Maybe I shouldn’t write this story.
I mulled over that thought for weeks.
After all, how could I write about the Westboro Baptist Church, “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” without giving them the attention they thrive off? What could I add to more than a decade of reporting on their hateful and vulgar anti-LGBTQ crusade? What point is there in presenting good faith arguments against rhetoric that seeks only to dehumanize? And most importantly, would I be normalizing their hateful speech and harming Maui’s LGBTQ population, who already face discrimination and marginalization?
I thought about all this and more – and then I was there: Walking down the sidewalk fronting Maui High School on an overcast Friday morning as parents, students, and teachers filed into the school’s drop-off lane. I’d seen videos of the WBC in action before – the loud desecrations of somber children’s and veteran’s funerals, the crude signs branded with foot-tall slurs, the feverish fanaticism with which they weaponize the Bible to dehumanize others – and I expected more of the same.
But the first thing I saw was a rainbow.
Before That, Some Background
The Westboro Baptist Church announced in mid-December that they would come to Maui High School to protest a transgendered student on the Kamehameha Schools Maui girls volleyball team. The church, which has no affiliation with mainstream Baptists, is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League as a hate group, known for “vitriolic, highly visible protests nationwide against groups and individuals they’ve identified as supporters of’homosexuality,’ or who otherwise subvert what they refer to as ‘God’s law.’”
The church was founded in the 1950s by Fred Phelps, and most of the church’s 80-90 members are members of the Phelps family. “The group is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps,” states the SPLC website. Phelps, who is deceased, was a lawyer – a profession shared with his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, who was on Maui for the protest. The Phelps family has a law firm in Topeka, Kansas called Phelps-Chartered.
WBC started picketing in 1991 and since then has conducted more than 65,000 demonstrations in 1,052 cities, according to its website. In 2005, the group began demonstrating outside of soldier’s funerals. Despite the use of slurs, hate speech, and verbal harassment at their events, WBC maintains that their demonstrations are peaceful and religious.
Funding for the group’s crusade comes from church members, who are required to donate 30 percent of their income to the church (tax deductible!), and also from litigation. In 2015, Business Insider reported that, according to church members, the group spends $200,000 to $300,000 in annual travel expenses. The article tallied nearly $200,000 in legal fees and settlements collected by the group from municipalities that were ruled to have infringed on the group’s First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech.
Soon after WBC announced they would be coming to Maui, multiple groups came together on social media to stage a counter-protest. One group strategized a parasol protest to “shield” keiki from the WBC’s messages.
‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’
But what would be the benefit of counter-protesting a group that feeds off conflict and the attention it brings; a group that provokes and baits censorship, only to celebrate when it leads to financial gain?
“Don’t feed the trolls,” someone told me. But then, what message does it send to ignore the topic? What message does it send if we allow WBC to run our streets? What happens if we accept the presence of hateful speech without any sort of counteraction?
With the Twitter Troll-in-Chief in the White House and the resurgence of white nationalism across the country, these questions of how to address lies and hate speech are necessary.
MSNBC, last year, withheld a clip of the president because they could not show it to audiences in “good conscience.” A 2018 Inlander story titled “Left-wing Spokane groups are trying to figure out how to combat alt-right groups without inadvertently making them stronger” pondered “Do you identify alt-right members and call them out by name? Do you confront them? How do you fight a group that feeds on conflict and attention without giving them exactly what they crave?” In 2019, facing a confrontation between far-right groups and AntiFa in Portland, city Starbucks closed up shop for the day.
The options for a community are many, ranging from close-up-shop and ignore, to group confrontation. Any miscalculation can be tragic and rock a community, as was seen in Charlottesville two years ago when white nationalists protesting the removal of Confederate statues clashed with counter-protestors, resulting in a day of mayhem and violence and ultimately the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer after a white nationalist plowed his car into the crowd. Nineteen others were injured.
With such high stakes, it’s no surprise that on Jan. 8, Maui High principal Jamie Yap sent out a letter urging parents and guardians not to engage with members of the WBC.
“The Maui Police Department (MPD) and our security team will monitor the protestors closely while keeping students at a safe distance,” he wrote. “Direct engagement and counter-demonstrations are not encouraged as the protestors have a history of antagonizing others into anger in an attempt to generate outrage and notoriety for themselves. Altercations with counter-demonstrators in past protests have led to lawsuits that help such groups to persist.”
The letter spread and the demonstrations planned to be held at Maui High School were cancelled and relocated to Kaʻahumanu Avenue… officially, at least.
The first thing I saw in front of Maui High School was a rainbow flag because people showed up anyway, and they came early.
“I think it’s ridiculous that they came here to bully a minor for something so small,” said high school student Naiyah Kalawe as Phelps-Roper and one other member of WBC arrived.
“I thought about not giving them the attention they want,” Kalawe said, “but at the same time I feel like she [the Kamehameha School student] needs to know that we’re here for her and we’re not gonna let them shame her.”
The two WBC members began setting up on the sidewalk: four signs for each of them, tangled in the wind, bearing the usual slurs and crude depictions of stick figures having sex, and a stereo that began playing menacing Imperial March-sounding horns. Phelps-Roper sang over the clang, which as time went on shuffled between backing tracks for the WBC’s rabid and bastardized versions of classics like “Burning Down the House” and “Beat It.” Both WBC members ignored my attempts to ask them questions. They were 10 feet away from the other group, which grew to number about 20 people with messages of LGBTQ pride and signs that read “No hate in the 808,” and “Love wins.”
“We’re having an anti-protest against the hate of the Westboro Baptist Church,” said Chelle Gonzales, one of the organizers of a Facebook group that came together in response to news of the WBC visit. Gonzales said this isn’t the first time she’s dealt with WBC. She encountered them in other states where they’ve staged similar pickets.
“When you come to protest a child, that draws the line,” Gonzales told me. “We just want to make sure the kids are OK coming in.”
Regarding the request to not engage with the WBC, she said “We’re also trying to keep Kapu Aloha. We’re trying to keep the peace. There were times when I didn’t deal with them very well, and now I know the best way to shut them down: with aloha.”
Gonzales said she informed MPD that a small group would be staying at Maui High School. “We told the Maui Police Department we’re also here to calm,” she said, “because I know what it’s like to get upset with this group, and how to calm anybody down who might show up that’s getting worked up. The best way is just to kill them with kindness and love.”
While the WBC continued their hellish karaoke crusade, the numbers of the counter-demonstrators grew as community members arrived and students chose to take a stand.
“We don’t need any more hate in the world and I think that it’s very important that we show love to people who are part of minority groups,” said Aiyana Noelani, a Maui High School student. “For people such as the Westboro Baptist Church to come and try to just spread hate, I think that’s a step back from where we’re trying to progress and the way the world needs to be.”
“It’s important that we show the love and that people will see us and know that they’re being represented and that it’s not just the hate in the world,” she added, regarding the decision to come out and demonstrate next to the WBC.
It was a thought echoed by many that morning. The WBC wasn’t anything new, and the group, through its absurd vitriolic spectacles, had played itself – nobody took it seriously or felt the need to engage in argument with them. The motive was to outweigh their hate with love and community support, and ultimately show acceptance for the targeted individual and others like her who are victims of discrimination.
In the end, the response to the WBC “was really positive,” said Greg Jones, a teacher at Maui High who advises the school’s Sexualities and Genders Alliance Club and spoke to me as a private citizen the afternoon following the demonstrations. MHS faculty and staff held an emergency meeting when they learned in December that WBC would be picketing the campus, which resulted in setting a “few parameters” before letting the students form their own response.
“The kids declared it Diversity Day,” Jones said. “That was amazing. It was student-led, and the nuance they brought up was that our response shouldn’t be about what we’re against. No one needs to hear that we’re against the Westboro Baptists. Let’s make this response about what we’re for. So they said, ‘Let’s have Diversity Day. That’s gonna be our celebration.’”
Multiple student groups on campus organized the pro-diversity response, he said, which culminated in an assembly at the end of the school day. “I come away feeling like this was a really positive experience for most of our students,” said Jones. In addition to the student-led organizing and action, teachers found ways to incorporate the WBC visit into discussions in biology and social studies classrooms.
From Jones’ perspective, the students’ strategy was a success, “Even for our students coming that I can tell come from a more conservative background – I overheard a conversation in the halls of some students walking by, saying ‘Well it’s not my life to judge.’”
That’s progress. “I grew up with a gay uncle, and I often felt like I was by myself when homophobes would say some dumb stuff,” Jones said. “It felt lonely.
“Today it was completely different. The people who wanted to say homophobic things, they’re the ones who felt lonely.”
Cover design by Albert Cortez
Anuenue Maui by Amanda Joy Bowers, Skelefin Studios