Thesis 25: Leaving The Protest Pen

This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
October 17, 2000 was a perfectly fine autumn day. The sky was slightly overcast, but that was to be expected. The weather was getting colder, and we knew better than to be too selfish with the St. Louis weather.

As we walked from my girlfriend's apartment in University City south to Adams Park, we were stopped by large crowds of students at the intersection of Big Bend Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway. This was before the Metrolink stop there, and throngs of pedestrians were on each corner, eagerly awaiting their turn across the intersection. Droves of police from St. Louis County, Washington University, U. City, Clayton, and elsewhere were anxious as all hell, jittery on their triggerfingers. The motorcade held, or so we were told, Vice President Al Gore. Dubya had yet to arrive for the presidential debate, and this was therefore the cops' first real test of their ability to keep these candidates secure.

After the motorcade had passed, the walk light turned green and my friends and I began to walk into the street. A thin, tall, 20-something U. City cop hadn't noticed the light and was still tense from the passing bulletproof cars. As he saw me approach him in the street, he asked me to move back onto the sidewalk. "But the cars have passed. The light's green now."

"Sir! Stop and move back to the sidewalk!" His right hand slowly migrated to his holster.

"Whoa whoa whoa! Officer, we're just walking across the street. We're not looking for trouble." His eyes darted around the rest of the intersection, where other cops were calmly ushering pedestrians across in an orderly fashion. This reassurance repelled his hand, where it returned into the air, waving us along. 

(Just for the record, I have never had a positive experience with a University City cop. Like, never.)

But we weren't even interested in catching a glimpse of Gore, whom we were all hoping would climb over the mountain of criticism about his stony demeanor and the perceived obsession with environmental issues in order to win the election. We didn't even want to taunt Dubya, though that certainly would have been fun. We were on our way to see Ralph Nader speak.

I'm not sure I actually really cared about Nader beyond the fact that he was neither Bush nor Gore. I wasn't even aware of the decades of great work he'd been doing previous to 2000. To my 23-year-old mind, he was a breath of fresh air who spoke hard truths about corporate greed ruining the U.S. and hurting the average American. I could get behind that. This was the era of global protests against the IMF and the World Bank, of reading Adbusters magazine every month, of realizing that our expensive undergraduate diplomas weren't landing us our creative dream jobs. We were still a year away from 9/11. Things, we felt, might actually change if we could keep up the momentum. The powers-that-be might actually be listening to us. We were always overflowing with an unpredictable mixture of hope, fury, indignation, and love. We were volatile, well-educated, and felt entitled to what was ours. We were bombs.

After Nader's speech, we moved across Big Bend to where the "protest pens" were. During these turn-of-the-century years of political protests, organizations like Washington University created questionably constitutional ways of handling those who desired to be in proximity to a high-profile event. In order to peacably gather, you had to register your group with the university, who would then assign you a roughly 400-square-foot, fenced-off area in which you could perform your circumscribed civil disobedience.

In the middle of the row of protest pens were Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.

The previous evening, Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, boarded a small plane with a son and a campaign advisor which later crashed near Goldman, Missouri, roughly 35 miles from St. Louis, killing all on board. Missourians were still in shock. Carnahan had been in the middle of his campaign for United States Senate.

The WBC didn't skip a beat capitalizing on the death of this moderate Democrat. Their signs mostly had to do with equating Carnahan's politics with his place in eternal torment, holding signs that read "MEL IN HELL." Others were adorned with Carnahan's body aflame amidst rainbow flags and allusions to the justifiability of Matthew Shepard's murder.

Understandably unsympathetic students and U. City residents stood on the edge of the WBC's protest pen, scoffing and taunting Phelps himself, as if cajoling him into an argument that was going to change his mind. Shouting each other down seemed to be the acceptable mode of expressing concern from both sides.

Along with the adults from the WBC, there were two children, one girl and one boy.

They were clearly terrified of what was going on, though they couldn't understand why all the college students around them were yelling at them, and why Phelps was yelling back, standing tall in his trademark suit and cowboy hat. They clung to the other adults in the pen, if not with their arms then with their proximity, nestled in among the hips and legs of the hollering adults for safety, for security, for protection.

They couldn't have been older than ten.

My friends and I had brought a frisbee with us. We'd figured once the riot cops cleared out, we'd have enough room to toss it around. I remember kneeling down with the frisbee in hand. I remember locking eyes with the little Westboro Baptist Church member boy who was so confused and scared. I didn't expect him to hear me over the uproar, but through mime and slow enunciation, I asked him if he wanted to come play frisbee with us. His sister saw my question as well. To this day, I'm not even sure why I asked them.

They looked at each other, seemingly considering the proposal in earnest. You could see the decision-making process happening as they shifted the question to the adults by looking up at their angry faces. The adults didn't return their gaze. The kids looked back at us. They clung even closer to the adults.

They just want to be kids, I remember thinking. They just wanted to have fun throwing a frisbee on an intramural field on a nice autumn day. But they couldn't. They had to be taught how to hate in the name of Yahweh. And they'd already learned that the cold world out there despised them for their thinking. It crashed planes so that fag-friendly politicians died. It left young Wyoming men bleeding on fences for liking other men. It made the people you love turn mad all the time, so mad that you weren't allowed to have a childhood.

The reaction from the LGBTQ community around Phelps' death has been impressively gracious, from what I have seen. After years of vitriol lobbed in their direction, most responses I've read on social media and blogs were overwhelmingly kind and forgiving. That is not what Phelps deserved. That didn't seem to matter. And thank God for that.

Those two kids in the protest pen almost fourteen years ago must be in their mid-twenties by now. They must have jobs and families and college degrees and dogs and retirement accounts and grocery lists and Facebook accounts. Perhaps they became the new leaders of the church who wrote the WBC response to media coverage of Phelps death. Perhaps not.

I like to think that they eventually found freedom. True freedom. And grace. I like to imagine them playing frisbee with a friendly stranger in the park under an autumn sky, automatically defaulting to love and trust, rather than fear and uncertainty.

I like to imagine them happy. 


Original image from Wikimedia. Used under Creative Commons license.


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