The death of Fred Phelps is only a victory if the rest of the Phelps family, who comprise most of the Westboro Baptist Church, fails or decides not to fill his shoes. They are not immune to change of hearts or being convinced of the humanity of the people they’ve been brainwashed to hate. I listened to an interview last year on CBC Radio’s “Q” of a couple of young women of the family who defected from the church. It started with arguing on the internet with a Jew who persisted in real conversation despite the temptation to troll or risk of being trolled (but the women didn’t really understand what “trolling” was in an internet-specific way). Eventually they were convinced that Jews, and other non-Christians, were…people. They couldn’t reconcile that humanization with what they were taught.
If the loud patriarch isn’t there to lead the mob of hate, will this cult’s activities and visibility peter out? Will more members be less intimidated to leave? One may be optimistic, but there isn’t any promise that a new charismatic leader won’t step up to the plate and continue or do worse.
In the summer of 2008, the Westboro Baptist Church announced they intended to drive up to my hometown to protest about whomever their god hates at the funeral of a murder victim. This was the widely covered incident of a schizophrenic man with a lapse in medication snapping and killing the Greyhound bus passenger next to him with no provocation but his mental illness. The press speculated that there would be difficulties in the group being let across the border since their organization is rightfully classified as a hate group, but coming in multiple cars at multiple border points made it difficult to ensure everyone would be turned back around (although Fred himself would’ve almost definitely been refused entry).
There was never confirmation that they were able to cross, but we could never be sure. In case they did, scores if not hundreds of people – just people, other Winnipeggers who were strongly against this abhorrent behaviour – showed up prepared to form a barricade around the church where the funeral was held. I was there, some friends were there, strangers were there, media was there, police were there, my middle school gym teacher was there, people at the high rise apartment complex next door were, well, not there to protest but at least watching and probably ready to throw rotten produce at anyone with a picket sign.
They didn’t show up. It wasn’t wasted time because a point was made. We’re against hate. We believe in respect and sympathy for the mourning. There was nothing about the victim that fit the profile of the WBC’s targets of hate, but this still showed respect for the LGBT people and soldiers of the ultimate sacrifice whose funerals were targeted previously. It was a victory of solidarity. I hope just the attention placed on Fred Phelps’s death shows how the majority of us unite to respect the dignity of others and remove any hope of the WBC’s survival. I’m not going to miss them, even as an easy target of mockery.