NEW YORK — The shout comes from a construction worker across Broadway in Manhattan’s Financial District: “You’re an asshole!” The target is used to such vitriol, even more so than your average New Yorker. But these aren’t New Yorkers. They are members of the Westboro Baptist Church, up from Topeka, Kansas on this thirteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Standing outside HarperCollins Publishers on a gray end-of-summer morning, the four members have attracted a crowd of curious onlookers, including employees who have come out of the building to witness the spectacle.
“Well, I guess now we know we’ve made it,” jokes one HarperCollins employee.
Westboro Baptist Church is a tiny but infamous clan of hardcore Calvinists who believe the vast majority of humankind is destined for Hell. Armed with colorful signs that read, “God hates fags,” “You’re going to Hell,” and other classics, its members have protested and picketed everything from national political conventions to the funerals of American soldiers killed in action. Their pet crusade is against homosexuality, and they view the September 11 attacks as God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of it. They seem to hate everything except Jesus.
“The media has a choke-hold on this nation,” explains Rebekah Phelps-Davis while looking at me with a thousand-yard-stare that I assume she gives to all doomed souls. She is the daughter of WBC founder Fred Phelps, who died in March. “Basically whatever they say is what the lemmings of this nation take to be true, and they don’t know how to tell the truth,” she said. “For instance, they know it’s not ok to be gay, but that’s what they promote.”
I nod bemusedly.
“Filth and foul,” she says calmly.
Earlier, the group had been outside The New York Daily News, which according to the WBC’s website, was “established” by Jesus for “his pleasure.” I mention this to Phelps-Davis, which leads to this exchange:
“Jesus created all. Everything,” she avers.
“So what happened?” I ask.
“What do you mean, ‘What happened?'”
“Jesus creates The New York Daily News, which is this imperfect thing that is now spreading ‘filth and foul’ as you say. So did Jesus get it wrong?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“So what happened, then?”
“They decided that they weren’t going to follow the word of God, just like in the days of Noah, when they decided that they were going to reject the word of God and have fag marriage. And then God destroyed the Earth.”
“Don’t you think Jesus would’ve seen that coming, though?”
“Absolutely, he did.”
“So why would he create the Daily News in the first place?”
“Because he wanted to, to show his power, and to show that he’s going to do what he wants to do…. And the vast majority of mankind, he will not have mercy on, and they will go the way of Satan, and they will be destroyed with this Earth….”
“In a way though, it’s not really the people at the Daily News' fault because if Jesus created the Daily News knowing all this–”
“So, it’s your position that Jesus Christ is the one that did wrong?”
“It seems to be your position.”
“No, that’s your position.”
Mercifully, this mindfuck ends when a casually dressed backpacked millennial also takes a crack at engaging Phelps-Davis in rational discourse. Naturally, it goes nowhere. After a few minutes of futility, he's off, probably to his job as a software programmer.
I ask Phelps-Davis if I can take her picture, even though we are already on a public sidewalk.
“As long as the signs are in it,” she says, adding, “I’m not much to look at,” in a completely unexpected instance of self-deprecation.
During this time there are several police officers specifically assigned to the protest standing by who have been instructed to “keep the peace,” as one of them tells me, which is to say they are here to make sure these people aren't pounced on and dismembered by a mob of pissed off New Yorkers.
A few minutes after I snap a photo of Phelps-Davis, it is time for the church members to pack up their signs and walk a couple of blocks to their final protest destination: the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Well, almost. They have a designated protest area a block away at the corner of Trinity Place and Liberty Street. There, they will stand behind metal barricades, presumably for their own safety. On the way over, they are escorted by a cadre of uniformed and plainclothes police officers.
The WBC members set up shop on a sidewalk adjacent to Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street fame. I see a construction worker sitting on a curb smoking a cigarette who’s just starting to notice the signs they’re pulling out of their bags. As he looks on with utter befuddlement, I let him in on the gag.
“Westboro Baptist Church,” I say to him. “You ever hear of them?”
“No,” he replies.
Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss.
The signs are out, and in a New York minute a throng of spectators converge to watch this train wreck.
The youngest protester, who is either a teenager or a twenty-something who looks like a teenager, has an American flag wrapped around her leg. Much to the consternation of the crowd, the flag is being stepped on and dragged along the ground. I ask her if she’d be willing to answer some questions. “Sure,” she says politely. “Just let me finish this Vine.”
Not wanting to wait for her to finish fiddling with her phone, I turn to WBC member Abigail Phelps, a woman in her 50s and ask why she’s there.
“You understand,” she begins, “that Obama wouldn’t be in that White House, 9/11 would not have happened, the fags wouldn’t be allowed to marry if it weren’t for you lying media. You decided that you — not you personally, necessarily, but maybe — that you were going to push fags. You know that all you gotta do is say, ‘These are now socially acceptable lifestyles.'”
Again, my interview is cut short by an onlooker who wants a verbal piece of this hate group. The crowd of spectators that has gathered at the northwest corner of Zuccotti Park is more voluminous and hostile than the one at HarperCollins.
“What does this accomplish overall?” a man in sunglasses asks Phelps. “It will get people to hate your message,” he explains, adding, “You’re a fucking troll, and what you do to your children is a mess.”
The conversation concludes and I stop filming. My right hand is shaking slightly and Phelps notices.
“Your hand is shaking and you’re not even the one getting yelled at,” she quips.
“I’m just hungover,” I joke.
Surprisingly, she lets out a chuckle. The Westboro Baptist Church is ok with drinking. Or at least, ok with laughing about drinking. Were it not for the hateful signs she’s carrying and general insanity emanating from her mouth, Phelps could pass as your cool aunt Abby.
Just when the whole scene can't get any more madcap, a young man in plaid begins shouting at the church members to tell them that the September 11 attacks were an inside job perpetrated by the government.
“How crazy is that?” I say cheekily to Phelps, asking her if she agrees with him.
“It’s completely irrelevant,” she asserts, “because God Almighty is in charge of every bit of it.”
Former Ground Zero volunteer Dana Fuchs can't stand to be just an onlooker anymore. She tells Phelps that it is the Westboro Baptist Church members who are going to Hell because of the hate they spew. “They’re the same thing as the terrorists,” she tells me. “They have the same hate in their heart as the terrorists. They’re bullies.”
Thankfully, these bullies are few in number. One estimate places the number of WBC members at around 40, which means they can just barely fill a September baseball roster. Yet, so bizarre and hateful are their antics that we can’t help but watch knowing full well that’s exactly what they want.