A few days over 6 years ago, I got a message that the Westboro Baptist Church (that is the last time I will address them with their proper name in this post) was planning a stop in my town on June 1st 2014. And locals were planning on a counter protest. Fuck yea I was going to go. That went without saying. But in what capacity?
(My language is going to be very coarse in this post at times)
I’ve always been an avid photographer. Yet another love that my grandfather instilled in me. I’d never really done any crowd photography. But the only way to get good at something is to practice. So, would I make a witty sign or would I charge my camera batteries and try my hand at “photojournalism”?
The impetus for their trip? Illinois had passed legislation allowing civil unions to be converted into marriages. Which was a milestone for the LGBTQ community in Illinois. And of course it had the Westbigot Bastard “Church” up in arms. They made 3 stops here in town, then moved on to the state capitol.
I decided to go to their 2nd of 3 stops in town. I considered going to all 3, but decided against it. I didn’t want to have to rush from stop to stop trying to stay ahead of them. I wanted to focus on 1 stop.
Looking back, I can’t believe how disconnected I was from the situation. I’d only known a small handful of open members of the LGBTQ community. And I didn’t know any of them closely. Just acquaintances. I didn’t hold any prejudice against them. I supported their cause. I just didn’t understand it.
I didn’t understand because I never cared. It never mattered to me who someone chose to spend their life with, as long as everything was consensual. Straight, gay, bi, whatever…. Zero fucks given as far as I was concerned. So if I felt that way, didn’t everybody? Or at least most people?
How wrong I was.
I still won’t pretend to full understand it. I’ll never understand it. I’ve never lived it. But I can empathize. I’ve had more exposure. I’ve got family members who are out.
The morning of the 1st comes. My camera is ready to go. Batteries charged, lenses cleaned, etc. A couple of SD cards freshly formatted and easy to get to in my pocket. It’s go time.
I parked my car about 2 blocks away. I don’t think things are going to get ugly at any of the protests. But if it does, the one I’ve chosen is going to be it. I hope things aren’t going to get ugly. But better safe than sorry. I’ve got about 45 minutes to kill before the Ignorant Fuckwit Brigade is scheduled to show up.
A brief description of the set up: 4 lane road running north and south, with an east/west road that T’s into it from the west. Vacant lots on the east side of the 4 lane. North west corner of the intersection is a house. South west corner is houses and yards.
By the time I arrive on scene, the crowd is already gathering. I’m guessing maybe a hundred people. It is hard to tell from the pictures because of people coming and going between the 3 churches. They are on the side of the intersection with the houses. Keeping a respectable distance from the church, which is still trying to proceed with their normal Sunday morning routine. No cops on the scene yet. One other pair of people with cameras, and they are very obviously together.
So, I set up my tripod a respectable distance away from the other pair and started taking crowd shots. We were across the 4 lane road. Nice wide angles, and I had a telephoto lens with me if I wanted to zoom in. One of the other crew comes over and starts shooting the shit with me. Come to find out they are with a fledgling website devoted to our town. I decide to bullshit my way through the encounter and just say I’m “freelance”. Which wasn’t a lie. I just never sold any of my work from that day to a publication. Or any of my other work to any publication. Pesky details…
The makeup of the crowd was mildly surprising. I was fully prepared for plenty of rainbow flags etc. And signs mocking the WBC like the standard “God Hates Shellfish” and shit like that. What I was not prepared for was the bikers. And local white supremacists. I don’t mean run of the mill racists. I mean fucking skin heads with “white pride” tattoos and other racist iconography on full display. Standing side by side with the LGBTQ community raising a collective voice in telling the Inbred Dipshit Mafia to get the fuck out of our town.
What the actual fuck?
The pastor of the church being protested came out to address the crowd. He thanked everyone for showing up to support them. And begged them to remain peaceful and lawful and to rise above the level of those they were counter protesting.
I don’t think most of the crowd even realized it when the Fuckwit Cousin Fuckers showed up until the head Cunt started blaring her boombox. I’d been continuing to get crowd shots. The boombox actually made me jump a little because they were only about 20 feet away from me when she hit play.
4 adults, 3 young children and a handful of cops who’s face said they didn’t really want to be there. The presence of children pissed me off. Tremendously. Adults have a constitutional right to be scumbag pieces of filth. But the corruption of youth is something I can not stomach.
But I didn’t just see ugliness that day. I saw a group of people come together to stand united. They chanted. They sang. They lifted their voice as one to say “We will not allow you to go unchallenged.” I watched as the voice of love completely drowned out the voice of hate.
Words cannot express how that impacted me. On the drive home that day, and in the days and weeks that followed, I struggled to put into words my thoughts on that day. In the six years since, I’ve tried a few times and scrapped every attempt.
As I type this, the world is reeling from the death of George Floyd and the protests that ensued. Words fail me at this point. I don’t have it in me to express my anger at his murder. There are protests around the world. People are standing up and saying “Enough. No more.” Shit is getting ugly.
But we can be better. We have to be better. But we won’t be better until all voices are heard. We won’t be better until true equality comes. We won’t be better until the people of the world realize that just because it isn’t happening to them, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Below are a few photos from that day. I’ve never released these because I’ve never known how to tell the story. But today, 6 years later, I do. There is one thing you’ll notice missing. Shots of the Cactus Fornicators Society. I refuse. Even 6 years later, I refuse to give them any acknowledgement. As far as I am concerned, they weren’t there that day. Or at least, they aren’t why I was there that day.
Because my takeaway from that day can be summed up with this: For every devil in this world, there are a hundred angels. We just need to find a way to make their voices heard.