Syracuse students call Westboro Baptists' bluff

Syracuse students showed up to counter the protests of the Westboro Baptists, but the Kansas radicals never showed.

At 5:30 p.m. on a chilly Friday night, a group of roughly a dozen students assembled beneath an American flag outside Hendricks Chapel. Wearing orange shirts and carrying colorful signs, the students milled around cracking jokes. They were preparing to protest the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Westboro Baptists announced in a press release Tuesday they would picket the Syracuse men's basketball game Friday night in the wake of the Bernie Fine scandal. The church is notorious for their controversial protests and hateful messages. Jonathan Phelps, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, told The NewsHouse in a phone interview they would be sending seven members to picket the game.

"It's our duty to warn our neighbor of the sin that is ultimately dooming him to hell. When you tell the community that it's OK to be gay you invite this type of behavior," Phelps said, in reference to the Fine allegations.

Despite threats of an appearance, which stirred controversy on the SU campus, the radical protesters never showed. Syracuse students, however, were well-prepared in case they did.

Among the group assembled at Hendricks Chapel was sophomore philosophy major Mike Cacciatore. He wore a Mario costume and held a sign reading 'Mario Hates the W.B.C.'

"We figured you can't take any of them seriously," he said. "The best thing to do is fight fire with fun."

As the group prepared to march to the Dome, Father Leonid Schmidt, assistant priest at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox churches in Syracuse, came by to give the students his blessing.

"These guys [Westboro Baptists] are so filled with hate it's sad," he said. "It's good to see [the students] combatting that with love."

Upon arrival at the west side of the Dome, the group was met by several similar grassroots movements as well as an army of cameras and university police. In all, more than 100 students and local residents showed up to protest the W.B.C. After nearly an hour of standing in the cold, singing, chanting and marching, it became clear The Westboro Baptists weren't going to show.

The protesters, which united on Irving Avenue around 6 p.m., included several student groups organized on Facebook, as well as roughly 20 members of Occupy Syracuse. Many wore orange in support of the team and most planned on attending the game following the protest. Sophomore advertising major Kat Smith organized one of the Facebook groups represented at the rally.

"We're here to counter the message of hate they spread with one of love," she said. "If I could meet with them [the Westboro Baptists] I would tell them I love them."

Others wanted to show the media and the nation what kind of city Syracuse really is.

"We don't want the world thinking we're a hateful city," said Jan Kent, a member of Occupy Syracuse. "This really isn't at all about Bernie Fine."

Passersby looked on in amusement and confusion at the colorful group. Some came out just to watch the spectacle.

"I came out to see what's going to happen," said Kwang Lee Gan, a freshman political science major. "It's like the circus coming to town."

The group laughed with each other, cheered spontaneously and chanted slogans including "no hate." They even sang Christmas carols. Signs were varied but included 'If you're going to heaven, I'd rather be in hell' and 'God Hates Figs,' a parody of the Westboro Baptists' notorious homophobic signs.

But for all the preparation and anxiety on behalf of students and university police, the protest was rather uneventful. Some of the student protesters were disappointed, but made the best of the situation.

"Fortunately, the back of my sign is blank," said Cacciatore. "So I'll just flip it around and write 'Go Cuse' on the back then head to the game."


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