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Both sides of Jefferson City protest: Mission accomplished

Both sides of Jefferson City protest: Mission accomplished

August 20th, 2014 by The News Tribune in News

Counter-protestors engage Rachel Hockenbarger, at left, in conversation on Aug. 19, 2014, during a protest staged in Jefferson City by Westboro Baptist Church.

About a half-dozen Westboro Baptist Church members and about 50 counter-protesters faced off Tuesday at three locations in Jefferson City, with shouting and chanting, but no violence. Both sides said they accomplished what they intended.

Kansas-based Westboro is known for picketing soldiers' funerals and its "God Hates Fags" campaign. They protested near the Capitol, Lincoln University and Jefferson City High School.

"I think we presented a strong counter-message for folks," counter-demonstration organizer Haley Quinn said after the third protest.

Quinn, a 20-year-old Jefferson City native who now attends New York University, organized the counter-protest on Facebook. She said her group wants to send a clear message in response to Westboro.

"They think the people of Ferguson, the people of Missouri, deserve violence," Quinn said. "No one deserves violence; everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities."

Rachel Hockenbarger has been a member of Westboro since she was 12, and said she has been part of its protests since they began 23 years ago.

"The only goal we have is putting the words in the air - before your eyes - so that when you stand before God, you can't say nobody ever told you what the standard of God is on the earth," she said.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the late Westboro founder Fred Phelps, said: "This is about one thing: Jay Nixon and his leading your state down an evil path."

Officers with the Jefferson City Police Department kept a strong presence at all three locations. JCPD assisted the LU Police Department and Capitol Police at their respective locations. Cole County sheriff's deputies also helped keep the peace.

Standing at the corner of U.S. 50 and Broadway Street, Phelps-Roper led her group in holding signs and playing music.

"Your governor was a former attorney general, and he took law enforcement out when he shouldn't have," she said, referring to the protests in Ferguson after an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

"But, this is not about Ferguson," Phelps-Roper added. "What's happening there is just an offshoot of the many evil acts this governor has done since he has been in office, and now it's time to pay the piper."

Phelps-Roper said they don't have plans to go to Ferguson at the moment.

"We've got that Michael Sam issue in St. Louis, so we might also go there after we get done with that," she said. Westboro is known for protesting against homosexuals. Sam, the NFL's first openly gay player, plays for the St. Louis Rams.

Thirty minutes before the Westboro group arrived, another group that protests the actions of President Obama came to the steps of the Capitol to counter-protest against the Westboro group.

Members of Overpasses For America said they didn't agree with Westboro's message of hate.

"We don't support anyone who protests at military funerals," said group leader Michelle Hopper of Holts Summit.

Westboro targeted Lincoln University, saying school officials and students had not tried to stop supporters of homosexual activities.

LU President Kevin Rome wasn't troubled by the protest.

"I believe in the freedom of speech, and they have the right to express their opinions," Rome said. "I think, at a university, we should hear diverse opinions whether we agree with them or not."

Almost 50 members of the pro-peace group gathered along Dunklin Street near Lincoln University and near the roundabout southeast of JCHS. The goal, Quinn said, was to be close enough to the Westboro crowd so that passersby could see both messages, but far enough away to avoid conflict.

Quinn said she didn't want the "Westboro message of hate" to be the only message people saw Tuesday. She was a JCHS student in 2009, the last time Westboro picketed here.

"Jefferson City is my hometown," she said. "I know what we stand for as a community; I know that's not what Westboro stands for."

Quinn acknowledged holding a counter-protest at a time when tensions are high could be an incitement to violence by others not associated with either the Westboro protest or her pro-peace counter protest. And she conceded others have pointed out to her that simply by hosting the counter-protest, it puts Westboro in the spotlight again.

"It's a concern we've heard," she said. "But, at the end of the day, they weren't going to be ignored. They are very good at making a spectacle of themselves. They are very good at drawing attention to themselves."

Neither group probably made much of an impression on the high school students. By the 2:55 p.m. dismissal bell, both groups had dispersed.

Superintendent Brian Mitchell said the JCPD was "awesome."

"I appreciate all their coordination," he said. "This is what a peaceful demonstration is supposed to look like."

The counter-protesters held signs from the goofy - "God Hates Cargo Shorts" - to the sincere - "Grace to All Who Love Lord Jesus Christ."

Steve Thoenen, 39, Jefferson City, called a few friends and arrived at the protests in a clown suit to give the Westboro crowd "nothing but love and humor."

"We love you even if you hate everybody," he said, adding he disagrees with some of Westboro Church's teachings. "Their ignorance is not our bliss."

Other people came to stand in solidarity with protesters in Ferguson.

"I wanted to support peace. There are people all over the state who feel their struggle and what they are going through," said Kelly Quinn, Haley's mother.

Westboro protesters had a boom box that played instrumental versions of pop songs, while they sang made-up lyrics. The counter-protesters held high their cardboard, hand-painted signs of peace and love. Passing vehicles frequently honked their horns in support of the counter-protesters.

Many working nearby came out of their offices to watch the spectacle at the intersection of Broadway Street and Whitton Expressway. They kept their distance, though, using their cell phones to capture the unusual downtown activity.

One of the counter-protesters, Cinthy Wilcox, held up her sign that read: "Atheist for Peace."

"The God they believe in is supposed to be about love, but they believe in hate," said Wilcox, an atheist. She wanted people to see that her group was preaching love and peace. "I like being a part of that," she said.

Linda Landon commended Quinn for organizing the counter-protest, saying people with strong views who don't speak up do a disservice to the community.

"It's good to see young people take up a cause to do something assertive and peaceful - not hating or violent," Landon said.