Last January 11th there was word that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church intended to picket NBA home game of the Portland Trail Blazers, over their support of Lesbian Gay Bixesual & Trasgender equal rights. They were heading to the Moda Center, former Rose City Garden and home of the Blazers, to be met by a counter protest of activist groups lead by the LGBT organizations under the title "Westboro Baptist Dance Party!".
There has been rivers of ink and pixels published about the shortcomings of the ideology behind the Westboro Baptist Church. Their extremist message is based on a very crude and primitive brand of Christian Baptist, they despise any other form of religions, Christians or not. Specially, they oppose the acceptance of LGBT community rights in any possible form, beyond any human law they claim that "all will burn in hell for eternity", and view gays as “sinners that will bring doom to America”.
Their choice of protest has been picketing funerals of fallen soldiers, and other events, their most renown slogan, and I crinch every time at the act of typing it, "Good hates F@gs". The more outrageous their picketing is, the more publicity this small group gets. That day was the NBA and brought signs that read "f@g NBA". On the other side, there was the display of fabulousness and color of your average Gay Day parade, witty sings, lots of humor, last but not least, there was going to be a DJ tent with lights and powerful audio system for a electronic music that would further quiet the Westboro voices. Portland is proud of their gay tradition, and like San Francisco or Seattle, there is very strong grass roots support for Marriage Equality.
It was a no brainer, I had an event to shoot that evening not to far from there, packed my gear with a few extra memory cards and enough batteries to light a small town, and got to work.
What I saw would shock me a bit, one thing is the reports on the press and on TV, another was to look at the eyes of the WBC members, how proudly they hold their signs, how they wear their hate. That night they were to be out-witted, mocked, and a bit humiliated, as they were forced out early by an overwhelming counter protest composed by equal right activist from all kinds of walks of life, race backgrounds, and sexual orientation. The act was framed as “love vs. hate” and had the blessings of the Moda Center as well as all the proper permits with the Portland Police.
At times the “love side” showed a less loving attitude, voicing their resentment to the WBC, an organization that hides behind some the most obscure passages of the bible's old testament, to insult and shame various groups of poeple. There were no incidents. It was a square off of two non-violent organizations. As awful their message may be, the Westboro Church does condemn physical violence.
I was shooting away in the assembly area, my fx had a Tokina 16-28 mm , and kept a 50 mm 1.4 for close in portraits on my D300 Dx, trying to catch as much of the color of the counter protest as possible. After some time and there were doubts on whether the WBC would make good on their threats of picketing the event, then suddenly somebody shouted "there they come!". The "Westboro Baptist Dance Party " contingent moved down to meet their counterparts, about a couple dozen of them holding their signs high with defying smiles. The crowd swarmed in around them and the "battle" started, rhetorically speaking, obviously.
It was a circus what swarmed the WBC. There was chanting, dancing, costumes, mocking signs like "God hate figs", or a guy in his underwear showing "god hates pants", to insults question the WBC intelligence, messages of love, “love is stronger than hate”, “jesus is love”, "God loves all of us, even you", also a similar sign adding “... even @ssh0les like...”. Others matched the WBC with their own quotes from the bible about love and tolerance. My favorite, the personal message from a veteran " I served to protect your hate speech", followed by an "=" symbol of equality. Later, I learned, that he met the WBC for the first time sometime ago, when they picketed the funeral of his friend, fallen dead serving his country.
I rushed to meet them before they were totally surrounded, I wanted to get some close portraits before anything happened, I had to be quick as the action unfolded quite fast. The WBC was starting to take their rhetorical beating from a very close range, they tried to appear dignified, stoic, resolute in their self assigned moral high ground, some even smiled at my camera.
It really puzzles me deeply how a small group of people can justify their religious identity out of just the discrimination of roughly the rest of the World, and what goes on into making such a narrow views. This is one golden age of advancement, for science, travel and communications, it has never been easier to see other cultures, and learn new languages, did I mention travel? Can’t there be slightest leak of curiosity? Can you really shut the doors of thought and seal them like that in a country were information flows so freely? I mean, this is not North Korea, Who are these people?
I didn’t have much expectations beyond the repeated stereotypes published in the media, white, middle class, suburban southern Christians. I wanted to go with an open mind, or better said, with a blank mind, minding my technique, flowing the action and letting the camera do the work.
It was shocking to see that the Westboro Baptist Church members were so forgetably average, message asside. They looked like people who say good afternoon at the grocery store, and refer to people as Mrs, Mr or Miss, they bake cookies to take to work, work incessantly in their yards, and chat sports in the line of the home depot, then pack up their things in their SUBs that are not even american made.
What I encountered was families, dads, mothers, grandparents. What made me feel sick to the stomach, were that they had their kids, from elementary school age to teenagers, all of them holding the most heinous signs. Children who haven’t experienced life at all, displaying signs with “God hates F@gs”, “F@g NBA”, “you are going to hell”. One kid held a pictogram of to men having sex, one on his knees and the other standing up right behind him. Quite an upbringing you may say, and we might argue, isn't that what they do in dictatorships and theocracies show them the enemy and teach them to hate? yes, that is exactly the problem, they don't have a choice, here we are suppossed to have one... in theory.
I do not have kids, even that way, it was really hard to grasp why parents had put this kids on the line under such pretext and pressured them in keeping their signs up. This infants were obviously scared and oblivious to what was really going on. They are not capable to understand what was that crowd so passionately reprieving them for.
Are they really trying to scare them silly from the outside world, present the idea of a corrupted hostile society resentful of their family “high values”? Is this Fear of the unknown a way to undercut curiosity and furthering mind control? That would make sense, communication in this age have got so sophisticated in both facilitating it, as well as to create enough miss conceptions and noise, to create a complete parallel reality. A faux reality designed to destroy the ability to relate to the outside, that is the most effective way of isolating an individual and the most successful tool used in any cult.
Even with all that non PC, ther is a great degree of self policing, as the energy grew more intense, it is the counter protesters who were voicing “com’on, mind the kids! ”, obviously their parents weren’t minding them much as they put them in place. I can’t believe this is not a case for a child services call, those seem to be only reserved for the poorer classes.
Having lived in different countries, as I have, I have seen my fair amount of bigotry, have been confronted by skinheads, been reminded by the occasional cab driver about who is “them” and who is “us”, and had my share of listening to old people regurgitate their list of prejudices in the privacy of a cup of coffee or tea. But this was different, no drunken or drugged up youth, no disgruntled unemployed protest, or low wage worker complaining about unfair competition. This was way different.
There are two story lines running here, one where every thing is very peacefull and the police does not even make an attempt to make distances between the sides, as there is no need to intervene. The second is as violent as the ideas colliding, psycollogically is absolute murder, frankly it couldn't be more polarized sides, it's a rhetorical bloodshed but nobody is raising a hand on anybody, it’s more like number of the 1967 musical “Hair”, than a scene of 2014's "Noah".
The festival sorrounding the protesters kept going, there was Marvel comic hero Thor holding a sign “Thor hates figs”, a random sign "I love Tina Faye", the disbelieve of one man asking a WBC member "why do you this, man?". The circus played all their acts, edgy at times, with couples showing their affection in front of everybody, men-on-men and women-on-women kissing, some of them are wearing scandalous clothing, allow me to say, sexy. The noise is all around, and the sign bearers got all mixed in a water-oil type of way for a hot minute, and although both demonstrations are on each others faces, nobody was touching anybody, physically respecfull but intellectually agressive.
At the highest point in the protest, a group got in front of the WBC demonstrators, covered them from the passing public with big black signs that said "nothing to see" and even "je, suis Charlie", hiding them from the rest of the passers by, the WBC have been buried and made irrelevant. In that light, the group decided to move to a different spot, and were followed by the a chanting parade at that point singing “Let’s go Blazers!”. They double stepped, as to not say they had started running, followed by the Love Coalition with all their fanfare.
There was some level of shoveling signs from one to others, nothing really, just a hand trying to put down the other guy’s sign, it didn't matter who started, shouts of "don't touch them" to kept the peace, and both sides kept the civility, other than the “no prisoners” idiologic war being waged, police monitored closely, but did not get in the middle, as a matter of fact, the police work was nearly perfect.
Visibly frustrated, angry, and tired, the WBC had enough and hastly reached the parking lot and proceeded to leave, accompanied by a crowd singing the old classic by Steam “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to complete the rout. A few counter protesters got in the way of slow moving cars and SUBs refusing to move, WBC members were mostly patient, except for one who went ahead and threw the car onwards a protestor who was timely pulled away (see picture) by a fellow protestor. That was the only reportable incident of the evening.
The counter protesters left feeling the city had spoken, there is a sense of victory, the evil forces have indeed been defeated, my friend Miguel said “I’d thought they’d give a bit more of a fight”, rethorically speaking obviously. The Portland police masterfully steered the counter protest safely to the designated party tent, where everything is ready for kick off. The music is loud, there are colorful lights, and even a flare is allowed to festibly smoke out the plaza, it’s cold and a light rain is coming down, but it’s time to celebrate, and nobody in this crowd can’t say no to a good dance party.
And the Portland Trail Blazers? They won that night in what is turning to be a record seting season. Me? I worked a second shift at one of my favorite client's employe holiday party, then got my chance to raise my glass many hours later with a made in Portland, Burnside six year oak aged bourbon in to the very wee hours.