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Four members of Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Richmond yesterday as part of a statewide picketing sweep to spread their anti-gay and anti-Jewish message. The group is known for their website godhatesfags.com and shocked many when they picketed funerals of U.S. soldiers.
Their first stop in Richmond was the Holocaust Museum where about 400 people gathered to meet them in what was a mostly silent protest.
Jay Ipson a holocaust survivor and president of the Holocaust Museum says he first heard the group was coming to Richmond a couple of weeks ago when he began getting what he describes as hateful late night faxes from the WBC. Ipson planned to invite the group into the museum to educate them. They declined yesterday but he did get his chance to address the four members of the WBC, one of which was an 11 year old boy carrying a poster that said God Hates Jews. He says:
“They are just like talking to a bunch of robots or zombies. They have line to say, they use that line. If you try to talk to them about anything else they don’t know what to say to you.”
Still, Ipson believes the picketing became a site of unification for many different groups. An imam, preachers and rabbis gathered in the museums’ auditorium before the protest and Ipson says this coalition standing shoulder to shoulder against hate sent a powerful message.
“Overall I think it was a fantastic lesson in love. I think the people that come out here did not come out here to fight with them they just wanted to tell they don’t believe in what those people stand for. And I think being silent and listening to the abuse they were throwing at us, I think we proved that point.”
Jay Squires, executive director of the Gay Community Center of Richmond who helped organize the Anti-Hate Rally described the counter protest at the Holocaust Museum as the best organized and most effective protest he has seen in a long time. He says:
“So many people of good faith in Richmond came together to show that we’re not going to tolerate the sort of hate that Westboro was spewing.”
Next, the WBC picketed the Jerusalem Connection on Midlothian Turnpike where 20-30 counter protestors caravanned to meet them. The scene was lively with dozens of posters and music blaring out of one protestor’s backpack. Bob Miller followed the WBC yesterday and said he has also counter protested when WBC picketed military funerals in Arlington, Virginia. He says:
“I can’t believe that there’s that much hate and bigotry. I pretty much support free speech but there’s got to be a limit. I mean, just like these people use their message to create hatred and they look to create a condition where people will react.”
As the WBC members were piling their posters into a shiny blue Cadillac Sedan, some counter protestors followed them. A female member of the WBC wiped her nose with the American flag as counter protestors told her to get out of the US if she didn’t like it, called her obscenities and asked her if she was saved. But that was a blip on the mostly peaceful day.
Many counter protestors from the Holocaust Museum reconvened at the Anti-Hate Rally in the VCU Commons as WBC members headed to U of R’s Hillel and later to Hermitage High Schoo. Speakers from ROSMY, which provides assistance to LGBT youth age 14-20, and VCU’s Hillel addressed the crowd.
Ann Harrison of ROSMY declared the day a success saying,
“I want to thank all of you for having the courage to stand up against that hate. And I’ll tell you, we are the people that are changing the world and I thank all of you for what you are doing.”