By Liz Welch, LGBT Coordinator first appeared at www.FairIsFairMontana.org.
Hate is not a Montana value. Montana families are open and inclusive. Bozeman churches do not want to be associated with hate and negativity. Why then did the Westboro Baptist Church chose Bozeman to show their unique and highly offensive brand of free speech and anti-gay sentiment?
According to an interview with Shirley Phelps on a local radio station, Westboro Baptists (WBC) decided to picket at Montana State University and Bozeman High School because “You offer PhD’s in rebellion against god. You’re those high schools that’s a social club – a way to socially engineer those children into full on …living off rebellion.” (We don’t understand it either.)
Planning a community response to the WBC visit was challenging. First of all, there was absolutely no certainty that they would follow through and show up for a protest. They are notorious for announcing ‘missions’ and then either showing up in town and not protesting or completely abandoning their own call for action in a given city. Second, concerns about the litigious nature of WBC created conversations about what was the safest manner of engagement and the feasibility of creating that in the community. And finally, the community of Bozeman was divided in the response they wanted to present to this group.
Many felt like the best thing to do was to completely ignore the small of amount of protestors they actually brought. The idea that when no one listens to them, then they will stop their attention seeking behavior was echoed multiple times across social media as well as lunch counters in Bozeman. On the other side, there were those who felt like anything short of full engagement was not making a strong statement on the depth of Bozeman’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. There were also ideas of a flash mob of dancing drag performers, a clown brigade, a ‘kiss in,” a drive-by egging, and more. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
Fair is Fair Montana (ACLU of Montana), Montana Human Rights Network, Forward Montana, Montana Organizing Project, the Gallatin Interfaith Alliance, and Associated Students of MSU met with faith leaders, community activists, allied organizations, local merchants, student groups and concerned parents to formulate a response. Over two weeks, the plan for an alternative event to be staged away from the WBC protest took form. Organizers worked diligently from multiple directions to coordinate with campus officials, local law enforcement, media and city departments creating the ‘Ice Cream. You scream. We ALL scream for Equality” event.
Beginning with ‘marshall’ training on Sunday, the allied organizers trained almost 30 local citizens how to effectively lead as peacekeepers in a rally where emotions could have easily spilled over into trouble. All were encouraged to guide people to follow the local laws, watch for potential issues and positively engage the community while guiding them towards the ice cream social through a maze of local traffic. Afterwards, an evening of sign making drew even more people in.
The next day, Monday, September 9th, a rally on campus complete with music, speakers representing local veterans, faith communities, LGBT advocacy groups, a trans rights organization, the Queer Straight Alliance and student government on campus, the rally drew approximately 1500 to the center of MSU – away from the WBC’s own protest. Rally participants then marched a short distance to Cooper Park where ice cream was served by the staff of both Nova Café and Wild Joe’s Coffee House as a gift to the community.
By the time all was said and done, over 1500 scoops of Montana made ice cream were served and more than 700 signatures of support for fairness were signed. Photos of supportive Bozemanites are flowing in. However, the real win in the event was the multiple comments of the community members in support of a celebration of inclusion and fairness. KBZK caught the reactions for their morning newscast.
As one young person commented in the Facebook event, “Felt lots of love today. And I felt safe. That’s a rare thing. Thank all of you wonderful people for making such an event and contrast rally possible. Lots of Love Bozo!”
And isn’t feeling safe and loved a basic human right?