Westboro Baptist Church haters under the sway of venomous Reverend Fred Phelps are headed to the Denver area tomorrow. But instead of mounting a huge rally in response, representatives of the University of Denver Hillel, one of the threatened stops, will ignore the display and hold a quiet diversity event at an undisclosed location instead. Counter-protest organizer and freelance journalist Sunnivie Brydum sympathizes with this strategy -- but she still sees value in standing up against the WBC ghouls.
Last spring, when news broke about planned WBC protests in these parts, Brydum was working for Out Front Colorado. "My passion is queer media," she says. "I have a background of working with the queer community, and I think it's really unfortunate that these guys use the First Amendment to shield their hate speech."
With that in mind, she and Kameron Tyler Martinez co-created Counter-Protest Westboro Baptist Church in Colorado!, a Facebook group whose popularity boomed in a very short period of time.
"We ended up with more than 4,000 members, and we had more than 1,000 people show up at various places," ranging from the offices of the Intermountain Jewish News to the campuses at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University. Brydum was pleased that "the protests were peaceful -- and I loved the ways people counteracted Westboro. One person brought a big full-length mirror and held it sideways in front of them as a way of saying, 'Look at yourselves. Look at what you're preaching.'"
There was also singing of everything from Beatles tunes to the theme to Barney, not to mention participants "who ran the gamut," she goes on. "We had bikers standing next to gay activists standing next to military wives."
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These memories returned to Brydum when Westboro announced its May 19 protest schedule -- at the Hillel, the Ponderosa High School graduation ceremony, and the Denver Islamic Society. "Given that they stir such strong emotions, I thought it would be a good idea to try to harness the energy into something that is constructive and productive -- something focused on peace and love and acceptance," she says.
Nonetheless, Brydum doesn't criticize organizations that argue against engagement. "The Douglas County School District has asked people not to attend the protest" at the graduation, she notes, "and I'm personally inclined to do that. But I know a lot of people won't. So I think we should try to mediate the message. Westboro funds itself on lawsuits it files against counter-protesters who inadvertently cross the line of First Amendment rights, and we want to make sure that doesn't happen here."
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Brydum suspects counter-protest turnout may be lower this year than last, since there will be fewer stops and only one on a college campus. But she hopes those folks who do show up will try to strike the proper balance. "It's a challenge," she concedes. "There's an inherent conflict between wanting to counteract the message and wanting to starve the flame."
More from our News archive: "Same sex-marriage debate: Westboro Baptist Church protest falls flat -- because gay haters don't show up."