Signs that read “God Hates Proud Sinners” and similar phrases, that were held by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, were countered by words such as “Ignore the Haters” by UW-Madison students and community members.
Five members of the WBC, a religious organization that is recognized as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League, demonstrated at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue outside of Chadbourne Residence Hall, Thursday. According the WBC’s website, the group chose to visit UW-Madison because of its reputation as an LGBT-friendly campus and its ranking as the top party school in the nation.
The UW-Madison community responded to the visitors by offering safe spaces and counter-demonstrations. The LGBT Campus Center opened their office to all students to come and form a community during the demonstration to discuss how they were affected by the potentially harmful messages.
Some students took it upon themselves to respond to the issue. Several individuals made Facebook groups to encourage others to avoid the WBC demonstration entirely, while others formed groups to demonstrate in front of the visitors.
UW-Madison freshman John Balis encouraged students to ignore the protest by creating a Facebook event page titled “Ignoring the Westboro Baptist Church.” More than 900 people said they were going to or interested in the Facebook event.
“It can be really fun as a college student to go and engage them and just get mad,” Balis said. “But I don’t think that's productive because I think that encourages people to behave in that way. I was like, ‘Let's just start a movement to not encourage that sort of behavior.’”
UW-Madison junior Morgan Kubicek also ignored the visitors, but did so at the protest. She and another student, Brendan Smith, created a Facebook event called “Only Love Can Do That,” which encouraged people to ignore the WBC and spread positivity around campus.
“When I saw that the WBC was coming to campus I immediately wanted to so something,” Kubicek said. “My mind immediately went to a counter-protest, but the idea didn't seem right … But Brendan's idea to just be kind was inspiration for an event that isn't a counter-protest and aims to avoid direct conflict with the WBC while doing good for students.”
Other individuals asked for donations for the Wisconsin Veterans Foundations, the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, the LGBTCC and the Jewish Federation of Madison at the demonstration area.
Officers from UW-Madison Police Department and Madison Police Department were at the demonstration to maintain the peace. UWPD Director of Communications Marc Lovicott said that they were contacted by the WBC, who notified UWPD that they wanted to hold a “worship service” on campus.
They requested assistance from UWPD to form a safe space for them to share their thoughts, according to Lovicott. UWPD and UW-Madison administration allowed them to protest at the specific location and formed a barricaded area around the space. Lovicott said that officers did not need to assist during the 30-minute demonstration at all.
“We were proud of how our community responded to this,” Lovicott said. “They came out with positive messages, and there was very little interaction with visitors and the campus community.”