Chip Lauterbach, Contributing Writer Georgia Geen, Executive Editor
Celeste Chance, Contributing Writer Fadel Allassan, News Editor
[Editor’s note: Some readers may find opinions expressed in this story disturbing.]
Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious hate group known for crude language and strong anti-LGBTQ views, was vastly outnumbered during its visit to VCU Monday.
Six Westboro members gathered at the Capitol downtown at 9 a.m. — where they were met by a kazoo party led by Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe — and drove to campus 45 minutes later. Counterprotesters, which consisted mainly of students, gathered and chanted around police barricades set up by the Commons on Main Street.
No one was arrested, according to police spokespersons. A campus police spokesperson said the event was “peaceful.”
“The Richmond Police Department has a long history balancing the needs of safety and citizens’ rights to speak and assemble,” said a Richmond Police spokesperson. “With our regional partners, VCU Police and Capitol Police, it was a successful morning.”
The Westboro picketers remained on campus for less than 30 minutes. Police escorted them to a minivan and out of the area shortly after 10 a.m.
Aaron Reihban of Ohio, who is in the U.S. Navy, said he attended the kazoo party to change how Christians are perceived.
“I’m a Christian, I’m straight, I voted for Trump. But for them to say ‘God hates fags’ strikes a nerve with me, because I’m a Christian and God doesn’t hate anyone,” Reihban said. “God loves everyone.”
Reihban said Westboro promotes a negative image of Christianity.
Richmond hair stylist Sam Robinson attended the kazoo party to show support for democratic Virginia Del. Danica Roem of Manassas, who Westboro cited as a reason for picketing at the Capitol before appearing on the Monroe Park Campus.
“She has to have support, because she got into office in the first place because people supported her for her ideas,” Robinson said, “and we just have to keep supporting her for that. And it also gives us a platform to fight against hate.”
Robinson said he wanted to show support for Roem and use the kazoo party as a platform to fight against hate groups such as Westboro.
Two LGBTQ student organizations — Queer Action at VCU and the Queer & Trans People of Color Collective — organized a solidarity rally in response to the Westboro presence near campus. Lily Hamilton, Queer Action president, said counterprotesting can be “very helpful and cathartic.”
“But ultimately, my question is, ‘can that energy be used for things that can actually change?’” Hamilton said. “Westboro Baptist Church will always believe the things they do. I cannot see them kind of being wiped off the face of the earth for any reason by just a couple people with signs.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, said she appreciated the presence of the counterprotesters.
“They are our target audience,” Phelps-Roper said. “It makes it so much easier to spread the word when they come out.”
Both Phelps-Roper and her son, Sam Phelps-Roper, spoke against Roem and transgender people as a whole.
“So this whole business of extramarital fornication and sodomy and transgenderism all flies in the face of the God of creation,” he said.
Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe said he hosted the kazoo party — an intentional classification, as he says counterprotests tend to involve a lot of anger — to support Roem, who is his friend.
“The WBC lives off of lawsuits filed against counter-protestors. They will not make a single penny off any counter-partiers,” Blythe said. “We crushed them. They left in a state of abject defeat, ears ringing from the relentless kazoo assault. Mission accomplished.”