As the tall shaven man loomed in my face, his agitation grew. “I am a lawyer!” he claimed (which was true), “I know the constitution.” His rhetoric was a blend of meticulous constitutional logic and unstructured fundamentalist ranting.
I never met Fred Phelps, but about ten years ago, I did meet his family; and it was weird.
In 2003 I was in my most recent iteration of self reinvention and working as news editor at my college paper Nassau Community College’s Vignette. I was living on Long Island as I had for most of my life. Long Island, beneath its veneer of the prototypical suburbia, is an island of scandal; a tabloid journalist’s feast. The front page of Newsday, the paper of record for Nassau and Suffolk Counties is, more often than not, a notice of the most recent embarrassment for any one of the 293 cities, towns, hamlets and villages that contain its 7.5 million residents.
The first few years of the last decade saw an unfortunate spate of sexual abuse scandals in Long Island schools, including Mepham High School, which sits in Bellmore, NY two towns over from where I grew up. The scandal involved hazing in the football team’s locker room that descended into sexual abuse.
Enter the Westboro Baptist Church and their traveling band. In October of 2003 the WBC had been in the National spotlight for protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, but this was before the Iraq war when they made themselves a household name for trolling soldiers’ funerals. Officially, they were protesting the presence of a Gay Straight Alliance in the school which they argued broke the moral compass of the student body, leading some members of the football team to molest others in an extreme culture of hazing. So, when “this fundamentalist church from Kansas” was coming to picket Mepham, it drew some attention. A group from my school was heading there to join a counter protest.
The first thing you need to know about the WBC is that they are smart.
They are media savvy and now how to get their message out. They are a church of about 40 people who have earned the ire of millions and this is what they want.
When I arrived at Wellington C. Mepham high school, there were hundreds of people on the scene. There was maybe a dozen members (half of them children) of the church carrying the now-famous neon signs with inflammatory messages, praising the most recent national tragedy; in this case the shuttle explosion and 9/11. For every member of the church there was at least twenty counter protesters, 2 reporters, 3-4 uniformed Nassau county police officers and a police cruiser. The cacophony of chants, slogans, accusations and recriminations filled the normally quiet suburb.
I received permission to enter the center ring of the circus from a police officer. To interview any of the congregants. I had in mind the warning of my staff advisor to keep a small physical distance at all times to protect myself from lawsuits. I walked past the ironic rainbow signs held by children with eerily placid expressions; all of them home-schooled. It must have been part of the curriculum. Fred the patriarch was not present. Even then at 72 he was not healthy enough to travel cross country, so I approached his adult son (can’t remember which), one of Fertile Fred’s 13 children.
“Why are you here?” I asked. This of course the question he’s been answering all day whether it was asked or not.
What followed was a well-rehearsed, canned response that I would hear from all of the members I spoke to that day. He ranted and lamented about the state of the country and the world and all of the views that the church would become famous for over the next decade.
To paraphase, he felt it was irresponsible for a school to allow a club which against God’s will. In my post-adolescent arrogance I accused him of hypocrisy. I tried to point out the discrepancy of flaunting the first amendment with his group’s protestests, but blatantly ignoring the first ammendment’s establishment clause.
In my short adult life, I had never been so sure that I was about to get hit in my life.
Even in the presence of enough law enforcement to take down a small survivalist compound, he unleashed a stream of hate and recrimination that caused me to step back. But the blows never came. The Phelpses are too disciplined for that. In the following decade the would go on to the be the “Most hated family in the country,” or as one of Fred’s daughters prefers “The most hated family in the world.” I suspect, that their mission is not to spread the word of their own unique gospel of hate, but to sustain and grow their own infamy.
Not long after my own encounter, I left, amused, shaken, amazed. My psyche was unfazed by the potency and dedication to hate on display. I’m of a generation who came of age during a post 9/11 mentality when such malice and vitriol are commonplace. What rattled me were the youth, the grandchildren of The Pastor Fred Phelps. The placidity of their faces as they stood dead center on the stage, holding signs which they could not possibly comprehend. Since then, several members have left the church do to rumored infighting and philosophical differences, but in spite of their best efforts progress marches on.