JOPLIN, Mo. —
A group of seven protesters, some carrying signs expressing opposition to President Barack Obama, who recently endorsed same-sex marriages, gathered Monday afternoon near Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.
The group, members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., held signs at the corner of Newman and Duquesne roads. The message, however, was shielded from passers-by after area residents gathered in front of the group at the intersection with a message of their own.
“Honk If You Love Joplin,” “Honk If You Love the Class of 2012” and “Joplin Pride” were among the messages on the signs the residents used to block the Westboro group, which is known for its stance against gays and lesbians.
The counter-protest was organized by Joplin resident Charlie Brown, who got the word out for it via Facebook. He said he has participated in a number of anti-Westboro events.
“I come from a military family, so that’s how I got into it,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we protect families from this kind of hatred.”
Brown also organized a rally held during the community memorial service on May 29, 2011. Then, thousands of people lined Range Line and Newman roads to show solidarity with Joplin after the Westboro group announced its intention to protest.
Only one man turned up to protest then, and he wasn’t affiliated with the Westboro group. He had to be ushered to safety by police after members of the crowd tried to pursue him.
The two groups of demonstrators were separated from each other Monday by metal barricades and police.
Jael Holroyd — a member of the Westboro group — carried a sign that said “God’s Fury,” bearing an image of a tornado.
“A year ago, Joplin was God-smacked by the tornado, and instead of repenting, she has rebuilt and proudly defied God,” Holroyd said.
Holroyd said the group was turned away last year by police who said they could not guarantee the group’s safety. Sgt. Ryan West with the Joplin Police Department said that statement is “inaccurate.” He said the group did not show up last year and was not turned away.
West said he was pleased to see both groups showing restraint.
“Everybody’s peaceful,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. We want everybody to have the opportunity to exercise their rights as long as it’s peaceful and nobody gets hurt, and that’s what we’re here to do is make sure that happens.”
Asked whether staging a counter-protest gives attention to a group that craves it, Brown said he didn’t agree.
“A lot of people feel like we should ignore them,” he said. “But I feel like that if we hadn’t ignored them for so long, we might not have this problem now.”
Tosha Loyd, of Webb City, said she attended the protest to keep the focus on the Joplin High School students who were graduating. She said the Westboro group uses verses from the Old Testament to misrepresent God as vengeful.
“They need to reread the Bible, because John 13:34 says to ‘love everybody as I love you,’” she said. “They are not showing love, and this is not how God wants us to be.”
Phyllis Netzer came from Springfield to take part in the counter-protest. She carried a sign that said “Congrats, Joplin Grads.”
“They’re a mean, hateful, un-Christian group,” she said of the Westboro group. “I hate all that. The president of the United States is coming to a town that was devastated.
“I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I did this.”
CHARLIE BROWN, who organized counter-protests against the Westboro group this year and last, said Monday that during the 2011 rally by his supporters, money was raised for relief efforts in Joplin, and a lot of donations were made to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.