By Steve Charing
TOWSON, MD—An hour before the planned protest by representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church on March 30, there was relative quiet. An occasional airplane flew overhead, and the sound of the chilly wind gusts whipping through the leafless branches of the trees that surround Towson High School briefly interrupted the serenity.
The thousand or so students at the 60 year-old, brick and stone, 3-story structure were still in their classes anticipating the final bell. But it was not a normal school day on this particular Monday.
Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which is notorious for its anti-gay, anti-American vitriol and led by its patriarch flame-thrower, Fred Phelps, chose Towson High School to unleash its toxic venom.
The extremist group targeted this school because, like so many other schools around the country, it has a gay-straight alliance or GSA. It also boasts a diversity club, and a website that emphasizes tolerance and diversity as part of the school’s mission statement.
When officials at Towson High learned of the impending Westboro protest, the school sought to minimize the students’ exposure to the predicted taunts and insults shouted at them by the extremists. School officials prepared the students and parents with a letter. Club meetings and sports practices were rearranged so that as many students as possible would not exit the building at the time of the Westboro demonstration.
Moreover, Baltimore County police were in full force and did not permit any demonstration within a few blocks of the school. The Westboro clan was forced to protest at the intersection of York Road and Hillside Avenue, so exiting students did not have to hear any rants that said they are doomed to hell and other such epithets.
In the meanwhile, counter-protests were being planned by a variety of groups. Among those were the Central Baltimore County Democratic Club, the new Baltimore County chapter of PFLAG, Bel Air Unitarian and The Presbytery of Baltimore.
In addition, area schools, such as Towson High School, Dulaney, Carver, and Friends School, as well as Towson University and Goucher College mobilized anti-hate demonstrators to protest the Westboro demonstration.
The six weary-looking Westboro bunch did their thing for over a half-hour. They paraded along the prescribed area carrying their usual assortment of scathing messages on sticks while under the watchful eyes of the police and Silent Witness—a group carrying rainbow umbrellas—who also acted as a peaceful buffer.
The pro-LGBT crowd on the other side of York Road was building with each passing minute. Many carried hand-made signs decrying hate and advocating unity and love. Students from nearby Towson University, an assortment of religious groups and curious onlookers joined the ranks and signaled their support for the anti-Westboro demonstrators. They lined the side of the road, for at least a two-block length.
This is what the Westboro group wanted: a reaction so strong that the media would cover it and give attention to their unpopular cause.
Marilyn, a member of PFLAG-Baltimore County who has a gay family member, hopes that the overwhelming opposition to the Westboro clan would help get rid of them. "Goodness, I hope that we are able to drive groups like this away from our whole country," she said. "We have to be here to respond to their hate. It’s evil, and we don’t want people to hear their message."
With each passing car that honked its horn in support of the counter-demonstrators on busy York Road, and there were scores of them, the mainly young crowd cheered loudly.
Bradley Bolin, the secretary of the Towson University Queer Student Union and a junior, was emboldened by the turnout. He mentioned that when he was in high school and he tried to start a GSA, he didn’t receive the level of support he would have liked from the community and local colleges. "Now that I’m in college I want to show my support for the youth and try to do something that’s right."
Bradley acknowledged that anti-protests give Westboro Baptist Church what they want. "I’m not concerned with what they want. I’m more concerned about the youth and what THEY want," he explained. "I want to stand up for the people who can’t fight by themselves."
As the Westboro group was nearing the end of their allotted time, amidst the honking horns and competing chants, a surge of Towson High School students eventually showed up following dismissal. These new forces swelled the crowd to near 300 according to some estimates.
"They [Westboro Baptist Church] have the right to protest," said Charlie, a senior at the school and is straight. "But nobody in the school supports their beliefs."
Joey, a straight junior at the school supports gay people and opposes those who spread hatred. Mike, also a junior and a member of the school’s wrestling team, says he has gay friends, and several of his fellow teammates joined in the counter-demonstration.
Another Towson High student Beth said "I don’t care what sex you like, everybody is equal and God loves everybody."
Hannah, who is also straight, says "Love is beautiful, and I don’t think anyone should protest against it. I knew there would be so many protesters on our side, but not their side."
And that certainly was the case on this otherwise chilly, quiet Monday.