News of Westboro protest ignites student activism

Students convened last Monday night to discuss how the VC community should respond to the Westboro Baptist Church protest. Photo By: Katie de Heras
Students convened last Monday night to discuss how the VC community should respond to the Westboro Baptist Church protest. Photo By: Katie de Heras
Students convened last Monday night to discuss how the VC community should respond to the Westboro Baptist Church protest. Photo By: Katie de Heras

Chris Gonzalez and Marie Solis contributed reporting.

On Sunday evening, social media networks erupted with the news that the Westboro Baptist Church plans to hold a rally at Vassar College to protest the institution’s open support of the LGBTQ community.

An announcement published on the Church’s website reads that, “WBC will picket Vassar College to warn the students, faculty, and alumni [sic] that the satanic policies of this nation, especially those of the colleges and universities, are causing God to pour His wrath out upon this nation. Doomed american [sic] academics fancy themselves to be smarter than God. They promote the fag agenda with all their might and mock the word of God and His messengers at every turn. Let’s see how that works out for them on the Judgment Day.”

The Westboro Baptist Church went on to label Vassar an “Ivy League Whorehouse.”

Notorious for its incendiary rhetoric, extreme views on religion and sexuality, and zealous activism, the Kansas-based religious organization rose to national prominence several years ago when its members began disrupting the funerals of military personnel.

Two months ago, the Westboro Baptist Church also attempted to picket vigils for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. Margie Phelps, one of the Church’s leaders, tweeted that “God sent the shooter,” and that such tragedies are punishments for American liberalism. Once the Church’s intentions became national news, Connecticut residents formed a human wall to block out protesters.

The Westboro Baptist Church has been denounced by several international Baptist organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the world’s largest Baptist denomination. In 2008, members of the Westboro Baptist Church were also barred from entering Canada after threatening to protest the country’s abortion laws at a 22-year-old Winnipeg man’s funeral.

Most recently, the congregation was targeted by an official White House petition, asking that the Church be legally labeled as a hate group. At press time, the petition has received over 330,000 signatures.

Although the Church’s anti-Vassar protest is set to take place two weeks from now on February 28, the Vassar community began making preparations as quickly as 24-hours after the news hit campus.

“The Vassar community is so creative and intelligent, and I look forward to working with students and staff to figure out a response that shows the strength and inclusiveness of our community,” wrote Assistant Director for Campus Life Judy Jarvis in an emailed statement.

On Monday February 11, over 200 students attended an all-campus meeting to share their reactions, and propose ways that Vassar can counter the Church’s rally.

Some of the most popular ideas include using the protest as a catalyst to spur LGBTQ awareness fundraising efforts; collaborating with West Point, which will be targeted by the Church the same day as Vassar; and “killing them with kindness.”

“It’s important that we don’t create a spectacle around them. Anything we do the day of the protest should focus on demonstrating our values and on creating something beautiful out of hatred and adversity, not on yelling back at [the Westboro Baptist Church],” said Daniel Polonsky ‘15.

VSA Vice President for Student Life Dallas Robinson ‘14 echoed Polonsky’s message, saying, “I don’t think people like [members of the Westboro Baptist Church] deserve the time of day. They’re looking for publicity and attention…I think we’re going to turn this into something positive, something beautiful, and something full of love.”

Acting President Jonathan Chenette also hopes that Vassar will take a minimalist approach, writing in an emailed statement that “Part of me wishes we could just ignore this tiny fringe group devoted to propagating hate, and in fact, I think we should plan as if they won’t show up. They can do their thing, and we will do our better thing. I hope we can avoid the confrontation that such fringe groups thrive on and that give them whatever little power they have.”

Other students said Vassar should take this opportunity to look inward, and identify ways it can improve itself, particularly after last semester’s spree of racist, sexist and homophobic graffiti.

“I think we have this concept of ‘[homophobia] doesn’t [exist] here,’ and it makes it easier looking at Westboro Baptist Church because they seem so crazy and out there that we think [homophobia] couldn’t [exist] here. But, to a lesser extent, of course it does. I think we need to look at ourselves more carefully, to think about that. It would be nice if we could spontaneously have these conversations all the time,” said Katie Carpenter ’15, referring to the meeting at the UpC Cafe.

Soon after the Church’s announcement was made, Josh De Leeuw ‘08 launched an online fundraiser to benefit the Trevor Project, a charitable organization dedicated to suicide prevention among members of the LGBTQ community. After just twelve hours, the charity drive raised over $10,000, more than twice its goal. At press time, the donations from students, faculty, administrators, staff and alumnae/i totalled $35,000.

“[This] kind of response shows Vassar values at their best,” concluded Chenette.

Watch an interview between The Miscellany News, Do Something VC and The Huffington Post about the Westboro protest.

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