A handful of followers of Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps came from Kansas to Pittsburgh May 3 to protest outside Heinz Hall during a public memorial service for television personality Fred Rogers.
Phelps, the Topeka minister who gained notoriety for picketing and shouting antigay epithets during the funeral of gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard, did not attend the protest. The six to eight protesters outside Heinz Hall included an 8-year-old girl carrying a torn American flag.
Prior to the May 3 service, Phelps’ Web site—www.godhatesfags.com—posted defamatory remarks about Rogers, as well as about Esther Barazzone, president of Chatham College. Phelps has charged that the college is a hotbed of lesbianism, and called Rogers a “little wussy” for failing to speak out against homosexuality on his long-running TV show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
Although the large and vocal protest promised by Phelps failed to materialize, a counter-protest organized by Pittsburgher Brad McNaughton resulted in more than $5,000 being pledged to Shepherd Wellness Community.
McNaughton, a staff member of the Pitt Men’s Study at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, said he learned about the protest planned by Phelps just a week before the memorial for Rogers was set to take place. Through some quick research, McNaughton learned that a group in Ann Arbor, Mich., had staged a successful fund-raiser in response to a protest by Phelps at a gay bar.
McNaughton named the Pittsburgh fund-raiser “Every Minute Counts” after the Ann Arbor event and similar fund-raising events that have taken place nationwide in which donors are asked to pledge a dollar amount of their choice for each minute the Westboro group continues its protest. During the Pittsburgh protest, which lasted one hour and three minutes, McNaughton used a timer on his laptop to calculate the minutes and the dollar amount per minute being raised. He displayed those numbers on dry-erase boards that he updated continuously, posting ever-larger totals for protesters and passersby to see.
“I still have people pledging online,” McNaughton told Out. He credited Bill Kaelin, owner of New York New York restaurant, with being an early and vocal supporter of his fund-raising idea, as well as the first to make a pledge. According to Kaelin, “New York New York staff and employees pledged $10 for every minute that [the group was] down there.”
Another Pittsburgher, Jaime McLeod, organized the creation of colorful placards to block the Westboro Church members’ hateful signs from the view of those entering Heinz Hall for the Rogers memorial.
McLeod told Out that after hearing about the planned protest, she recalled the City Theatre’s staging of The Laramie Project, a play that deals with the murder of Matthew Shepard. In the play, the characters block protesters from Shepard’s funeral with large angel wings they create; that image prompted McLeod to create giant reproductions of characters from the Land of Make Believe. The Rosenberg Institute for Peace and Social Justice paid for the 6-foot placards of the characters seen on Rogers’ TV show.
Although McLeod said, “I’m not a big activist,” her efforts brought an additional 150 people to the counter-protest, many of whom brought their own signs bearing pictures of Rogers and sentiments such as “Thank you for being our neighbor.”
The counter-protesters succeeded in getting church members to move away from the front of Heinz Hall to the curb on the other side of the street. That way, McLeod said, “fewer people going to the memorial had to look at them.”
More than 300 people turned out to support the Shepherd Wellness Community fund-raiser organized by McNaughton, who handed out pamphlets urging participants not to engage in confrontations with the protesters. Despite some verbal confrontations, McNaughton said the demonstration was free of overt aggression.
Kaelin said he was particularly disturbed by the group’s use of children to make its point and noted that none of the protesters explained their views. “[Their targets were] so broadly directed. They had a sign that said, ‘God hates America,’ one that said, ‘Thank God for September 11.’ But they won’t discuss any of their views. Why does God hate America? Why are you thanking God for September 11? They just totally ignore you.”
According to McNaughton, one man walked up to him with $200 in cash and handed him the money. McNaughton added that the man refused to give any personal information, saying only, “Just consider it a donation.”
Donations to “Every Minute Counts” are still being accepted. For more information, call (412) 725-8206, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Web site at http://www.autbar.com/pittsburghpledge.htm.