On Jan. 19, the Westboro Baptist Church protested East students for the third time in six years, this time, outside our own home.
They held signs that read, “God Hates Fags,” and “Believe or Perish” as students arrived for the school day.
The protest rung an alarm.
McKinney and other club leaders acted as first responders. Instead of engaging with the protesters they decided to have students respond by spreading kindness and acceptance within East’s walls. The hashtag “HateHasNoHomeHere” was spread on social media.
We, the student body, are saying, “Not Here” to anyone who chooses to discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity or any other means.
The Harbinger created “Not Here,” the interactive, to promote our belief that hate truly doesn’t have a home at Shawnee Mission East.
Video by Ian Schutt
“This is a reminder of why we do need to come together and value one another and respect one another.” McKinney said about the WBC protest, “I think we can use this, amidst hate, to reinforce positivity. I’m proud of this school and what we try to do.”
WBC, Topeka-based group is known for the their anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, picketed from 7:10-7:40 a.m. at the Northwest corner of 75th and Mission. They selected East because they believed high schoolers are being “brought up on a steady diet of lies,” as WBC said in a statement released on Dec. 25 announcing their protest.
In light of the announcement, the East administration gathered a group of student leaders from the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), Coalition, Student Council, Feminist Club and others to “discuss peaceful, positive ways to counter the WBC’s efforts,” according to an email sent to students by Principal McKinney.
The student groups also wanted to detract from the WBC and focus more on the positive counter-protests within the building.
“Our goal is to minimize the amount of spotlight we draw to the protestors, and to reaffirm are love and support for the students of Shawnee Mission East who are diverse,” according to East GSA President and senior Daniel Long.
Long and members of GSA held signs that read “Love is love” and “Hate has no home here”.
At the end of the school day accepted donations for the KC Center for Inclusion. This organization aims to “[provide] a safe, welcoming community space for LGBTQ individuals, their families, friends, and straight allies” according to their website.
Long hoped that the community and student body would respond to the positive counter protest as a community. He believes that East is usually an inclusive environment, but hopes the positive momentum from the positive counter protests will continue throughout the rest of year.
“I hope that the notion of love over hate stays with the East community because I felt a lot of joy and happiness walking down the ramp and seeing those signs,” Long said. “As a queer person it makes me feel more connected to the community.”
GSA is among several student organizations that countered the picketing. Senior Allison Benson, a leader of Happy Club, said that Happy Club “[filled] the 5th floor stairwell windows with sticky notes saying “You are loved” and, “Love over hate” and more on top of making more positive signs placed around the school.
Feminist Club President Iman Jaraoudi and other members of the club had the same sentiment when they decided to put up posters decked with positive messages around the school, and on the day of the protest were at the school’s main entrance greeting students with a “loud and encouraging welcoming” according to Jaroudi.
“I knew we were going to have people out at the entrance greeting everyone, but honestly this an even bigger turnout than we expected,” Jaroundi said “We wanted everyone to recognize that whatever is happening outside, this is a place of positivity and love and acceptance.”
Choir teacher Ken Foley has made a point every day to greet his students with a handshake and a smile since he has been at East. On the day of the protest, he was found at the main entrance greeting students, once again, with a smile along with other teachers.
“I hopefully try to tell people everyday that they are appreciated, so it is just an outward sign of that,” Foley said. “There are some days where I am up at the office and hold the door and say ‘Hi’ if I have some time. It is sort of my nature to make people feel wanted and special, so that was an easy thing to do.”
Principal John McKinney held a meeting with student representatives from Coalition, the Gay-Straight Alliance, STUCO and the Feminist club to discuss appropriate responses to Friday’s Westboro Baptist Church protest. They agreed to have students wear white on the day of the protest.
In reaction, many people showed up to school wearing white to show their support.
“I think most people wearing white or not wanted to support because East teachers and students do a good job of supporting and including everyone and making sure each person feels wanted and safe at our school,” senior Coalition executive Isabel Miller said.
Miller proposed the movement to wear white, because she wanted to show students that they are loved and supported. In the past, there have been projects where the school has worn a color to support a specific person or problem, and wearing white is a way to show support of the LGBTQ community, the group targeted by the church.
When deciding what color was most appropriate for this event, Miller initially considered all colors of the rainbow to support the LGBTQ community, but eventually decided against that, thinking it was too many colors. Miller says white was chosen because it is easy for everyone to wear, stands for peace and is universal for being neutral.
Focusing on our students and school is more important than giving the Westboro protesters their desired attention. Because of this, wearing white instead of staging a counter protest appeared to be the best option since protesting back would give them exactly what they want, according to Miller.
“It’s always just best to not give them any attention, which is what we are trying to do,” Senior Coalition executive Amara Ivancic said. “We are trying to move the attention towards positive things that we are doing in our community instead of giving them that attention.”
To spread word about the movement, people posted on their social media, texted in chats and talked about it in clubs. McKinney also made P.A. announcements and sent emails out.
“We want to get the message across that we are a place of love and acceptance and won’t let something like this knock us down,” Miller said.
Ivancic feels this movement is a good way to show kids that people do care.
“I think it’s really good to show support to students who can be oppressed sometimes,” Ivancic said. “[I was] excited to see students come out and support their peers. I think as a community East is really good about raising people up.”
For the third time in ten years, the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church made the trip to Prairie Village to picket Shawnee Mission East. First in 2009, after the election of a homosexual Homecoming King, then last year at graduation, and now on Friday where they lined up as we walked into school.
In the face of this ignorant hate, a hate that has no logic, sometimes the only option is to ignore, and instead embrace the love in your community. To respond to this kind of hate with anger or violence back is to justify it, to dignify it.
According to a press release from the church issued on Christmas Day, this year’s picket is because Shawnee Mission East is a “cesspool of sodomites” and “homosexuality” in which students have been brought up on a “steady diet of lies.”
Conversation started the second the statement hit the website the church uses to organize its protests. Students and club leaders talked about forming an anti-protest and thinking of ways to get back at the church.
But principal John McKinney urged the East community to respond in a different way, to not grant Westboro the satisfaction of a response directed at them. Instead, he and the students from groups at East like the diversity and inclusion committee, and called for the student body to respond with positivity and ignore the vile shouts.
Of course, in the face of injustice there are times to take a stand. Protests against bigotry have long paved the way for change in America and the world, and everyone has the right to do so. Even in 2009, when Westboro was right on our doorstep, our community banded together and organized a peaceful anti-protest to show support.
But stands can happen in different ways. It doesn’t have to be an impassioned organized march or calculated chants – it can be pure kindness.
McKinney, you’re right. The Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t deserve a direct response. We should not give them the right to disrupt what we do here at East, to distract us from the compassion and joy we see everyday.
So to the Westboro Baptist Church, we see you. We hear you. We know you are there. But all that your hate and rhetoric is accomplishing is making us more grateful of the community of love and support we have here at East.
We choose to not focus on you, but on the response. On the hashtag #hatehasnohomehere making its rounds on twitter and instagram, on the line of students from all groups at East greeting kids with /smiles and compliments on their way into the building and on the complete lack of disruption in a day for the Lancers.
This was the third time in ten years that you’ve tried to “preach” to us, and hopefully you’ve got the message that hate – that you – have no home here.