The Course of Reason

Knowing the Difference between a Counter-Protest and a Jeering Mob and How to Avoid the Latter

January 4, 2012

A few weeks before the end of the semester my Center for Inquiry Club at Broward College teamed up with our campus’s Gay Straight Alliance to go sign-to-sign with the Westboro Baptist Church. Shirley Phelps herself, the wife of Fred Phelps, attended along with a nameless brown-haired man. I learned a lot from this experience and I would like to pass this knowledge on to my fellow skeptic peers.

The Website told us that the WBC would be visiting our very own campus on December 8th, just the day after our end-of-the-semester holiday party (the last CFI Club meeting of 2011). The college asked the GSA not to represent their club (I guess their reason was that a college club protesting a sue-happy organization would make them liable)–they didn’t say anything to the CFI Club but we took the hint–and so, technically, we only protested as a group of random individuals.

The Westboro website vaguely stated that they would protest at Broward College from 1:40 to 2:10 pm (yeah, weird timing…) but did not specify where exactly. On December 8th at 1:30 pm, according to plan, all protesters met in front of the Broward College Central Campus library while one of my friends circled the campus in her car to find “them.” Once she spotted them she called me to tell me their location. I announced this information to the growing number of protesters outside the library: they were by the Ruby Tuesdays at Nova Dr. and Davie Rd.; a block away from the actual BC campus. There was a mass exodus of people as we jumped in cars and drove to the site.

On the corner of the intersection:
Shirley Phelps and her accomplice in hatred

I’m not sure how many people came to counter-protest, but I would guess the numbers exceeded 50. Many policemen had parked their motorcycles or vehicles nearby in order to oversee things. The cops wouldn’t allow the counter-protesters to cross the street to where the WBC were. We became two separate islands with two opposing views between a sea of cars; we couldn’t interact with them at all.

Later I would learn to appreciate this separation…

The website mentioned that they would be protesting sequentially at two places in our area: Broward College and Stranahan High School. Our counter-protest lasted about ten to fifteen minutes before the Westboro Baptists walked away and drove off in their white rental car to the High School.

We followed them, of course. At least our group followed them–a smaller number of protesters were in the area when we arrived.

The police at the Stranahan High School were hardly involved, although plenty of cops watched over us. Their regulations were not as strict. The barrier of police men between “us” and “them” no longer existed, and I learned that this changed the dynamics of the protest and the protesters immensely.

Things began to change. Now we were allowed to cross the street. Now we were allowed to stand next to the Westboro Baptists; dance in front of them, point signs at them, interact on a whole new level. Its amazing how such a small change can produce such a drastic transformation of tone…

I didn’t realize the extent of what was going on until I crossed the street. Things were relatively peaceful in the beginning, like when the photo above was taken, but as time went on verbal exchanges became a little less reserved.

I heard people yelling sarcastic propositions to the Westboro Baptists like, “Can I suck your ___?” and “Can I lick your ___?” Other people occasionally called out names like, “whore.” At one point a portion of the protesters were chanting, “God will not forgive you.” And amidst all this I began to lose my enthusiasm for our counter-protest cause, because our cause had been trampled into the mud of hypocrisy.

If we return hatred for hatred, then what is the difference between “us” and “them”? I understand the rage that one feels when one looks at the offensive language and signs of the WBC, for I also feel that rage, but does this mean that we lower ourselves to their level of disrespect, hatred and intolerance?

Saying “God will not forgive you” is equivalent to saying, “You are going to hell.” Calling someone a whore is just as derogatory as how the WBC uses the word, “fag.” Our purpose as a counter-protest should be to actually counter the position of whoever we are protesting. We can’t do that if we mirror their message or their behavior.

These are the differences between a Jeering Mob and a Counter-Protest:

* A Jeering Mob desires some sort of retribution; to lash out vengefully. To hurt the target of anger.
A Counter-Protest desires to get a point across; to teach, raise awareness of an opposing viewpoint and respond maturely to a view that is disagreed with.

* A Jeering Mob is disorganized and rowdy – from the outside looking in, one sees a group of people upset at something or someone. The purpose or message is not clear.
A Counter-Protest understands that a group with a cause is one hundred times more effective when organized. It has a plan in how to clearly display the essential purpose or message.

*A Jeering Mob is out for blood.
A Counter-Protest is out for change.

What I have learned from participating in my first counter-protest:

I organized the protest by creating an event page on facebook, but I shouldn’t have stopped there. I should have typed up some guidelines for my fellow protesters to democratically discuss and agree upon. I should have also had some meeting prior to the protest to get all the protesters together and organize an effective course of action (like a song we could sing together or signs to coordinate). Since I did not do this, chaos was the result. Everyone was trying to yell over the voices of their fellow protesters; a mess of voices and actions jumbled together in confusion. I think that if I could have organized our cause better, we would not have just been able to make an impression on the community as a whole but, perhaps, even the WBC protesters.

I hope that my mistakes will help my secular peers in any counter-protest that they will be tackling…

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

This post originally appeared here on the Skeptic Freethought website.  
To learn more about Center for Inquiry On Campus, click here.



About the Author: Elizabeth Knapp

Elizabeth Knapp's photo
Elizabeth Knapp is an activist for Center for Inquiry of Fort Lauderdale and FL.A.S.H. (Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists). She is new to the "movement," and working on a degree in Nursing while restarting the CFI club at Broward College. She is a writer for Skeptic Freethought.


#1 Edward Clint (Guest) on Wednesday January 04, 2012 at 8:07am

Terrific write-up Elizabeth.

I'm sorry things did not go as well as they could have. These are emotionally charged issues which tend to provoke people into behavior they'd not ordinarily engage in. Still, you've taken good lessons from the experience which will be helpful in the future. You have a great attitude and much spirit. I expect more great things from you and your group. Thanks for sharing this.




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