Countering Westboro

Cherry Grovers drown out hate Westboro Baptist Church plans to bring to town.
January 11, 2013

(Kenneth Woodhouse in the Arcade Theater in Cherry Grove last summer.)

These days it seems that anything concerning the Westboro Baptist Church—or more to the point, anything concerning the hate group’s determent—has a high tendency to go viral. As of press time an online petition to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group has more than 300,000 signatures. More locally, a Facebook event organized by Kenneth Woodhouse, a Cherry Grove and Westchester resident, to create a counter-presence to the planned arrival of members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Times Square today has some 2,560 people invited. “I was surprised we got that many invites in such a short period,” says Woodhouse. “It was just leapfrog really.” (Anecdotally, you may remember Woodhouse for his somewhat controversial Arcade Theater—the Cherry Grove Community Association asked him to move it to a private location—on the dock of Cherry Grove last summer.)

He says he’s not the type of person who typically jumps onto bandwagons on social media, but when he saw that Westboro Baptist was planning on picketing the Sandy Hook victim’s funerals, he decided he needed to do something tangible. “I had gone onto their page, just to go back again and I went through all of their videos,” he explains. “When I saw that they’re going to be in New York City, I thought, ‘you know, I can sit here and I can write and I can kvetch all I want, but it’s not going to do any good.’” So Woodhouse created the Facebook event and invited his friends. And the counter-presence initiative is really rooted in community. “We all know each other. Of the four or five groups that will be there that day, a lot of us know each other,” he says.

The plan is to meet and surround the Westboro Baptist picketers in Times Square around 4pm and to then quietly drown them in the crowd. “My idea is to just really obliterate them in anonymity,” Woodhouse explains. “To just have three rows of people around them so that the police can’t see them, the media can’t see them.”

In an era where pundit shouting matches and inflammatory internet comments pass for dialogue, it’s an interesting way to make our voices heard—without even uttering a word. “My fear is being incendiary,” he says. In the 2010s, he says, “There’s so much sensationalism.”

Ultimately, aren’t we just tired of being discriminated against? Mistreated? Detested for no real reason? Woodhouse certainly is. “I don’t want to be openly hated anymore. I’m tired of it. I’m not taking it and my friends aren’t either.”

Westboro Baptist Counter Presence in NYC in Times Square, 42nd St (@ Broadway), Jan 18 at 4pm; free.