By Katherine Owen and Ryan Phillips
The Westboro Baptist Church, a religious group from Topeka, Kans., known for its extremist ideologies, led a picket on the University of Alabama campus Saturday, May 18, to remind Tuscaloosa residents of their message that the tornado of April 27, 2011 was a sign of the “wrath of God.”
The members of the WBC showed up, signs in hand, at noon and protested until 12:30 p.m. However, they were met with the noise of the opposing protesters and motorcycle engines as riders continuously circled the area until the picket ended.
Counter-protesters lined barricades along Hackberry Lane with signs that read “hug it out,” “look away” and “freak show.”
Ken Partridge Jr., a Birmingham native, attended the counter-protest, which UA designated to the Gallalee Hall parking lot.
“I was glad people came, period,” Partridge said. “This proves that it is alright so long as a protest is done nonviolently and in an organized way—to counter freedom of speech with freedom of speech is great.”
Additionally, students and community members also gathered at Canterbury Chapel for a silent protest organized by UA students Tyler Richards and Cassandra Kaplan with a Facebook group, The Silent Tide.
“This morning we had 129 confirmed attendees,” Kaplan said. “One of the reasons we wanted to do the silent protest was because WBC is known for spewing their hate and yelling—we wanted to do something different that still had the same impact.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the WBC present for Saturday’s protest, said they felt undeterred by the opposition.
“Our medium is a visual medium,” she said. “You can make all that noise, you can make the ground shake — all you do is make everyone look over at the scene.”
Listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group,” the WBC has garnered national attention for picketing celebrity and military funerals, public events and various locations and schools.
In a May 6 interview with The Crimson White, Margie Phelps, a member of the WBC, said they believe the tornado was prompted by the sins of Tuscaloosa residents, such as “fornication, adultery, sodomy, idolatry, greed and murder.”
“Our message was roundly rejected, but it was received,” Phelps-Roper said. “They have received the word. They’ll stand before God in judgment.”
Kristen Loney, a UA student, said she was taken aback by the WBC message but feels that their message had no negative impact on the community.
“I think that they’re crazy,” she said. “They are protesting the tornado and homosexuality, but, in essence, the tornado brought the people of this town and state together.”