Approximately 80 counter-protesters, including community members, gay-rights advocates and bikers, arrived when members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. began protesting at three sites in McAlester on Friday afternoon.
Nine members of Westboro arrived in McAlester shortly after 1 p.m. and protested first, in front of McAlester City Hall, and then, at the intersection of Peaceable Road and U.S. Highway 69, and finally, at the intersection of Strong Boulevard and Van Buren Avenue. There were about 20 counter protesters at the first location, 30 at the second and approximately 80 at the third, and final, protest area.
Westboro members, who arrived together in a single van, had a police escort. Just prior to their arrival, Undersheriff Richard Bedford said that the Westboro group would have “police escorts in and out of town and to every location they are going.”
Also prior to the arrival of the Kansas protester’s, a man, who wished to remain anonymous, was holding his own “stop sinning” signs and planned to join the Westboro protesters. “I’m not here for publicity,” he said when a McAlester News-Capital reporter asked for his name. “I’m here because God wants you to stop sinning. I’m here to remind you that you can still repent.”
After their arrival, the nine Westboro protesters stood outside of the McAlester City Hall for approximately 30 minutes singing songs, holding signs and stepping on the American flag.
The protesters were then escorted by the police to their second area of protest, where they stayed for approximately 30 minutes. It was at this location where Luke Phelps-Roper, 8, and Boaz Drain, 8, two of the nine Westboro protesters, could be seen kicking around a balled-up American flag like it was a soccer ball. And a group of counter-protesting bikers began to rev their engines in attempts to squelch the sounds from Westboro members’ chants.
The Westboro group was escorted to their final protest location where they were met with a much larger group of counter-protesters. Rob Snider, of McAlester, could be seen kneeling with his bible praying. “I’m here to pray over the city,” Snider said. “They have every right, constitutionally, to say what they want, but their message has no fruits of the spirit — Peace, love and joy.
McAlester resident Brett Lalli said “I started a Facebook group to counter-protest Westboro when I heard they were coming back here. I had about 800 to 900 people, 80 percent teenagers, ready to counter-protest today. But I sent out a message last night telling everyone not to come. I thought the best course of action would be to ignore them rather than create a huge scene — since the huge scene is what they want anyway.”
Westboro protesters stayed at this third location for about 30 minutes, and then packed up there belongings and left town, again, with their police escort.
Johnny Chambers, 50, of McAlester, was at all three locations selected by McAlester police for the Westboro protests, wearing a rainbow-colored flag. Chambers said he was counter-protesting the group’s anti-gay message. Chambers identified himself as an openly gay McAlester resident who wanted to spread the message that God still loves him.
Another McAlester man at Friday’s protests, Kenny Springer, said he was part of The Flock motorcycle ministry group. “We’re just here to bring a balanced message of God’s love,” he said. “Community members can become confused when they see one church saying ‘God hates,’ and then they hear messages of God’s love when they go to their church. That can be confusing for people. So we want to bring a balanced message.”
The group’s return Friday followed a November demonstration at a McAlester serviceman’s funeral last month that drew about 3,000 counter-protesters, and vandals who slashed the tires on the Westboro members’ vehicle. Two Westboro women and four children represented their group at the Nov. 13 protest during a funeral for Sgt. Jason J. McCluskey. There were seven adults and two children that made up Friday’s Westboro contingent.
McAlester resident Pat Heacock was at both Friday’s protests and the Nov. 13 protests of McCluskey’s funeral. “It’s not just what they are saying, but what they are doing to the flag. I had a brother that fought for that flag in Vietnam. And my dad fought for that flag too, during both the Korean war and World War II. The way they are treating the flag is just wrong.”
For more on this story, pick up Sunday's print edition of the McAlester News-Capital.
Contact Rachel Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.