WBC toured the region Sunday and Monday, targeting Jewish centers, a punk-rock concert and local schools, carrying signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
At their first stop Monday morning, they faced more than 100 students and parents outside Cherry Hill East High School, who were armed with signs pledging support for the LGBT and Jewish communities.
Next, WBC briefly protested outside Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, 1420 Walnut St.
The demonstrators — five adults and a 9-year-old boy — then traveled to the University of Pennsylvania, where they picketed outside a Jewish student organization, Hillel.
Across the street, several-hundred students, faculty and staff members from Penn hosted their own demonstration.
The event, initially conceived by brothers from the wrestling-team fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, whose house is next to Hillel, was also supported by Lambda Alliance, the coalition of Penn’s LGBT student groups.
Sophomore Tyler Ernst, who was elected as chair of Lambda Alliance less than a week before the protest, mobilized members and supporters to turn out for the event as one of his first tasks as head, which he said was successful.
“It really went viral on Facebook. It was quite amazing,” Ernst said. “We had a great mixture of people from across the wide spectrum of the campus community, with a lot of LGBTs and allies. It’s rare to see the whole campus come together like that, so it was really incredible.”
Ernst noted that the counterprotest, which featured ATO brothers grilling burgers and hot dogs in the 30-degree weather, was initially coined the “Tolerance Barbeque,” but organizers decided on a new name.
“It was changed from ‘Tolerance’ to ‘Acceptance’ because we all realized that tolerance just isn’t enough,” he said. “We want and deserve acceptance.”
Bob Schoenberg, director of Penn’s LGBT Center, said he was impressed by the maturity displayed by the Penn community.
“I was very pleased that so many people were there showing their support and that they were not seduced by the WBC people. It’s very easy to get angry with them, so there was naturally some concern that someone might engage them, but they all kept a safe distance,” said Schoenberg. “There was some minor heckling, but there was no significant engagement with the protesters.”
Throughout the event, organizers collected money for the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Anti-Defamation League.
“I was sitting down with some of the student leaders of Hillel and we were trying to think of what we could do to make it more memorable and decided, why not make this negative presence into a more tangible positive thing?” Ernst said. “So we had buckets going around and collected $250 literally out of people’s pocket change.”
Melody Kramer, 25, had a similar idea, although she said she preferred not to stage a physical counterprotest.
Kramer launched a Facebook group that asked users to donate $1 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation for every minute that WBC protested outside of Cherry Hill East — a total of $30 for the half-hour the group was present.
More than 1,400 people joined the group, and Kramer said the foundation confirmed the effort has so far netted $6,200, a figure she anticipates could grow to $20,000.
A 2002 graduate of Cherry Hill East and a 2006 Penn alum, Kramer said she chose the online route to direct the community’s attention to the more important issues.
“I believe when the WBC comes to any area, people want to show that they disagree with everything they think. The first inclination most people have is to show up and protest in person, but that’s exactly what the WBC wants people to do,” she said. “Instead, we collectively raised money for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization that actually goes into public schools and educates young students about hate crimes.”
To join the Facebook group, visit www.Facebook.com
and search for “Matthew Shepard CHE.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.