When Hate Comes to Town

I was recently reading the musings of a Buffalo, NY blogger about the recent appearance of “representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church when they showed up to protest the services for the victims of the Continental Airlines plane crash. Nice to see that these nitwits got nowhere with their shenanigans, thanks to lots of local people who showed up to basically marginalize them and make them invisible,” including said blogger’s parents; more Clarence Center pictures here.

Now Fred Phelps and his sorry band are making their way to Albany and Plattsburgh, NY on Friday, March 6. There is a silent vigil planned for Thursday, March 5 at 5:30 p.m. in front of the Albany City Hall. (Don’t know how “silent” it will be as there will be a rally against the severe budget cuts at the State Capitol – and across the state – at 4:30 p.m. on that same day.)

Then Friday, the WBC is planning to spread its message of hate at Albany High School at 7 a.m. and at SUNY Central (353 Broadway, the old D&H building) at 8:15 a.m. Regarding the former, I have it on reasonably good authority – as I suspect the folks at this website believe, Phelps will be thwarted at the high school. As they write, “This is NOT going to happen.”

Whereas Phelps WILL likely do his thing at SUNY Central, where the counter-demonstration should take place. The folks at God Is Love Albany are recommending gathering at 8:15 a.m. on March 6. I plan to come down as soon as I can, on the theory that the WBC people will end up there early as well.

There has been a lively debate on the Facebook page called A stand against the Westboro Baptists Church coming to Albany about the appropriate response to Phelps’ presence. As one person said, “I would advise nobody to actually show up. You’re giving him exactly what he wants: attention. Let him and his followers stand out there all by themselves and be humiliated.”

I appreciate the sentiment but strongly disagree for a couple reasons. I don’t think them standing by themselves humiliates them. There are, for instance, people who have demonstrated for peace in front of the state Capitol every Wednesday at noon pretty much since 9/11/2001. Sometimes the group is large (e.g., in the run-up to the Iraq war in the fall of 2002 and early 2003), and sometimes it’s just a handful of people. In no case do I think the group does, or should feel humiliated.

Moreover, how does one measure the difference between ignoring Phelps and mere indifference? I feel an obligation, as a Christian, as twice a SUNY graduate, and as a person to respond to the hate, to address the hate. Now it is true that Phelps wants attention. My recommendation is that people not address him or his group – they’re notorious in looking for grounds to sue someone – but to be present, ignoring the WBC, but expressing sentiments of love and justice.

It is not quite equivalent, but I’m reminded when the Springboks rugby team from South Africa came to Albany in 1981 and a number of people – yes, including me – came out to protest the match. (Albany writer Paul Grondahl has a great chapter about this incident in his book about long-time mayor Erastus Corning.)

To paraphrase some Kentuckian, history will little note nor long remember the number of people who “ignored” hate; history will only note the number that stood up against it.
Yes, the title is a takeoff of probably my favorite U2 song: When love comes to town, with B.B. King.


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