A student-organized anti-hate rally held Tuesday at the University Student Commons Plaza drew a crowd of about 350 in the name of diversity and to take a stand against discrimination and hate.
Students from Jewish Greek letter organizations Alpha Epsilon Pi and Alpha Epsilon Phi and VCU Hillel were joined by representatives from the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Virginia State University and local spiritual leaders such as Rev. Jean Pupke, who spoke at the event.
Tim Reed, the director of student commons activities, said Jon Bridge, the president of AEPi, Melanie Phillips, a representative from AEPhi, and Sarah Sonies, the president of VCU Hillel, came to him last week to organize a counter rally after they learned members from an anti-gay church would be protesting in several locations around the city on Tuesday.
Members from the Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, Kan., protested outside of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Weinstein Jewish Community Center and Hermitage High School Tuesday. Other counter protests were held at those locations.
Liz Canfield, a women’s studies department instructor, attended the rally and said she heard about it from Facebook and her students.
“A while back, it came to my attention that WBC would be hitting the road again, and might stop by Richmond, and almost immediately, folks started to organize counter-protests and rallies,” Canfield stated in an e-mail.
Canfield said she was touched by remarks made by Renee Hill, a professor at Virginia State University’s Institute for the Study of Race Relations who spoke at the rally. Hill’s speech emphasized the need to stop the spread of hatred throughout the world—even the hatred counter demonstrators might have toward Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps.
“Whatever your religious beliefs, I like the idea that everyone, even Fred Phelps, is loved and chosen,” Hill said. “You are in charge. You can choose to let someone make you hate them or you can recognize that they are loved and chosen.”
KB Levin, the Hillel of Richmond director, worked with the students to organize the rally.
“It was a beautiful showing of really incredible, diverse people coming together with messages of love in our campus community,” Levin said. “I thought the students did an incredible job and showed such maturity on their part in the way they were able to get the crowd out there, and every one of their speeches was just great.”
Bridge, a health and physical education major, helped contact the participating groups and said the counterdemonstration was “definitely” a success.
“The rally showed that hate won’t be accepted at VCU,” Bridge said. “VCU is a place where diversity is what makes us function.”
Phillips, a sociology major, said the rally made others aware of where VCU stands and what those at the university support.
“It was important to show the community as a whole that VCU stands together against hate, that we are a very inclusive community,” Phillips said.
Reed said rallies like Tuesday’s fit into the university’s goals to be “an open forum for differing opinions.”
“This is just a good example of students coming together, drawing a crowd and really doing what a university is about, which is educate people,” Reed said.