I had some unfortunate encounters with the Westboro Baptist Church in the early 2000’s, and America’s current election tragically parallels those encounters.
Westboro successfully depended on press reports for its introduction to the world. I became the Nebraska State Captain of the Patriot Guard, an organization created largely because of Westboro’s activities. My first encounter with Westboro was enough to teach me what they were about. As a biker, I attended the funeral of a fallen soldier. At the time, our Run For The Wall (RFTW) organization in Nebraska had an excellent relationship with local law enforcement in Omaha, Nebraska. This funeral, however, was outside Omaha. I arrived at the funeral service and was immediately escorted to a place two blocks away from the church by the local police. There, I caught sight of Westboro for the first time.
Westboro people held signs saying that all bikers are homosexuals, that the only good soldier is a dead soldier, etc. That alone was a shock to me, but more shock was on the way. Riders from across the state had assembled to attend the funeral service. The streets were ice-covered at the time; everyone had driven cars. All people wearing ‘biker gear’ were escorted by local police to a spot directly across the street from the Westboro protestors. No leadership was present for the motorcyclists who wanted to honor the fallen soldier, but as the leader of Nebraska’s RFTW effort, I saw an immediate need for leadership and stepped in.
The potential for conflict was high. One of the bikers came to me and asked when we’d be “doing something.” I asked what he meant, and he told me the lead-lined gloves he was wearing were hot and heavy, but that he’d keep them on if we were going to pound the heck out of the protestors soon. I immediately assembled the various club members and riders and told them to put away any and all weapons. Bikers are known for direct physical communication, so there were some grumbles from the group, but they complied. I was shocked at how many bikers left the impromptu meeting briefly, went to their cars and then came back.
I then told the meeting that our purpose for this sad event was to honor the fallen soldier and cause his family no more pain than they had already suffered, and our watchword would be “What protestors?” More grumbles from the group, but again they complied.
Bikers, contrary to public perception, are often capable of independent and rational thought. The group came up with a plan. We would stand assembled in front of the protestors holding American flags so that when the bereaved family drove past with the soldier’s hearse, they would hopefully see that they and their son were being honored, not reviled.
We even practiced a bit. I got a volunteer biker to stand in front of the assembled meeting holding a flag, stood behind him and called him every name in the book using Westboro slogans. My volunteer stood fast through my shouted insults and didn’t twitch. I shook his hand and thanked him, ignoring the look in his eyes that said he would soon find me in a dark alley and enjoy killing me (FYI, I’m still alive.)
Before we executed our new plan, I walked across the street and introduced myself to one of the protestors, who told me the Westboro group was there “to support the family.” Not a surprise, but when I turned around, I realized that six of the local police squad members had followed me, hands on weapons, ready to act. Oops.
To their credit, our group stood in a locked line of American flags, endured the horrible shouts from behind us, and made sure the family saw a solid display of stars and stripes as the funeral procession passed. Although many of my biker Brothers held their heads in their hands while they swore profusely when we had coffee at a local restaurant after the funeral, not one had budged from our line of honor; not one had replied to a single insult. Our watchword of “What Protestors?” had held.
The point? Westboro made it clear in that encounter and many other subsequent events that they considered any press coverage to be good press coverage. They said outrageous things while concealing their real purpose of inciting riots to make money from civil suits. With calm resolve, a bunch of leather-clad badass bikers with chains hanging from everywhere and veteran patches on their vests telling where they were when thousands died had simply decided not to take the Westboro bait.
Any press is good press. That idea is being used by both of our presidential candidates. Successfully. America needs information to decide on its next president, but what America is getting is a constant feed of who made what outrageous statement last. Sadly, this looks as if it will continue until votes are cast.
America will not know what our candidates’ policies are until after the election. Our press has abandoned reporting in favor of ratings, and our candidates have responded by engaging in an accusatory shouting match that will not end. America will elect a Westboro Trump (“They’re rapists, they’re murderers,) or a Westboro Clinton (calls Wall Street ‘bad’ and refuses to reveal what she said to get a quarter-million dollars from them,) and only after the fact will we know where either of them stands. Meanwhile, we’ll hear about who is in the pocket of Wall Street and Big Oil; who is determined to dump NATO and eliminate our Hispanic population.
We can shout insults at each other across the divide that separates us. We can be egged on by the sensational press to turn America into a nation at war with itself.
Or, we can walk across the street and introduce ourselves to the opposing side, knowing that a democracy has room for differing opinions – even opinions we do not respect. We as Americans can demand to know the people we’re about to vote for, but only if we’re willing to consider the other point of view - regardless of how stupid we think that point of view may be.
Introduce yourself to those who don’t agree with you, America. Listen to what they have to say. Understand what they shout about and don’t shout back at them. That is the practical application of democracy.