to respond to their organizing and hateful speech. The Anti-Defamation League is not alone in suggesting that the best response is no response at all. The hate group craves publicity. If Phelps’ people hold up their hate signs on an empty street, with no one watching, and no news cameras around, that is indeed fitting rejoinder to their message.
But some communities have also decided to use Phelps’ visits as opportunities to assert shared values and deliver a positive message of love, acceptance and inclusion. The Not In Our Town Project has documented many peaceful and inspiring counter-actions and diversity celebrations, in places from Olympia, Washington, to Bloomington, Illinois, and closer to home, Newark, California, featured in our documentary “When Hate Happens Here: Not in Our Town Northern California.”
In 2002, Westboro Baptist Church targeted Newark High School as students staged a production of “The Laramie Project,” the story of the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. As students were rehearsing the play, the tragic killing of local transgender teen Gwen Araujo stunned them. Then Phelps announced the group would picket the play’s opening night. Dozens of community members and youth joined together to support the student actors. Dressed as angels, their big white wings blocked from view the hateful placards of Phelps’ followers.
Some groups and towns that have chosen not to stage counter-protests have found other well-meaning groups or individuals organizing on their behalf. That has happened at several Hillel buildings nationwide, and Hillel has had to mount eleventh-hour actions in solidarity with those who show up in solidarity with them. That happened this past fall at the University of Oklahoma. After hundreds of non-Jewish students surrounded the Hillel building to protect it from the hate-filled messages of Phelps and company, two Hillel students showed their thanks by organizing Common Grounds, a day of multicultural dance, music and art that celebrated the diversity of their campus population.
Here are some other examples of communities that have held cultural or diversity celebrations at another location in advance of or at exactly the same time as a hate group’s protest. These kinds of actions draw people away from direct confrontation and help demonstrate positive action:
- After the National Socialist Movement announced it would march in Olympia, Washington, one Fourth of July, a coalition of faith and civic groups, businesses and the local media worked together to plan a diversity celebration, which drew hundreds of Olympians. Local youth also took a lead in organizing classmates at their school.
- When the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, was targeted by Phelps last fall, more than 1,200 students of all faiths and ethnicities decided to take part in a peaceful counter-protest, waving American and rainbow flags, singing songs, and holding up signs promoting harmony and diversity. A similar action also took place last fall in San Diego, CA.
For educators, we’ve witnessed how teachers and staff have used threats from hate groups as "teachable moments,” facilitating classroom discussions about the line between free speech and hate speech and appropriate responses to hate speech. A school-wide diversity assembly is another way to respond, as well as lunch-time activities like a stereotype pool, where students write hateful messages on pieces of rice paper, then dissolve them in a pool of water. Not In Our School leaders report that engaging youth leaders in organizing such activities promote peer-to-peer education.
Whatever you decide to do, it's important to work together and to coordinate with local law enforcement and other targeted institutions.
The Not In Our Town team is here to support you, help connect you with others, and provide resources, from our videos to teacher and student action plans.