The moment the bell rings, SM North senior Nathaniel Zoschke rushes to the journalism room with his friend to pick up his “God is Love” sign. They head outside, and Zoschke stands at the top of the retaining wall that separates the student parking lot from the sidewalk. Though the counter-protest isn’t silent like it was planned, the loud cheers still send the right message.
“We are here to exercise our First Amendment rights by organizing a peaceful counter-protest and spreading a positive message of peace and tolerance,” Zoschke said.
He first heard the news of Phelps’s intentions as he was coming home from school one night, when he received a text from one of his friends. It informed him that radical Topeka pastor Fred Phelps and his group of followers intended to stand by North and picket the school’s production of RENT, a controversial Broadway musical that features openly gay and lesbian characters. Phelps and his church are notorious for picketing funerals of American soldiers, as well as condemning a variety of groups for going against their interpretation of the bible.
“There was a churn in my stomach,” Zoschke said. “You know, that feeling in your stomach when you hear really bad news.”
After confirming the news on Phelps’s website, Zoschke spoke with North Principal Richard Kramer to discuss what needed to be done about the situation. Kramer supported Zoschke’s idea to put on a counter-protest, set for last Friday, in which money would be collected for the RENT service project.
“We knew our kids wanted to be heard and wanted to be able to express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs appropriately,” Kramer said.
he project, titled the No Day But Today service project, began on October 7, long before news of Phelps arose. After learning Phelps was coming, Zoschke planned for money to be raised from passing cars during the counter-protest and donated to this project. No Day But Today would in turn use these donations to buy blankets, toiletries, food and coats for Project Warmth. Profits from ticket sales of RENT were also donated.
“I was disappointed to hear that Phelps was coming, but by talking to Kramer I realized we could turn this situation into a positive,” Zoschke said.
A similar counter-protest occurred last February right here at East.
Phelps’s group of picketers stood on the corner of 83rd and Mission to protest East’s election of Matthew Pope as the 2007 homecoming king. As he passed by in his car, Zoschke was impressed by East’s turn-out.
This is what Kramer wanted for North.
With the plan in motion, it was time to get the word out. Zoschke set up Counter-Protest Fred Phelps, which became one of the hottest Facebook groups among North students. Student body president Luke Calkins made an announcement to the school last Wednesday morning. Kramer advised him to discuss what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.
“Any violence will take away from the message,” Kramer said. “And that message is one of service, which is one of the themes of RENT. It’s our message now, and it’s the one we’ve always had.”
North theater teacher Maureen Davis said raising money in this counter-protest wasn’t the point. It was all about publicity.
“Saturday night’s performance was almost sold out,” Davis said. “Only a few odd seats weren’t sold.”
East Gay-Straight Alliance member Austin Hunzeker believes that by not “stooping to their level,” North sent a positive message to the community, just as East had done.
“We let the Phelps group know that we weren’t going to fight with them about this,” Hunzeker said, recalling East’s counter-protest. “We were there to support each other, and we were the bigger people because of it.”
Zoschke feels that North students, like East’s, were the “bigger people” in the way they handled the counter-protest.
“We will not tolerate this disrespect and this hatred toward our school and towards those who live alternate lifestyles,” Zoschke said.
According to Hunzeker, those ideas of peace and tolerance are what both East and North wanted to send through their counter-protests.
“More good comes out of our message of love than does their signs of hate,” Hunzeker said.
The proof of this statement is in the numbers. With about 30 boxes of donated pastas and cereals, a dressing room full of clothes and over $300 in ticket sales, North achieved their ultimate goal of servicing the community. Defeating Phelps was simply a side-effect.