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Photos by Natalja Kent

Say what you want about the Westboro Baptist Church — that they’re a flaring rash on the ass of humanity that itches too much to be completely ignored, for example — but you’ve got to give them credit: those people know how to travel. For their trip to Rhode Island last Thursday, August 1, to protest the official start of legalized gay marriage, the infamous hate-mongers planned to stop at not one, but five different spots before noon.

An itinerary posted to their website (godhatesfags.com) days beforehand laid out the schedule: they would hit Cranston City Hall from 8 to 8:30 am, then head to Providence City Hall from 8:45 to 9:20, then proceed to the Rhode Island State House, Brown University, and Pawtucket City Hall. It was an ambitious itinerary; they would certainly need God’s help to breeze through the Thurbers Avenue curve on a weekday morning without hitting traffic.

 

>> See photos from the Westboro events <<

The church’s advance notice also gave us time to think about how to cover them. The WBC, for those who haven’t been blessed by their presence, aren’t your average congregation. They’re the ones who essentially trademarked the military funeral protest (because God kills our troops in “righteous judgment” of American acceptance of homosexuals, of course); who own the URLs jewskilledjesus.com, godhatesislam.com, godhatesthemedia.com, and godhatestheworld.com; and who tote signs that say “DEATH PENALTY 4 FAGS.” Just as local police departments need a game plan before Westboro arrives in town, so do journalists.

Here at the Phoenix, we were loath to give them the media attention they so obviously crave, but also unwilling to skip a local cultural moment. So we ultimately decided on a sort of compromise: we would follow the WBC’s Grand Hatred Tour of Lil’ Rhody, but our focus would remain on counter-protesters.

After all, the WBC, their signs, and their bullshit sermons aren’t news. But counter-protesters like Pawtucket’s Mark Poirier, who wore a sandwich sign in Cranston reading “GOD HATES WESTBORO BAPTURDS” and later showed up at Pawtucket City Hall to distribute hastily-written lyrics to “Gay Marriage is Coming to Town” (sung to the tune of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) — well, he’s someone we want to tell you about.

Here’s how the day went down.

*    *    *

At 7:45 am, the scene in front of Cranston City Hall was bizarre. Stone-faced police officers with arms crossed stood in front of an empty, metal barrier-ringed holding area on the building’s lawn. Outside this people-pen, a colorful crowd milled about, carrying American flags, wearing pentagram rings on fingers, and holding signs that read “GAY THE PRAY AWAY” and “Church of Anderson Cooper.” A police van marked “CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATIONS” sat across the street with a tripod video camera pointed at the action.

Just after 8, as Mark Poirier was explaining Westboro’s compulsive need for attention (“Oscar Wilde said, ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,’ ” he said) and diagnosing them with “cancer of the soul,” a nondescript Ford sedan pulled up to the curb and four people emerged, grabbing signs and a portable iPod dock from the trunk.

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The boos begin immediately. Signs reading “Jesus Had 2 Dads” and “It’s No Wonder Dorothy and Her Friends Left Kansas” shot in the air. Someone shouted, “You are feces incarnate!”

Matt Hughes, a local school social worker on summer vacation watched it all from the back of the crowd. “It’s kind of in my job description to help anybody oppressed,” he said. He, too, debated whether to give WBC attention, but he was happy to see the hundred or so others who showed up to counter-protest. He came, he said, because, “I think a white, heterosexual father of two is a very important piece of the struggle . . . not in my house. Not on my turf.”

From Cranston, it was off to the front steps of Providence City Hall, where the crowd swelled to take in drag queens, gay couples clutching newly-printed marriage licenses, and one man — Richard Griffin, a film director from Pawtucket — in full Pope regalia: flowing golden robes, an oversized crucifix necklace, and a tall bejeweled hat. He held an iced Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with a Styrofoam cup sleeve in one hand. (“When in Rome,” he said.)

“We’re here to show them . . . a little Ocean State resistance,” Griffin said. He married his husband in Massachusetts years ago, he explained, but he’s planning to renew his vows in Rhode Island in September. That’s something he never thought he’d be able to do. The WBC are “a bunch of jag-offs . . . heading towards the tar pit of history,” he said.

 

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