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Westboro Protests In Pittsburgh Met By Hundreds Of Counter-Protesters

Four members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protested at Carnegie Mellon University Thursday afternoon. They were met by hundreds counter-protesters who tried to drown out the church’s singing with their own chants, bagpipes, noisemakers, and drums.

The church has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. They demonstrate against Catholics, Jews, Muslims, other types of Christianity and LGBTQ people, and have been known to picket the funerals of American soldiers.

When it was announced that the church would be protesting in Pittsburgh, counter-protests began organizing at college and high school campuses around the city.

At CMU, Social Impact Coalitionmember Victor Tavarez opened the counter-protest by encouraging attendees to ignore Westboro members.

“The way they kind of operate is that they’re trying to get you mad, they’re trying to get you upset,” Tavarez said. “So let’s avoid that. Let’s show all of CMU that we care about one another.”

A few hundred students, staff, and other activists from around the city gathered on the campus’ main lawn on Forbes Ave. when three women from Westboro arrived across the street.

The Westboro members held signs and around their waists were bloodied and muddied flags representing transgender people, Judaism, gay Americans, and members of the military. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Three Pittsburgh Police officers stand between Westboro Baptist Church members and counter-protesters on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. The church was scheduled to appear at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, but didn't.

Nathan VanHoudnos stood nearby with a sign that read “God is for you, not against you.” VanHoudnos said he recently formed a group called “Christianity is Not Westboro Baptist Church” after hearing about the group’s planned protest last week.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘don’t feed the trolls, just ignore them,’” VanHoudnos said. “But then I started thinking and I realized that these people are actively hurting others by their presence. They are preaching hate and they are claiming to speak for Jesus—they don’t.”

Handing out flyers that said “God Hates Figs,” Ben Kaplan said he was happy to make people laugh and encouraged by the number of counter-protesters.

“It’s okay, they’re allowed to protest,” Kaplan said. “But I knew we would overwhelm them significantly.”

Pittsburgh Police officers stood around the Westboro members, not allowing any interaction between them and the counter-protesters.  There were no clashes at the event. Westboro congregants did not talk to the media.

Maxine Ewing, a freshman at CMU, said she couldn’t believe groups like Westboro still exist.

“This is an awful thing,” Ewing said. “But the CMU community is so wonderful and loving. I think it shows something really positive about where we are now.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Miles Dinner, a transgender man, says members of the LGBTQ community still need stronger protections in Pittsburgh, but was encouraged by the show of counter-protesters at Thursday's event.

Miles Dinner, a transgender man, said the show of solidarity against the church was encouraging.

“There’s a lot of trans and queer people and non-binary people in the city,” Dinner said. “I need to be protected just as much as anybody else, so do my trans brothers and sisters—particularly trans people of color.”

Westboro was scheduled to appear at several other locations in the city Thursday, but those protests never materialized. They plan to picket at Pine Richland High School Friday morning, in an apparent protest of the school’s recent policy to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. 

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.