Westboro Baptist Church picketing at East County high schools sparks counter-demonstrations from community

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Photo by Mary York. Counter-demonstrators stand outside El Cajon Valley High School on Monday morning, March 25, 2019, in response to picketers from Westboro Baptist Church.

A Monday morning demonstration by the Westboro Baptist Church at two East County high schools turned into a county-wide invitation to come counter-protest, a self-declared “party” that garnered more than 200 participants.

As early as 6 a.m. on March 25, 2019, counter-protesters gathered at El Cajon Valley High School where the Westboro organization listed the first of its picket destinations.

Westboro is known nationally for staging demonstrations around the country to promote anti-homosexual, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic ideologies, among others. Earlier in the month, the group added El Cajon Valley High School (El Cajon) and Monte Vista High School (Spring Valley) to the picketing schedule on their website. They also alerted local authorities.

“We received a letter from the Westboro Baptist Church advising us that they would be here doing a demonstration,” said Lt. Jerry Hartman with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. “We were expecting three people from Westboro and then we were aware that there would be about 150 people coming out to do a counter-demonstration.”

There were indeed three Westboro picketers who demonstrated in front of both high schools. The counter protest was roughly 200 people strong at the Monte Vista location at nine in the morning, with officers manning school entrances and maintaining a presence on the sidewalks.

Hartman said they had prepared for any safety issues that might arise but did not anticipate any.

“Anytime that you can come up with a positive voice and a positive message, it’s a good time,” he said of the boisterous crowd on the east side of Sweetwater Springs Boulevard. “So, as long as they stay and keep following the rules the way they are doing and stay peaceful the way they are right now, we’re very happy to be out here to make sure the peace is kept and safety for the kids is ensured.”

Traffic was redirected at both schools to allow students to enter the school safely and away from the demonstrations.

Grossmont Union High School District representative Catherine Martin said that GUHSD is not endorsing or encouraging any protests or counter-protests.

“We are working with the El Cajon Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to ensure safe passage to school for our students on Monday,” she said. “Law enforcement will be present and has a plan in place to ensure order and safety. We plan to have a regular school day focused on learning.”

Janet McLees, a Santee native, said she began her day at 6:45 a.m. at the El Cajon Valley location where counter-protesters gathered on Madison Street, catty corner with the school. Around 7:45, she left El Cajon Valley and headed out to Monte Vista for the second demonstration.

As McLees walked to her car, she passed Chula Vista residents Kathy and Joe Bishop and their two children, Dylan and Baz, all dressed in pride gear and fairy wings.

“Shift change!” Joe Bishop called out to her cheerfully as they walked by each other, the Bishops headed toward the thinning protest to relieve people who had been there for nearly two hours.

McLees said the tenor of both groups felt happy.

“Truthfully, it feels joyful here,” she said.

Several individuals took it upon themselves to buy and distribute donuts to the counter-protestors at both locations.

Many in the counter-protest were drawn in by a Facebook invitation named the Westboro Rainbow Dance Party Parade.

“We can’t look for reasons in what these people do,” the invitation stated. “I know that their prerogative is to instigate people into lawsuits, while spreading their hateful, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. But the fact of the matter is that their hateful signs and slogans hurt our community. So how should we respond? How about with a Rainbow Dance Party Parade? How about with bright costumes, funny signs, music, kazoos and balloons. Let’s show the world that love conquers hate, and take some joy in trolling this hateful group.”

There were definitely kazoos present.

“It was interesting that [Westboro] targeted lower income and kind of minority schools, and I don’t know why they did that,” said McLees, “but we’re here to support all kids.”

Luke Phelps-Roper, 16, one of the three Westboro protesters at the demonstrations, said he did not believe these two schools had been chosen for any particular reason.

“If there is [a reason] I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t believe there was any specific member.”

Phelps-Roper, his sister Rebekah and his mother, who is the daughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, all stood on the west side of Sweetwater Springs Boulevard with signs that said things like, “God sent the shooter,” “Repent or Perish” and “God hates pride.”

Counter protestors held up signs supporting a wide variety of messages, from “Jesus was bi-curious” and “God hates haters,” to “All students deserve inclusive schools,” “MVHS has no place for meanies! Monarchs are stronger than hate” and welcome signs printed in multiple languages.

When asked about the mass of people singing and dancing across the street, Phelps-Roper said, “I think they’ve been misled their entire lives and that they’ve been told that God loves them and that there are no consequences for their sins, and that’s not the case.”

Sharon Cox, an East County resident and former teacher said she came out to the protest to let the demonstrators from Westboro know there is another way to behave.

“I want to make sure that people like Westboro are challenged with another point of view and ours is about love and acceptance of everybody, and theirs is about being really angry and hateful toward some people, and I want to support the people that I love,” she said. “We don’t hate anybody, even people that we oppose. We don’t hate them, we just disagree.”

Cox said she felt it was important to come out and speak up.

“I’ve grown up and lived in San Diego all my life and was like, ‘you know, you’ve got to stand up for things,’” she said. “And when things are being said that are not right in my view, you’ve got to stand up and say, ‘I disagree.’”

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