Hundreds of students from D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High School and supporters from other schools and the community turned out Monday morning for a counter protest against members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, who assembled a block away from the school.
In what appeared as a pep rally as much as a counter protest, students chanted slogans of “love, not hate” and “I’m so proud to go to Wilson High.” One male student carried a sign saying, “I have two moms and life is good.” Others waved rainbow flags.
Wilson principal Pete Cahall, who disclosed he’s gay at the school’s Pride Day event last week, said the counter protest was “student organized and student driven.”
He said students took immediate action to organize the counter protest after the Kansas-based Westboro Church, which coined the phrase “God hates fags,” announced its members planned to appear at the school to protest the school’s Pride Day event, even though the Pride event took place five days earlier.
“This is unbelievable,” said Todd Allen-Gifford, senior officer with Wilson’s Student Government Association. “I have never seen our school come together as much as we have today,” he told the Blade. “People have really rallied behind this. We’re proud of who we are and we’re showing everybody we’re proud of who they are too.”
Among those attending the counter protest were D.C. Council members David Catania (I-At-Large) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who are running for mayor in the November election, and Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). Also attending were D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and D.C. Office of Human Rights Director Monica Palacios.
Mayor Vincent Gray was scheduled to attend but had to cancel due to a foot injury, according to the mayor’s office.
A large contingent of D.C. police officers, including members of the department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, also attended.
The chance of a possible verbal confrontation between the Westboro Church members and the counter protesters was lessened on Friday when D.C. police told the school that the church members decided to hold their protest at the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Chesapeake Street, N.W., which is a block away and out of sight from the school’s main entrance.
Between a dozen and 20 Westboro Church members who showed up for the protest could not be seen by the hundreds of people participating in the counter protest in front of the school’s main entrance.
Principal Cahall stated in an announcement posted on the school’s website over the weekend that the administration and the student organizers agreed it would be best not to have a face-to-face confrontation.
“The Wilson students are not going to exercise their First Amendment at the SW corner of Chesapeake and Nebraska – instead they are going to stage on the east side of Wilson…,” Cahall wrote. “[T]hey are no longer concerned with being seen by them – All thought this was a positive change logistically and it lessens the chance of a contentious demo.”
A number of students participating in the counter protest from other schools, including University of Maryland student Zack Harris, did walk over to where the Westboro members had assembled.
“When they were here they were kind of standing across the street,” Harris said. “There were lots of us here. But they weren’t really saying anything. They just had their offensive signs.”
Montgomery Blair High School student Rachel Arbiter, who was among the many students from other schools joining the counter protest, said she was surprised that most of the Westboro protesters were young.
“When you first walked up it was actually very difficult to tell the difference between the Wilson kids and the Westboro Baptist Church people,” she said. “But as soon as you saw their signs you could tell.”
Both the protest and counter protest started at about 8:15 a.m., the time that many Wilson students are arriving at the school. Those who normally walk to school often walk past the spot where the Westboro protesters had assembled.
There were no speakers at the counter protest. At 8:45 a.m. Cahall, using a bullhorn, reminded the students the scheduled time to end the gathering had been reached.
“We need to get back to teaching and learning today,” he said. “This is probably the biggest lesson you can ever teach a young person. So thank you, but it’s now time for Wilson scholars to get back to work and to go to school.” His remarks were greeted with loud applause and cheers.
“It was wonderful – peaceful, positive, loving, caring, accepting – what can you say?” Cahall told the Blade as students were walking into the school building.
“This is what the Wilson community is about,” he said. “I think we said our message loud and clear to Westboro and to the world how people should be treated.”
Bowser and Catania concurred.
“We want to support our kids and we love this school and they’re really demonstrating what it is to be respectful and loving of each other,” Bowser said at the start of the counter protest. “Isn’t it remarkable that these children are showing adults how to live and how to be?”
Catania, who chairs the Council’s Education Committee, said he too came to support the students.
“These kids are fantastic. The welcoming environment that we have at Wilson and in so many of our schools across the city is something we all should be proud of,” he said.