How to handle hate when it comes to town

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on October 2, 2019. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Hate is coming to town. Local law enforcement has received notification that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is planning three protests at places of worship in Colorado Springs on Sunday, October 13. The next day, singled out, is a planned protest at Manitou Springs High School, on Monday, October 14, at 7:35 a.m.

How our community handles hate-in-human-form matters. There’s never been a better time for public leadership, to show that they picked the wrong town and the wrong day to spread their gospel of hate.

Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas—which has no official relationship with the Baptist faith—has been publicly condemning others for decades. They pretty much hate everyone, and have amassed quite a resume of repugnancy in their picket signs and online that would shock just about anyone’s conscience: celebrating childrens’ deaths in the Sandy Hook school shooting, reveling in the Holocaust, cheering on the news of the Orlando nightclub shooting, clapping at the passing of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, loving the destruction wrought by AIDS, not to mention that they’re Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and hate homosexual people of every kind. They famously disturb military funerals, provoking the families of fallen soldiers, whose lone wish is to say goodbye to their son or daughter in peace. The Westboro Baptist Church is essentially a few dozen people that hate humanity.

I find their behavior abhorrent. But now isn’t the time to let personal feelings hold sway. Now is the time for public leadership and a strategic response. Westboro visited the Front Range last year, a target well within a day’s drive for them, and unless we want to be victimized annually, it’s time to think hard about our next steps.

Several strategies hold promise. The first thought is to create a counter-protest, the aim to convince them to leave, feel unwelcome, and never come back again. This option fights fire with fire.

The drawback here, of course, is that this is how verbal terrorists like Westboro win. They’re too small and insignificant to make an impact on their own, so they rely on public provocation to instigate overreaction in the rest of us to draw attention to their ugly messages.

Which leads respondents, often, to a strategy of non-engagement. The Manitou Springs school superintendent has pointed out that “with previous WBC protests, the best strategy has been to ignore them, which brings less attention to them and ends up being the least disruptive.” This is the fire’s-so-small-so-let-it-burn-out approach, and it has its merits, especially when you consider that a dozen or so onsite protesters really isn’t going to do much except, as the Manitou superintendent pointed out, “hold large signs and yell at passerby (of all ages).”

The issue with this option, of course, is that pretending the ugliness doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. Silence in response may not be consent, but it would be a form of acquiescence. The news will still have to cover them. We can do better than that.

Because there’s yet another way to fight fire—with water. Drown their hate with hope. I know that sounds hokey, but hear me out.

Arguably the greatest gift Americans ever received was our First Amendment, the right to a public voice. So let our civic leadership declare “First Amendment Day” in Colorado Springs on October 13, 2019, and in Manitou Springs on October 14, 2019. Let the mayors, in consultation with other key public and private stakeholders, invite everyone who cares about an issue—any issue—to come and gather, peacefully and politely, to stand in support of the First Amendment at the locations Westboro plans to visit.

Admittedly, this is risky. You can see how it might go wrong. Or how it might seem to some like obstructing the Westboro protesters’ right to free speech.

But this option isn’t exactly a counter-protest against Westboro’s hateful messages. It’s really a rally in support of our First Amendment rights that demonstrates how many of us in this community care about issues and other people.

Westboro’s haters will number about a dozen. If our community can muster a hundred or a thousand (or more) it’ll be so many voices that the news will be forced to cover these events not as a place of hate but a celebration of democracy. Our schoolkids might not even notice the ugly signs, but instead they’ll get a real-live, first-class clinic in our Constitution. It’d be a lesson they’d never forget.

But only if our civic leadership coordinates and moves fast. Opportunities like this don’t come often—on a federal holiday, no less, with many more potential supporters available on a day off—our community should have something to say when hate comes to town.

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