The Westboro Baptist Church brought their “God hates fags” message to Tuscaloosa on Saturday, staging a 30 minute protest on the University of Alabama campus. Alabamans met it with a response that some might not expect.
According to Westboro’s website, the demonstration was meant “to remind [Tuscaloosa] of the wrath of God that visited them two years ago,” referring to the tornado that obliterated half the city in 2011, which they cite as a result of growing acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage in America.
It was a small and unimpressive crowd that waved signs and chanted their offensive and outdated mantras, but the picketers even provided music via a boombox and were creative enough to invent song lyrics in line with their cause. As Stephen Dethrage puts it in an AL.com article:
“When Westboro Baptist Church came to Tuscaloosa, they brought a boombox with them. Standing in front of Russell Hall, the dozen or so Kansans sang their own versions of pop songs, revised to condemn homosexuality, waved inflammatory signs and banners, and worked hard to be seen and heard for half an hour on a humid Tuscaloosa Saturday afternoon.”
Their message didn’t just fall on deaf ears; it never even reached the crowd. The picketers were drowned out by the counter protestors who outnumbered them by at least 10 to one. Over a hundred people gathered with signs of their own, purporting messages of tolerance and love, chanting “love not hate!” and “T-Town Strong!” in the direction of the Westboro picketers.
The counter protesters were not the only group keen on silencing Westboro’s message. At least a dozen motorcyclists routinely circled the demonstration area, waving American Flags and revving their engines as they passed the picketers. “We aren’t a club or motorcycle gang,” a motorcyclist named Melanie told me, “we are just a group of friends that rode down from Auburn to let Westboro know how welcome they are in our state. We wanted to drown them out so the reporters couldn’t hear a vile word any of them had to say.”
Across the street from the protest, on the lawn of Canterbury Chapel, a group stood hand in hand praying silently. Tyler Richards, who helped organize the prayerful event, said:
“Westboro uses people’s words against them, and turns their words back on them…We can yell and scream all day, but Westboro is just going to yell and scream back louder. Our idea to be silent was just about being here and to be united in that silence and united in a spirit of community. We didn’t need words to be unified.”
And indeed, the residents of ultra-conservative Alabama came together on Saturday in a way I haven’t seen since the tornado that devastated the face of our state (and that is saying something, since UA has won two national championships since that time – roll tide).
Down here in Alabama we may not exactly be setting America’s pace of progression, and we may be the last state to ever legalize gay marriage; but when Westboro Baptist Church sent protestors to attack civil liberties, my classmates and fellow Alabamans met them with a louder message of love and mutual respect.
It seems such a small thing—a trivial victory—but (civil) liberty is winning. We are winning.