It was just past 8 am on a Friday morning, and hundreds of Stanford students were perky, wide-awake, and chattering away. It was the most well-attended party on the Row in recent memory, though no alcohol was in sight. Just 30 feet away, a group far more detestable than Cal had breached the Stanford Bubble.
Was the apocalypse coming? According to the party’s inspiration, a fundamentalist religious hate group called the Westboro Baptist Church: Yes.**Hailing from Topeka, Kansas, the radical church maintains that due to America’s tolerance of gays, Jews, and other various cultural and religious groups, our nation – and indeed, the world – will soon suffer the destructive wrath of God.
Founded by Pastor Fred Phelps in 1955, the Westboro Baptist Church has approximately 71 confirmed members, nearly all of whom are related to Phelps. Every day since June of 1991, its members have picketed symbolic institutions around the U.S., shouting and carrying provocative signs with slogans like “Fags Doom Nations” and “God Hates America.” Westboro also protests at soldiers’ funerals, calling the soldiers’ deaths justified, as our servicemen and women fell whilst defending a nation that tolerates homosexuality.
Last week, Westboro members embarked on a Bay Area tour, protesting at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, a *Golden Gate Theatre production of Fiddler on Roof, San Francisco’s U.S. District Court, the headquarters of Twitter, Inc., and several high schools and Jewish Community Centers. ***
Also on Westboro’s itinerary was the front lawn of Stanford Hillel. Initially, a substantial number of Jewish students were in favor of ignoring the protesters’ presence, as a counter-protest would provide Westboro with the media attention they so clearly craved.**
*However, as news of Westboro’s upcoming visit spread across Stanford’s plethora of chat lists, it very quickly became clear that a counter-demonstration was inevitable. Within hours, dorms and student groups from across campus were determined to face Westboro, whether with homemade signs expressing love and tolerance, or with humorous, flamboyant shows of mockery. Many from the LGBT community, too, desired to lead a more activist response. ***
Reasoning that the most effective response would be one of unity, the Jewish Student Association (JSA) and Stanford Hillel decided to coordinate a single, positive campus rally. As expressed in a joint statement from JSA and Hillel, this event was not to be a “counter-protest,” however, but rather “a celebration of our diversity and our unity as a campus community.”
Indeed, students who attended the Friday morning event, officially entitled “Stanford United,” had no doubt that it was a celebration of the love, acceptance, and community that pervades Stanford’s campus. From the moment students began to arrive at 7:30 am, until the last students left around 10:00, the air was filled with an infectious joy, energy, and camaraderie.
By 8:10 am, Westboro’s scheduled arrival time, at least 300 students had gathered on Hillel’s curved, grassy lawn. Dozens of colorful signs rose above students’ heads, each bearing a positive message. Ranging from “God Bless Our Gay Troops” to “Challah Loves Everybody” (created by members of Challah for Hunger), each sign promoted equality, unity, and most of all, abounding love.
One gentle-faced, bearded student with long, brown curly hair was dressed as Jesus, complete with a long white robe, sandals, and a crown of thorns. Students bore American flags, rainbow flags, and flags that combined the designs of both. One girl in a tie-dye dress ran down Mayfield with a bubble wand, bluish-purple bubbles floating in her wake.
Meanwhile, a few students garnered laughs with playfully mocking signs, including a hot pink sign that read, “Gay for Fred Phelps.” Another student, dressed in full-body pink bunny suit, held a cardboard sign requesting, “Please Don’t Feed the Trolls.” Even the Stanford Tree showed up, bearing a plain white satirical sign declaring, “Tree Hates Bigots.”
Although the Westboro members had still not arrived – they were en route from nearby Gunn High School, their previous picketing location – students didn’t seem particularly concerned. Mingling and celebrating continued, with Stanford grad student Rich Frankel ’10 remarking nonchalantly, “These are the tardiest anti-Semites ever.”
On the steps of Hillel, meanwhile, Stanford’s Talisman a cappella group began to perform their sweet, soulful hymns of peace. Song sheets were passed out, as well as the Stanford United pledge: a vow to stand together and speak out against hate, not just in the case of fringe groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, but regarding serious threats to our society and world.
The goal of the celebration, according to Stanford Hillel’s Executive Director, Adina Danzig Epelman, was to channel the emotions Westboro’s speech invokes within our student body into “something positive – an event that can stand on its own, and that has merit on its own.” Consequently, rather than encouraging students to engage with the protesters, the celebration was designed so that students would “metaphorically [and literally] have their backs to them.”
Students were instructed to stay on the Hillel lawn, away from the sidewalk and street, where the Westboro protesters were expected to march. Approximately 40 student marshals, all wearing purple “Stanford Students United” t-shirts, were assigned to enforce the boundaries and watch for agitated behavior. A substantial force of officers from the Department of Public Safety also came out to prevent any dangerous situations.
However, when the Westboro protestors finally arrived at 8:17 am, they surprised students, staff, and security alike by staying a moderate distance away from Hillel and the celebration. The church members – who were only five in number – chose to remain on the corner of Mayfield and West Campus Drive, where the majority of students couldn’t even see them without darting into the street to glimpse them from a better angle.
The protesters comprised of Fred Phelps’ eldest daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, 52; three young women, one aged 18 and the others in their 20s; and one middle-aged man. Each bore four large signs declaring a different hate message, and each stomped on an American flag that was tied to his or her foot.
Yet the anti-climactic arrival of the tiny group of Westboro protesters, which was dwarfed by the massive throng of Stanford students, had little effect on the students’ celebration. Only once did one of the church member’s homophobic slurs carry across the crowd. The group sang a few hate songs, but none of the words were audible above the Stanford’s students’ chorus of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand.”
The next surprise came at 8:30, when all fell silent as a mysterious bagpipe player emerged from BOB, the Row House directly across from Hillel. The piper, who performed a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” played on the front steps of BOB for several powerful minutes before slowly crossing the street. As he joined the assembly on the Hillel lawn, still piping, the crowd accompanied his song with soft voices.
Then, at exactly 8:45, the protesters abruptly began to pack up their belongings. Shoving their hate signs into nondescript black bags, they hurried off to their white rental van, which was parked behind the Haas Center. (They would soon discover that three of their tires had been slashed.)
Westboro’s departure was suitably celebrated with a grand finale: a performance by the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, sporting their harlequin finery. Following the Band’s performance, much of the remaining crowd streamed into Hillel for a brunch of fruit, coffee, and Izzy’s bagels with cream cheese.
In all, attendee estimates for Stanford United’s celebration range from 400 by the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Department to 1000 by KTVU News, with the most likely estimate around 600.
Yet while university staff and student leaders were encouraged by the sheer number of students who came out to support their peers on an early Friday morning, they want to make sure that the message of unity is not forgotten. Consequently, F.A.I.T.H., Stanford’s Interfaith student group, plans to hold a follow-up event so that next time, in the words of JSA President Joe Gettinger ’11, it won’t take “something like this to bring us all together.”