A protest by an independent Kansas-based group, known for its controversial demonstrations, at USF on Monday was overshadowed by an eclectic group of counter-protesters who turned out in force. To the University’s credit, students kept their cool and met a message of hate with one of unity.
The infamous group, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), casts signs in the air that direct condemned messages toward homosexuals. WBC has gained prominence for picketing at soldiers’ funerals as well, and its reasoning is that God lets soldiers die because of America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
The group came to campus to protest the USF Hillel Jewish Student Center and the Catholic Student Center. WBC’s message united disparate groups who, at other times, might have trouble finding common ground. From Jews and Catholics to supporters of soldiers and gay rights, more than 100 students and community members attended.
The church’s platform is outlandish and hard to take seriously. On its Web site, godhatesfags.com, an icon says simply, “God hates you.” It’s as if the group acts intentionally ridiculous to unite everyone against it. That would almost make sense, but its vitriol seems sincere.
If WBC’s goal was to unite diverse students, then the protest was a resounding success. The student response was, for the most part, appropriate. Counter-protesters stood across from the protesters along 50th Street peacefully – though loudly – voicing their dissent. A few crossed the street and attempted to block the WBC members with their signs, but others warned them not to get too close.
Thirteen University Police (UP) officers and four deputies from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office were on the scene to keep everyone at bay, said Lt. Meg Ross, UP spokeswoman. No arrests were made.
All it really took was the idea of WBC to spark the public demonstration. In reality, the protest was a non-event. Only four church members stood on the side of the road holding controversial signs for less than 30 minutes on a weekday morning. If it wasn’t for the opposition’s turnout, few people would have even known they were there.
The tiny church, composed mostly of leader Fred Phelps’ family members, has the same effect at the national level. By raging against soldiers, gays and America, WBC crosses all political lines. It may be a sad commentary that it takes a group like this to unite Americans, but at least some common ground still exists in this politically charged environment.
The argument can be made for simply ignoring WBC, but at the same time, the University’s response was entirely