NAPERVILLE, Ill. (CBS) – Some 400 people marched across the North Central College campus in Naperville Monday night in protest of a protest that never came.
Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., had issued a press release saying members planned to picket Monday’s screening of the documentary “The Anatomy of Hate: A Dialogue to Hope,” which had prompted a student-organized counter demonstration. The fact that no one from Westboro showed up wasn’t a surprise to many on hand.
“They get everybody stirred up like this,” said “Anatomy of Hate” director Mike Ramsdell as he stood among the crowd outside Meiley-Swallow Hall before the 7 p.m. screening.
Ramsdell said he has taken his film to about 30 college campuses. While Westboro members had threatened to protest nearly every time, they had yet to actually come, he said.
That hardly seemed to matter to the students, who initially gathered outside Koten Chapel before marching several blocks to Meiley-Swallow singing, chanting and briefly tying up the intersection of Benton Avenue and Brainard Street. Among the messages displayed on signs were “We are North Central. We love.” and “Free hugs.”
“I thought it was standing up for a good cause — against the protesters,” said junior Sal Garza.
With a brother-in-law in the United States Army, Garza said he’s been troubled by Westboro members picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. The church’s representatives have claimed that military deaths are God’s punishment for the country’s acceptance of abortion and homosexuality.
Naperville’s Community United Methodist Church had about 25 members in attendance, including Pat Becker.
“Our family has lots of military, so I find it very objectionable what they’re doing at funerals,” Becker said.
Student organizer Elizabeth Micheletti considered the event a success even though Westboro members failed to show.
“Just to see everyone here is really exhilarating,” she said. “Getting people excited about the love movement that we’re doing is really important.”
Anticipating the lack of anyone to protest against, Micheletti and other organizers decided to also use the gathering as a fundraiser. Student volunteers milled about the crowd with boxes collecting donations for The Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
The crowd dispersed outside Meiley-Swallow Hall by 6:40 p.m. About 250 people filled the theater there while another 150 headed back to Koten Chapel, which had been set up as a secondary screening venue.
Ramsdell, the director, addressed the Meiley-Swallow crowd before the screening. He told the students he didn’t consider the gathering they had organized to be a protest.
“What you guys have done is just celebrate your own thesis,” he said, “which is compassion, which is love.”
The Westboro protesters were also a no-show Saturday night at a Buffalo Grove high school, even though they had threatened to picket a play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. About 100 counter-protesters supporting the play’s message of tolerance did show up, a Buffalo Grove police official told CBS 2.
The Westboro Baptist Church is run largely by family members of its leader, Pastor Fred Phelps Sr.
Westboro classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations. The church is virulently anti-gay, and is known for its slogan, “God hates f*gs.” The church proclaims that “God’s hatred is one of His holy attributes,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Its members also make inflammatory and hostile statements against Jews, Roman Catholics, and other religious groups it deems heretical.
Church members also picket at soldiers’ funerals and claim the soldiers were killed because the United States is accepting of homosexuality.
When members of the Westboro Baptist Church held protests in Chicago last year, they were met with counter-protests from Equality Across America and other groups, some of whom mocked the church with signs reading, “God hates signs,” and “God hates figs.”
— The Naperville Sun contributed to this report, via the Sun-Times Media Wire