What I learned about love, hate and listening at the Westboro demonstrations

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Courtesy Photo.

There was a knot in my stomach as I sat in traffic on I-125 heading into La Mesa on Monday morning. I am not a morning person, so it takes a lot to get me out of the house, looking any kind of presentable, before 7 a.m. – a protest by a nationally-recognized hate group at local high schools was definitely sufficient.

Our office heard about the notice that Westboro Baptist Church would be picketing in front of El Cajon Valley and Monte Vista several weeks ago. The Californian was one of the first news outlets to print the story, not that there was much to say at the time.

We knew that Westboro had a reputation for being an anti-homosexual organization. We knew that there would probably be a counter-demonstration. And, after looking over the group’s online picket schedule, we knew Monday was going to be an early morning.

I pulled off the highway to head into El Cajon the back way, mind churning anxiously. What was I about to walk into? This was not a story I wanted to cover.

Like any self-respecting journalist, I love a good protest. My job begs me to be in the middle of social upheaval, natural disasters, political chaos and, occasionally, a good ol’ car chase. But covering a story about hate groups is tricky – what exactly is the story?

“Do we even want to give them the airtime?” I asked our office manager and long-time companion in the world of journalism. Serina and I go way back – back to the days when we all worked alongside the Cal’s previous editor, Albert Fulcher, at The Southwestern College Sun newspaper as student journalists. “They’re a hate group – if we draw attention to what they’re doing, isn’t that just giving them what they want? But if I don’t report anything, does that mean I’ve taken a side? Will we lose credibility if it looks like we’re biased? Will we lose credibility for not reporting on major East County news? Does this even count as major news? I’m not sure anymore.”

Serina shrugged as I paced back and forth.

“It’s a story,” she said.

That’s true. It was a story.

So there I was, pre-dawn, pre-coffee, sitting at a stop light on Jamacha, trying desperately to foresee what the morning had in store.

Nothing could have convinced me of what I was about to witness.

When I reached El Cajon Valley High School around 7:15 a.m., police officers were redirecting traffic to allow students to enter the school without having to walk past the demonstrators. I had to park in the neighborhood.

A group of about a hundred people had gathered on the street corner across from the high school draped in pride flags and fairy wings, holding signs that referenced peace, love, change and (of course) Trump.

Beyond them were three members of the Westboro Baptist Church parading signs with more antagonistic messages – “God hates pride,” “God sent the shooter” and several specific messages in the general realm of relationships and gender.

From a block away, by the student entrance, I couldn’t hear what either side was saying, but the officer directing foot traffic in front of me was in surprisingly good spirits for having been out on this street since 6 a.m. and all the students who meandered past us to get to their classes seemed unphased by the action down the street.

Eventually, I turned and headed back to my car – parked out in the neighborhood – to get a jump on the Monte Vista location.

I passed people on the street – strangers – coming to and from the counter-protest who greeted each other like old friends. They were happy to come out and get behind something that mattered to them.

The Monte Vista was no different, except that it was even bigger. For 20 minutes, I watched the crowd on the east side of the street grow as we all waited for the three protesters from Westboro to show up.

Everyone was in a good mood. The officers manning the school entrances and creating a presence on the sidewalks chatted happily with bystanders. Cars honked in support of the counter protestors as they drove by. Music and a dancing rippled through the crowd, especially once several people realized they could parade from one side of the street to the other when the crosswalk sign was one. Someone showed up with free donuts. It was exactly what the Facebook group “Westboro Rainbow Dance Party Parade” had requested the community to turn out for: a party.

I mingled. There were plenty of people willing to say “hello,” even to a reporter. Several people from my native Chula Vista were there showing support for the pride community – they said they had come out to the demonstration because they wanted kids to know there was love and support for them.

The East County residents I spoke with, from Monarch alumni to concerned residents who wanted to make sure everyone knew that hat isn’t welcome in this community, all seemed pleasant and calm. No one was shouting – though there was some loud laughter, especially once the donuts made the rounds.

“We love everyone, hate isn’t welcome here,” was a mantra espoused by multiple people throughout the course of the morning, and you could feel it.

For some perspective, I should mention that I am a moderate conservative who grew up with a lot of traditional values that I still hold to. I am also a Presbyterian. So, although I was relieved to see so many people come out in support of kindness and love, I definitely didn’t agree with every message being paraded on that side of the street – the signs that said, “Jesus was bi-curious” and “There are no gods. Seriously” were particularly frustrating.

Of course, I know well by now that all kinds of people across the globe believe viewpoints that both contradict and are offensive to each other. I have had the great privilege of being friends with individuals from all over the world. We have sat in coffee shops in Prague, missed trains together in Madrid, shared taxis in Athens and splashed in silver waters in Rosarito. And we have disagreed in each of those places.

You don’t need to agree on everything to come together over some things, and you certainly don’t need to agree on everything to extend basic human kindness and respect.

I felt very comfortable on the counter-protestors’ side of the street. I liked it there.

It didn’t take long to start running into other journalists. It is a small world, after all.

“I wondered when I’d run into someone from The Sun,” I said to Katy, current editor-in-chief of the paper Serina, Albert and I started at. She gave me a big, lip-sticked smile.

“Yeah, I’m just looking for people to interview right now,” she said, looking at the sidewalk full of people behind me like a jaguar looking at a pool of cool water, ready to jump in.

“Well, good luck out there,” I said.

I wondered what kind of story she would turn out. The Sun was responsible for exposing me to a lot of new perspectives that laid a foundation for me becoming more moderate in my political beliefs over the last decade. It put me in touch with people who had wildly different ideologies than I had at a time when I was alone and struggling and needed both a friend and a helping hand – they became mine. I am the person I am today because of people who don’t vote the same way I do, don’t go to church on Sundays and don’t share many of my most personal values.

After talking with as many people as I could find willing to speak to a reporter, and after sticking around for a few choruses of spontaneous singing, I crossed the street.

Alone in the middle of the long sidewalk, except for a pair of officers standing close by, were the Westboro protesters.

More than anything, I didn’t want to interview them. I didn’t want to give their hateful messages a platform, didn’t want to validate their coming all the way out here to harass our students at our schools.

Seeing Katy walking up the hill from their cluster of boards snapped me back into reality.

“Did you interview them?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said – an “of course, I did – I’m a journalist” written across her pretty smile.

I sighed. I’m a journalist, too.

So I marched down the sidewalk to get the other side of the story.

The three Westboro protesters were mother and children, themselves the daughter and grandchildren of the organization’s founder.

As the two women were already occupied by a handful of reporters, I sidled up next to the boy. He was about 16, with a pale face and glasses. He and his sister both held four signs apiece, placing them strategically so that they jettisoned off their bodies like butterfly wings.

“Hi, what’s your name?” I asked.

“Luke,” he said. He was soft-spoken and much more willing to talk than I was expecting him to be.

“What brings you to San Diego?” I asked.

“We’re here to let these people know that what they’re doing is wrong and it has consequences,” he said. “They are believing a lie they’ve been taught from a young age and we want to stop that.”

I asked about why they chose these two high schools – he didn’t know. I asked if he’d been a member of the church long – he said he’d been a preacher practically his whole life. I asked if he liked San Diego – he said his allergies were much better here.

Then I looked across the street and pointed to the colorful parade of singing, dancing counter-demonstrators and asked, “What do you think of them?”

He seemed confused.

“What do you mean?” he asked. “Like, in general?”

This struck me as odd. If someone points to a person and says, “What do you think of him,” all of us would have a million opinions forming without even having to stop and think – he has a cool T-shirt, maybe he stands too straight, he looks trustworthy or he wears too much cologne.

“When you look over there and see all those people, what do you think?” I asked again.

“I think they’ve been misled their entire lives,” he said softly, “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.”

I bit my lip. This boy sounded so gentle, not at all unlike some of the people I had spoken with on the other side of the protest. He didn’t sound like he hated the people across the street, he sounded like he cared about them. There was no malice in his voice and no pretense in his manner. And if he really did believe they would be condemned to hell for their beliefs, wasn’t it the loving thing to try to save them (methods aside, of course)?

To me, this seemed like a bad case of miscommunication. Like, I’m sure there are some real bad eggs in the Westboro organization, but this kid doesn’t seem like one of them – he just doesn’t know how to make a sales pitch.

Just to cover all my tracks, I talked to Luke’s sister as well.

She also held up four boards at once, hate and condemnation spread across each one and a huge, smile spread across her face.

“Hey,” she said cheerily, “It’s quite a party over there, isn’t it?”

We both looked at the other sidewalk, still dancing and singing.

“Yeah,” I said, a little taken aback. “They have donuts.”

“Wow, that’s amazing,” she laughed. “Well, we have the word of truth which is always good and nutritious.”

I suddenly realized that I felt the same way on this sidewalk as I had on the other one. While I was uncomfortable with what was being proclaimed on the boards they held, I found the company rather pleasant.

I cannot believe I am saying this, but the two people from Westboro I spoke with were just that: people. And I would never have made the discovery if I had stayed safe inside what I was comfortable with.

The morning suddenly seemed like a waste. Both sides put on demonstrations to try to show the other a better way, and yet no one was listening. More than that, no one was crossing the street to engage in discussion.

It felt like a Facebook argument with a lot of mantras and heavy-handed comments bandied about under the support of everyone else who agrees with you.

We don’t create change that way, we create division.

What happened to knowing your enemy, or loving thy neighboring – or was it loving thy enemy?

I don’t mean to humanize the protesters from Westboro to validate what they are doing – which I still disagree with, adamantly. I humanize them because they are human, and when we realize that it becomes easier to face them directly.

We are fearful of what we do not know, and often times we fill in the blanks ourselves in an attempt to comprehend what kind of monster we are fighting. Maybe, we err in doing this. Fear makes us weak and it makes us foolish. Often, it makes us hateful.

The only way to overcome hate is to overcome fear, and we do this by understanding who it is we face on the other side.

To do that, friends and neighbors, we must cross the street.

I am not saying we have to change our ways, throw in our ideals or give up on our values. I am definitely not advocating not taking a stand when it really matters.

What I am saying is that we need to do a better job of picking up our feet and walking over into someone else’s space and saying, “Help me understand who you are.”