Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Fight, Mass.?

I learned something recently that caused me to totally re-think my view of something. And, for a change, it made something in life easier to understand.

Far too often in life, we learn stuff that just complicates matters.

Close to a year ago, I posted an essay that had to do with an organization which travels around the country, not unlike the barnstorming stunt pilots of yesteryear, but with one small exception. They don’t do what they do to entertain people. They do it to inflame people.

It’s your friendly neighborhood Westboro Baptist Church, except: they’re not friendly, they’re not from your neighborhood (unless you live in Topeka), and the last difference is what I just figured out.

As has been chronicled … well, actually, very honestly, since this outfit lives for publicity, I ought not even bother to write this, since it will just cause people to think about them when all our lives will be made better by not thinking about them. But … as has been chronicled in this space: this bunch of people finds any ol’ excuse to go somewhere and hold up signs which express their hatred for gay people. No, friends, it’s not disdain, it’s not disapproval, it’s not dislike, it’s hatred. That’s not a judgment call on my part; “hate” is in their frickin’ Internet domain name.

They demonstrate at events which, by their calculations, have something to do with gay people. Most commonly, it’s some “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” linkage of almost anything with the scourge of homosexuality. Usually, they can traverse just about any old distance from point A to point B by pointing out that by not immediately adopting laws and policies that make it impossible for gay people to go about their daily lives, or even to live in this country, then this country is promoting The Gay Agenda. Therefore that American event or American person or American organization over there must be the target of a demonstration. Well obviously.

(Friends, the only time I’ve been aware of a Gay Agenda is when a gay person might have been running a meeting I was attending. But I cheerily digress.)

So the Westboro Baptist Church has demonstrated at events like funerals of military personnel (the military has something to do with the US government, which does not immediately adopt laws, etc etc) … Kansas City Chiefs football games (yeah… I don’t know how to square that one either, honestly) … and last year at this time, the funeral of the eight-year-old kid who was killed by one of the Boston Marathon bomb explosions (okay, you really got me there; clearly I’d never make it past the initial WBC job application form).

This most recent protest destination is so much more straightforward and predictable, though. Kind of a gimme. An uncontested layup, if you will.

Derrick Gordon, a sophomore basketball player for the recently-resurgent University of Massachusetts Minutemen, came out last Wednesday. His teammates responded by expressing all kinds of support and admiration for him. His coach, former UMass player Derek Kellogg, helped him make that announcement to his teammates in a humorous and supportive way. A very very recent UMass basketball recruit has already commented positively about Gordon’s decision. Derrick Gordon is, after all, reportedly the first openly-gay male basketball player in the NCAA’s Division I.

Therefore, the WBC protesters are coming to Amherst to demonstrate. Late last week, they thought they’d be setting up their signs and such at the corner of Route 9 and University Drive, which is just about a mile and a quarter’s walk from the center of campus.

Within the last day or so, they changed their collective mind. Now they want to demonstrate on campus.

There are colleges and universities that forever will hold the absolute unbreakable record for most expressive and most numerous American student demonstrations. Whatever school you attend, it’s got a long way to go before it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Berkeley or Columbia in the 1960s.

But UMass-Amherst has been known to be fairly expressive, itself. Lately that expressiveness has gone more toward riots borne of disappointment with local sports teams … or of happiness with local sports teams … or of the mere presence of a party, for that matter. When I joined the UMass community in the mid-1980s, the nickname “ZooMass” was well in place, and it does not seem to have faded much. It has occasionally made us alumni sad; but it has not surprised us.

My point is: really, WBC? Of all the bears you want to poke … UMass?

Good luck with that.

Students have been cautioned, by administration and other groups on campus, to keep it light, keep it bright, keep it … civil. If you’re going to counter-protest, make sure (for the love of Joe Duffey) that you do it in a way that for once will put UMass student expression in the national spotlight for good reasons. Do up creative signs, stand three-deep across the street from the WBC protesters, face the other way, and stand in utter silence. It’s worked in other places before. (It’s also pretty unlikely. The greater Amherst area is nothing if not vocal.) Whatever you do, be a Jedi about it: y’know … fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, or at least to multiple arrests if you do this wrong.

But here’s what I didn’t know very well: the cautionary UMass Facebook posting that I read a couple of days ago reminded its readers that WBC’s point is to inflame people to the point that they feel compelled to make physical contact with them … at which point they sue the living snot out of the counter-protesters.

That’s where they make their bucks. That’s largely how they fund their “outreach” projects. Not with their weekly offering-plate revenue. They make money the old-fashioned way … they litigate. First Amendment, bay-beeee!

So, as I mentioned: the Westboro Baptist Church as an organization is not friendly, is not from your neighborhood, and … most crucially …

it isn’t a church.

And its shenanigans manage to help give churches in this country, who may be trying to contribute positively to the world, and trying to, you know, help people … a bad name. At just about the point where all of us in the church gig business are trying to figure out how to re-bolster the dwindling population of “churched” Americans.

I’ve said two things before, in this space, in the direction of the Westboro Baptist Church; and I’ll paraphrase them here, again:

[1] thanks for nothin’. And …

[2] the Pioneer Valley? Really? The People’s Republic of Amherst? Down the road from Northampton??

You sure you wanna poke that bear?


April 15, 2014 - Posted by | civil rights, current events, news | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I do hope the poked bear will handle this well. I’d hate (if I may use that word) to have UMass contribute anything to their funds by way of lawsuit.

    Comment by Stephen T. Robinson | April 16, 2014 | Reply

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