August 1999, Volume 6 Nr. 12, Issue 72,
Before I discuss the recent visit of the Westboro Baptist Church members to Vermont, who demonstrated against the "fags taking over Vermont", let me begin this issue with A Resource Kit Prepared by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches of West Hollywood, California. This kit contains, "Resources for A Community-Wide Anti-Violence Prayer Vigil Honoring the Life of Matthew Shepherd. Working for Justice for All People."
The call to gathering or worship consists of a single individual reading and those collected responding. The readings are as follows:
There are some who hurl taunts, threats and words
Many: But we will not be silenced.
One: They use fists, weapons and acts of violence to try
Many: But we will not go away.
One: They exclude us from civil rights protections and
Many: If we were silent, the very rocks and stones would
One: We say, "No life should ever be sacrificed to
Many: We say no life should ever be silenced by injustice.
One: Each human life is precious.
Many: Each human path is sacred.
One: Creator of Us All, be with us now. Nurture within us
In Our State
Matthew Shepherd died on October 9, 1998. He was killed because he was gay. Nine-hundred people attended Matthew Shepherd's funeral in Casper, Wyoming. A dozen more demonstrated with signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags" and "Matt in Hell." These same signs came to Montpelier, Vermont on September 30. There, in front of the State Capital building, in the shadow of Demeter who rests atop the golden dome, a small group of people brought their claim that the "The Bible preaches hate more than love", to the Green Mountains.
Demeter is a fitting figure to oversee the goings on of this day as she, a Greek goddess, oversees all days (not only in Vermont but in many State capitols). She is the golden-haired goddess of corn, grain, and the harvest. Daughter of Cronos and Rhea, sister to Zeus. Demeter according to mythology, taught mankind the art of sowing and plowing so that a nomadic existence would no longer be necessary. And, so it is with Vermont, where the seeds of furthering social justice are being sown. The State Supreme Court will at any moment determine whether same-gender marriage will be recognized and sanctioned. Vermont's prospects of becoming the first State in the Union where such marriage survives legal challenge are good. As a consequence, the god-hates-fags folk have come to Vermont in an attempt at ruining the harvest. And, they came in force, all ten of them.
Vermonters responded in large numbers bringing an undeniable message: "Take your hate out of our State." Over two-hundred counter-demonstrators encircled the small group chanting as mother nature, Demeter watched. Demeter is also the goddess of a planned society. That is, she protects the architecture or physical plant within which the laws of the State are made. Given a choice, would she or anyone else prefer the passage of laws which bring about social justice to all or to those that wish to impose a single-minded and hate-filled agenda that benefits from exploiting the notoriety of other's tragedy and grief? What kind of mind-set pickets a funeral for an individual that has been a victim of murder?
I don't wish to discuss the philosophy and/or theology of this hate group. Instead, I'd like to focus upon the response. Yes, it is true. If any state has the immediate possibility of allowing same-gender marriage making it legal, it is Vermont. Yes, it is also true that Vermont was the first state to ban slavery and to pass hate crimes legislation. The Green Mountains are a place where people, for the most part, are more apt to live and let live. Vermont is a place where tolerance should be applied across the board, even to intolerance.
Having coffee one evening in Rutland's Coffee Exchange, discussing philosophy and ideology with JeanneE, we ran into Kevin Jones, a city alderman and friend. Kevin made the observation that he was taken aback by the pictures in the Rutland Herald and on WCAX-TVwhich clearly showed the very small group of hate demonstrators completely surrounded by over 200 counter-demonstrators. Kevin's thoughts suggest that the encircling of demonstrators might give the impression that Vermont is not as tolerant as one would like it to be. The Green Mountain State prides itself in allowing the expression of free speech no matter how distasteful that expression might be. Kevin wondered how it would be if a flag-burning demonstration were to be surrounded in such a way; a threatening atmosphere and an inability for the original free speech demonstration to be seen in public forum?
Kevin has a point. Though the Kansan demonstrators were allowed their expression of free speech, spewing hatred, perhaps the counter-demonstration would have benefited most being separated from them. For the duration of the event, there was no doubt that both groups placement was in-your-face-proximity. Though police were present, no attempt was made to maintain any distance between the two groups. I do not fault the authorities for their decision not to intervene until and unless a law was broken. Nor, do I believe that any law (other than, perhaps, the one demonstrator pulling down the sign) was broken. I do believe, however, after listening to Kevin Jones, that the cause of tolerance and anti-bigotry would have been better fostered if the counter-demonstrators were separated from the hate group's actions.
Some removal did in fact take place by the Vermont Bread and Puppet Theater which performed away from center event, closer to the State Capitol. In hindsight (which is always better than no-sight), the much larger counter- demonstration might have chosen to join the Theater drawing huge attention to themselves while at the same time allowing the purveyors of hate to broadcast their insignificance and intolerance in an enhanced atmosphere of Vermont tolerance. The next time hate comes to Vermont, I believe it should be given all the room necessary to present itself as the evil that it is. There, some distance away, thousands-upon-thousands of anti-hate counter- demonstrators might gather to celebrate tolerance, love and compassion through singing, joy, good food, cheer and play. Events as they occurred are part of the learning process that might be partially described by a quote by Paul Treanor from his homepage entitled, "A Page About Hate." Treanor writes,
Anger in the Face of Hatred
It is easy to become angry in the face of another's anger and hatred. Days prior to the counter-demonstration, there was much discussion relating to whether any action in opposition to the hate group is a good idea. Some believed that giving any attention to a hate group increases the likelihood that that the group will receive more media attention thus becoming counter-productive. Others believe that injustice of any kind, even when only preached, deserves a response in kind.
I am of the latter persuasion. I think back to the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins and have no need to wonder if African Americans would have been better off ignoring their less- than-human treatment at the hands of bigoted white people. I have no need to wonder if Rosa Parks and the nation would have been better off if she simply moved to the back of the bus - again. Neither do I wonder if, during the 1960s, people should have simply stayed away from demonstrating against an immoral war. I had to go. I had to be there. I had to lend one more body and soul to voice of protest seeking justice. I had to be in Montpelier.
As I write these words, yet another hate crime is taking place. This time, the place is Granada Hills, California. Virulent anti-Semitism has raised its head as a gunman opened fire in a Jewish Community Center. What kind of Christian shoots five-year old children? California Senator, Tom Hayden, writing in the Thursday, August 12, edition of the L.A. Time Commentary writes,,
He makes the case that when Latinos or African-Americans commit crimes big action is taken to protect the public. However, when white men commit violent hate crimes they are treated as isolated incidents.
Hayden ponders. Perhaps, the media is not as free as he would like to believe and the public education system fails society partly because of its history classes, which are consistently rated by students as the subject least enjoyed in school. Howard Zinn places the blame on the desire to avoid controversy or challenge to the established syllabus of the nationally adopted don't-make-waves-nor-critically-think curriculum.
Matthew Shepherd's death (and many others like it) was an anti-gay hate crime. The demonstrators who came to Vermont espoused anti-gay hate. To be silent is to condone. Yet, in my almost three decades of teaching with dozens of history teachers I have seen only one social studies teacher live as an example and beacon to their students, actively engaged in participatory democracy. It is one thing to teach about the civil rights movement. It is quite another to be part of it. It is wonderful to preach the equality of people as stated in the Bill of Rights. It is quite something else to allow inequality through silence and inaction. We may all be guilty of not doing more.
The counter-demonstration in Montpelier should have attracted thousands of people. The governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, should have shown up and through his mere presence as another Vermonter stand with his fellow citizens in a show of non-silence against hate. For it is silence that encourages further hate and violence.
Oh. It might be a good idea to take Kady Guyton's advice. In October, 1995, when Kady was a junior studying journalism and mass communications at Kansas State university, she wrote a column in anticipation of the very same proponents of hate picketing the visit of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders to the campus. She wrote,
What a great idea. When the Vermont Supreme Court finally gets around to making same-gender marriage legal and the hate group returns to Montepelier, there a hundred or so feet away, Vermonters will come en masse, bringing hundreds of pounds of aromatic garlic. Call it an incense meditation to a smiling Demeter at the time of successful harvest. Blessed with holy water, this event could become the State's largest garlic roast and celebration ever! It might even become a yearly event. Bread and Puppet might be well advised to consider a giant garlic as a prop. Incidentally, The Garlic Page on the Internet presents a scientific report suggesting that garlic "helps wean pigs more quickly." I'm putting in my order for a pound or two in anticipation. Care to join me?
© 1999 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski