When a handful of members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church decided to leave their picketing of Grady High School in Midtown Atlanta late this afternoon, hundreds of students and activists participating in a counter demonstration swarmed after them.
No one was hurt during the spontaneous rushing of people into the streets on 10th Street and Charles Allen Drive at Piedmont Park, across the street from the high school. After the seven WBC members, including two young children, left the school in their vehicles with police security around them, the hundreds of people carrying such signs as “Acceptance, Tolerance, Love” and “Proud to be Gay” stayed in the streets and then along the sidewalks near Piedmont Park, cheering as honking motorists passed by.
“It really makes you feel good and it makes you feel that people actually care about you and how many people care,” Max Kocsisszucs, a gay 10th grader at Grady, said of the show of support.
As for the signs the WBC members were holding, including, “Fags are Beasts” and “Gods Hates Fag Enablers,” Kocsisszucs said their message did not bother him.
“Honestly, I didn’t let it get to me. I figure they are insecure or something and they feel they have to take it out on us,” he said.
Organized by Grady student Becca Daniels, the counter demonstration to WBC was discussed in the school all week by students and teachers with teachers encouraging students to be peaceful, Kocsisszucs said.
Rex Peterson, a freshman at Grady, was holding hands with his boyfriend, R. Leon, a sophomore at North Atlanta High School.
“I’m really glad a lot of people came out. It’s a good cause,” Peterson said.
As for what WBC was preaching across the street and the signs they were holding, he said, “It’s kind of annoying looking at it. That’s just stupid, not the truth.”
Leon said a group of friends from North Atlanta gathered in a big truck to come to the counter demonstration.
“You see there are people against you, but it’s good to see how many more people support you,” he said.
‘Typical high school in doomed America’?
The Topeka, Kan.-based WBC, led by Pastor Fred Phelps, is made up mostly of family members. Fred Phelps was not in Atlanta for the protests his church held at numerous Jewish sites and high schools yesterday and today.
His daughter, Rebecca Phelps-Davis, said Grady High School was targeted because it is a “typical high school in doomed America where the children since the time they were old enough to know anything were told that God is a liar.”
“Because they’ve been taught that it’s OK to be gay and that God loves everyone,” Phelps-Davis said. “And these are the same children who will be sent to the killing field in Iraq where they will find out that God is the number one enemy of this nation.”
Westboro Baptist Church has also routinely protested the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They have no moral compass to guide them,” she said of the Grady students. “And they are sent to Iraq where God is killing young men and women because of the sins of this nation because they rejected the word of God.”
The hundreds of people who showed up to counter protest the Phelps clan did not intimidate Phelps-Davis and her family members, she said.
“This is typical of what we see across America. Sometimes there are more, sometimes there are few. It certainly gives them the opportunity the see the truth of God … through the words that are on our signs,” she said.
Phelps-Davis said she knew that many of the counter-protests are also used as fundraisers for gay organizations. Grady High School said the school would be raising funds for AID Atlanta and the Human Rights Campaign as well as Jerusalem House. Several people were walking around with orange buckets collecting money from people.
“Everywhere we go people think they have this new and unique plan to raise money presumably,” Phelps-Davis said. “What I say is if they are going to do that there, if this is what their cause is, they should never have to do more than one of those — they should make so much money and never have to do it again … because if you are dedicated to a cause, you need to show you are dedicated to a cause. Let them do it,” she said with a shrug.
The signs WBC uses, most notably “God Hates Fags,” are hate-filled messages and have nothing to do with the word of God, said Maura Neivhardt, a Georgia State University student.
“We’re here to let Jesus be known who he really is. He is not about hate but about redemption. That’s not God,” she said near the Charles Allen entrance to Piedmont Park, pointing across the street to where WBC members stood.
Kate O’Rourke of Gwinnett County said WBC members’ interpretation of the Bible is “completely false.”
“This is absolutely not what Jesus Christ is about,” she said. “The Bible does not say homosexuality will keep you out of heaven specifically. It says if you are redeemed by the blood of Christ nothing can separate you.”
‘The future is not with them, the future is with us’
While there was a serious undertone for many to try to dispel WBC’s anti-gay, anti-Semitic speech, the counter protest was also one of celebrating togetherness — and also an exercise for young people to see and participate in a mass show of support for the targeted communities.
The fact young people were behind the counter demonstration was an inspiration for gay Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan, who helped Becca Daniels figure out logistics to set up alongside Piedmont Park.
While Grady High School is in his district, Wan said he wanted to be at the demonstration to show his support of young people stepping up to the plate and taking a stand.
“To me, the fact the students of Grady High School wanted to do a peaceful, very positive demonstration — I personally wanted to do it but also wanted to support the school,” he said.
“It means more to me as a member of the GLBT community. We come together, we will counter demonstrate and protest and march, but is rare we get so many people to come out, especially young people, and support and make statements on our behalf,” he added.
“I’m just really proud. I’m astonished at the awareness these high school students have. It gives me faith and inspiration that we as a society are continuing to move forward on the spectrum of equality. I’m encouraged,” Wan said.
Tracy Elliott, executive director of AID Atlanta, was also on hand and said he was inspired by the young people’s response as well.
“The important thing is all these people are here to show Atlanta is a tolerant community … especially all these young people,” he said. “The future is not with [WBC], the future is with us.”
At about 4 p.m., police forced the large crowd to evacuate the Charles Allen entrance and move down the street toward Monroe Drive because of a “suspicious package” left under a tree.
After more than a half-hour and with a helicopter overhead and the bomb squad on the scene at the park, a Grady High School student strolled up to police saying he left his black messenger bag under a tree. Police gave him the bag and after asking a few questions he was allowed to leave with it.
Daniel Gilstrap, a Grady sophomore who attended the counter-protest, said he was embarrassed and was told that the whole protest was moved because of his bag. He also showed nothing was in his bag besides some papers with stand-up writing and a ruler. He’s a budding comedian, he said.
But being at the protest was something he took seriously, he added.
“What they [Westboro Baptist Church] are doing is wrong. Somehow they have to get the message and I knew me and some of my friends could be here because some others couldn’t,” he said.
Check out our video coverage below:
Photo: Acceptance, Tolerance & Love founder and organizer Becca Daniels (By Ryan Watkins)