As I sat in the backseat of my parent’s black Jetta, military police ripped me from my car seat and quickly carried me into my kindergarten classroom. I cried for my mom as she calmly waved and drove away. I was confused by the juxtaposition of my mother’s relaxed demeanor to my blood-curdling yells for her. I don’t remember class that day, but I remember the few-hundred feet of gray concrete feeling like an eternal road with yelling on all sides. At the gates, the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church screamed and picketed.
It was the first day back to school after the airliners hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. I was four years old living on Fort Riley in Kansas–my mother was recently discharged from the army, my father was on active duty. He would often come home after working escort service, attending to the caskets of fallen soldiers, complaining about the Westboro Baptist Church picketing the removal of the caskets from airplanes to be delivered to the soldiers’ funerals with signs such as “God Hates America.” The sight of their signs and sound of their screams would terrify me as we left the fort gates to go to different cities.
When my parents separated and I left Kansas is the summer of 2002, I thought I would never see that level of hate again–especially in California. On Monday, Nov. 12, that idyllic harmony was shattered.
With my camera in the passenger seat, I pulled over on First Street in Claremont to witness the Westboro Baptist Church’s protest against queer education classes at Claremont High School and Pomona College. Cautiously, I crept over to the opposite corner and attached my 70-300mm lens to begin shooting. I could hear the protestors singing parodies of popular gay-culture songs. They sang to Macklemore’s “Same Love,” but instead of Mary Lambert singing “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to,” they sang “You can change, you can try, you just have to want to.” Two women stood front and center, proudly carrying four double-sided signs each. One wore a jacket with the church’s website, godhatesfags.com, on the front and three flags wrapped around her waist–an upside down American flag, an upside down rainbow flag and the flag of Israel. She vehemently yelled, sang to their songs and shook her signs at passing cars.
Soon, I noticed that what I thought was a large anti-gay protest, was really about 12 people surrounded on either side by pro-gay counter-protesters. I saw other press photographers and felt that it was safe to get closer. I stood with the pro-gay protesters, shooting from their side of the demonstration, wary of the violence I associated with the Westboro Baptist Church as a child. I had told my parents the night before what I was going to do the following morning, and they made me promise not to get too close.
At first, I stood with a group of about eight students and Claremont residents with pro-gay rights signs. Soon, a young black man wearing a rainbow tie brought a speaker and played disco music. Quickly after, more students began to gather with signs of their own and glitter painted on their faces. A young woman, bald with a masculine look, rode up on her bike to greet her girlfriend with a kiss, shocking the anti-gay protesters. Then a man with a wagon full of donuts and coffee walked through the gaggle of anti-gay protesters who stared at the food and thought it was for them until he continued to walk to the other side of the street where he flipped down the sign on his wagon to reveal his message, “God loves everyone.”
As the time reached 7:50 a.m., five minutes passed their scheduled protest, the group of Westboro Baptist Church protestors walked to their cars as their counterparts ate donuts, drank coffee, and performed to the Village People’s “YMCA,” triumphantly waving goodbye.
What really resonated with me after this event, was speaking to an older woman, Claremont resident Rose Ash. She carried a poster with “Love Triumphs” written in pink marker. I asked her why she showed up to a counter-protest at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning that mostly young people were at.
She replied, “A basic principle of mine is to bare witness to evil and hate. I believe strongly that when you see it, you must take action. Evil has come to my town and I’m here to witness it and tell it to go away.”