Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Protestors Turn Pennies into a Movement

Listen to full audio here.

On March 3rd of this year, Westboro Baptist Church members drove their blue Cadillac up to the Holocaust Museum. They waved posters that said “God Hates Fags” and sang traditional Jewish hymns laced with anti-Semitic lyrics. Patience Delgado, Sara Heifetz, Jessica Lucia and Sarah Allen-Short were in the crowd but they weren’t yelling back. They had already raised thousands of dollars for the four groups Westboro Baptist Church, or the WBC, would protest that day.

Their plan started on the internet. The four friends were on Facebook and Twitter the Thursday night before the WBC planned to protest Hermitage High School (which has a Gay-Straight Alliance), the Holocaust Museum, the Jewish Community Center, and the Jerusalem Connection. Lucia said they felt the group was infringing on their community.

“All of us were feeling very heartsick about this, about the cruelty and the hatred being spewed against people because of who they are in terms of spirituality or who they are in terms of their sexual orientation,” she said.

They knew they wanted to do something. But Lucia said they were like many Richmonders who struggled with exactly what to do.

Westboro has won lawsuits against counter-protestors who have physically confronted them and their protests regularly arouse yelling dissenters whose slurs the WBC seems to feed on. During their protests last March, they laughed and one WBC member wiped her bottom with the American flag after counter-protestors began shouting at them. Heifetz, who has been an activist for many years, said direct confrontation was never on the table .

“Coming from someone who used to scream in the streets, there is a place for that but it’s not always the most productive," she said.

That night, Lucia said Heifetz shared a story about her friend who was part of a synagogue in New York City that raised 10,000 dollars when the WBC visited. They encouraged people to pledge money for every minute Westboro was protesting. Heifetz said that idea clicked with all of them.

“It’s violating and disempowering when you have such hatred come into your community and this is a way to take back the power in a constructive, beautiful way,” she said.

They said in the first four minutes after they posted their plan on Twitter, it reached 10,000 people through their own posts and others re-tweeting it. Delgado said Richmond was ready for some way to channel their angst about the WBC coming.

“Because from the second it was out there it went like wild fire, it didn’t take any time at all,” she said.

Allen-Short set up a Chip In page on the internet to make it easy to collect funds. Lucia said they began spreading the word around preschool playgrounds and through Facebook and twitter, hoping to use people’s outrage to generate funds.

“I think our pie in the sky dream was like a thousand dollars that we could raise and donate to these groups that had been targeted,” she said.

They raised more than 14,000 dollars in the week they had the Chip In page open. Heifetz said raising funds was just a vehicle for people to do something.

“It wasn’t about the money or how much we raised it was about people taking the disempowerment they felt and take the hatred they felt towards the WBC because that’s also a negative thing that no one talked about that can cripple and hurt and injure the consciousness of a community,” she said.

But Lucia said she thinks the amount of money did talk.

“Money is a really powerful symbol in our society and the act of donating your money, your material wealth is something that is really important to people,” she said.

The money went to all the groups protested against plus money was given to the Fan Free Clinic, ROSMY, the Gay Community Center of Richmond and others in Pennies in Protest’s name. The Holocaust Museum plans to put up a plaque in their honor. Allen-Short said she had some ideas about what the inscription could be.

“I almost wish in the Holocaust Museum when they asked to put up a plaque it could say, Westboro donated 4,000 dollars,” she said.

They wrote their own thank you note to the WBC thanking them for the role they played in fundraising and uniting Richmond because Allen-Short said they are good southern girls.

She said because there was a consensus the WBC was wrong, unlike a political party or the war in Iraq, it took less prodding to get people to help them make a statement.

“We had like Republicans and Democrats and Black and White and Jewish and Christian and Gay and Straight could rally behind this," Allen-Short said. "I mean, all the other things that we’re talking about that you might be an activist for, there’s not usually going to be that much common ground. They really gave us something to rally around.”

Beyond the inflammatory message of the WBC, Delgado said their idea caught fire because the city was ready to unite, something she hadn’t really thought was possible before.

“I thought about our city in a new way," she said. "I think I’ve always attached this idea in my head that we’re divided about so many things because of our history and we love our history here.”

In the middle of their scramble to organize, a local web design firm Quirky Bites offered them a website. They didn’t know what they could do with one but after being bombarded with about a hundred e-mails a week, they launched their website in July to show step-by-step how to launch a protest like their's.

“We’ve set it up there," Heifetz said. "We’ve released it out into the world. It doesn’t need to be us doing the actual leg work.”

They said people in the community have asked about their next step. But Lucia said they never planned to become a non-profit and their final step was to release their method for others to use when they need it.

"One of the things we took away is anyone can do this," she said. "Because so many people are ready to answer a call and anyone can issue that call.”

The group has gotten a lot of national attention since their protest. Allen-Short said it isn’t because of what they did exactly but because of where and who they are.

"Because everyone thinks of Richmond as this little backwards southern town and we are four little moms who bake cookies all day,” she said.

But the group has spawned Pennies in Protests in a few other cities and they still get messages several times a week from throughout the country. Recently, when a pastor in Florida threatened to burn Korans on September 11th, Allen-Short said she got an influx of emails.

“So it seems to be that, you know people are thinking Pennies in Protest when religious fundamentalists are doing crazy things," she said.

On September 26th, the WBC headed back to Richmond to protest three churches and VCU. But Pennies in Protest decided to opt out. Heifetz said it wasn’t their fight this time.

“It doesn’t have that same negative energy and that same urgency when they were first coming because we already won that battle,” she said.

Even though the four of them have taken a break from grass roots organizing, Allen-Short, who has been part of political campaigns and protests, said there is something to their method of protesting.

“It’s so hard to see change and this was such a small, tangible community effort that took place in a week, this was the first thing I’ve done that I felt like I made a difference,” she said.

And through their website, they hope they are making it easier for others to make a lot of little changes.

-Caroline Jackson

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