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Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009 11:36 am

Counter-protest turns into demonstration of support

Anti-gay group fails to make appearance at play

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Demonstrators lined the sidewalks in front of the Hoogland Center in support of The Laramie Project.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

On a cold October night in 1998, a 21-year-old gay college student in Laramie, Wyo., was beaten, tied to a fence post and left to die.

Now, more than a decade later, Matthew Shepard’s murder continues to be a source of conflict.

The Springfield Theatre Centre last weekend performed its second run of The Laramie Project, a play about Shepard’s murder, while a group of concerned Springfield citizens stood outside the Hoogland Center for the Arts in protest. But they weren’t protesting the play; they were protesting the protesters – an incendiary, Kansas-based church that pickets events supportive of homosexuality or the military. Classified as a hate group by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Westboro Baptist Church did not appear at Friday’s show, despite issuing a press release announcing its intent to do so.

About 300 people filled the sidewalk in front of the Hoogland on Friday evening in support of The Laramie Project. Rev. Martin Woulfe of Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation helped organize the counter-protesters, urging non-confrontational tactics to discourage the anti-gay group.

“In any contest between truth and lies, truth must take a stand, and the lies will be exposed for what they are,” said Woulfe, quoting author John Milton’s Areopagitica.

“That’s what I feel we’re doing. We’re taking a stand, standing on the side of truth and love.”

Woulfe said he doesn’t know what motivates the Westboro protestors, pointing out that Fred Phelps, Westboro’s leader, is a former civil rights lawyer.

“By our definition, he was a good man and something happened,” Woulfe said. “For some reason, he became obsessed with the gay issue. That has been their mission, and it’s clear that this is the burning coal at the center of their lives.”

At a training session the night before the demonstration, Woulfe urged his counter-protesters to sign a pledge of nonviolence, but it was more than just a symbolic gesture. The Westboro protestors are prone to suing counter-protesters for assault and battery following any physical or verbal confrontation, Woulfe explained, so the pledges could be used to show nonviolent intent if the counter-protestors found themselves in court.

Though the Westboro protestors did not appear Friday, the counter-protesters enjoyed the brisk evening and reveled in solidarity. Allan Cook, a counter-protester at Friday’s demonstration, said he was actually disappointed that the other side didn’t show.

 “I had hoped to show them that Springfield is a city that doesn’t support their hate and doesn’t endorse it,” Cook said, adding that he was impressed with the number of counter-protesters present.

“It’s very heartening. It’s great to see such a turnout. I didn’t expect this many people to show up, but it’s great.”

Woulfe said he was pleased with how the demonstration turned out.

“The success of the event was assisted by the fact that the Phelps contingent did not show up,” Woulfe said. “My sense is most people were there to present a positive witness … everything came together better than I’d hoped.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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