The first-ever student protest was held at Harvard in 1766 over the the subpar quality of dining hall food, but student protests since then have undertaken far greater feats. Especially at an institution like UChicago, where so many different views are represented, students exercising their right to free speech should seemingly come as no surprise. However, when the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) came to campus this past Friday, many were conflicted about whether or not to counter-protest: would it even be worth it?
Arguments for a “silent treatment” are certainly reasonable. Particularly with the WBC, infamous for its hateful rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community, simply ignoring it is an appealing proposition. The group’s hate speech could easily be perceived as actively harmful to the communities it targets. A counter-protest might even mistakenly legitimize its dangerous rhetoric, while simply ignoring it denies it an audience. Additionally, no amount of active opposition will cause WBC to change its deeply ingrained beliefs.
At the protest this past Friday, no more than ten WBC members showed up to spout their beliefs. Matched by a much larger and committed community of students, the protesters were quickly isolated and overpowered. Their place in society is also a minority: ridiculous claims and warrants for their beliefs mean that they are essentially powerless as a group. The fact that the WBC’s platform is so ridiculous also means that it is pretty easy for the majority of us to disagree with it: simply denying the idea that members of the LGBTQ+ community are destined for hell doesn’t make us special. If done incorrectly, a counter-protest can make a cause seem superficial by stating the obvious.
Perhaps most unique about the WBC is that it seems aware of the fact that most, if not all, people that it comes across will vehemently disagree with it. It realizes that the vast majority will not listen to its highly offensive rhetoric, nor will they ever be drawn to follow the Church. The WBC stages these public events not to convince anyone, but because it craves attention.
And that’s exactly why counter-protests make an impact.
When students organized to protest the WBC this past Friday, they made it clear that their goals were support and visibility, not single-handedly dismantling the Church’s ideology. “This isn’t about them,” the Facebook page for the counter-protests explains. By diverting attention away from the attention-seekers, these counter-protesters reclaim the power that could have otherwise been taken from members of targeted communities.
There are, of course, a multitude of potentially successful counter-protests. Having separate gatherings that celebrate diversity, easily accessible safe spaces, and resources for support are excellent ways of showing our solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. We should always strive to build up those who have been marginalized, more than a focus on tearing down the opposition.
But if we look through history, protests have often been extremely valuable in granting marginalized communities the opportunity to craft their own narratives out of oppression and effect change. Of course, one counter-protest against an extremist group hardly represents an entire movement of historical significance, but there are many important parallels. The Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s through the Civil Rights Movement resulted in the desegregation of the Woolworth lunch counter at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. A heavily contested issue in College Council elections this year was divestment, and if we look into the past, we find that student-led protests have actually made a significant impact in university action. Columbia students essentially forced the administration to divest from South Africa, in protest of racial injustice, by occupying administrative buildings and chaining themselves to walls until they were required to leave.
The protests I’ve just described obviously don’t directly mirror the counter-protests against the WBC, but the underlying message is the same. These protests were successful, not merely because they created systemic change, but because they gave visibility to important causes, and at the very least, demonstrated the solidarity of the protesters with marginalized communities. In many ways, they were stating the obvious: Standing against racial, gender, and class inequality has become an expectation of our society today. But it was only by building up the power of communities in the past that they could carry that strength through to the present.
The Westboro Baptist Church will never wave around a rainbow flag, but that doesn’t mean that we as students are powerless to stand against it. Counter-protesting the WBC makes an impact because students can actively disavow their beliefs, signifying a refusal to let hatefulness go unchecked. A handful of extremists chanting alone on a street corner hardly presents a pervasive threat to the communities they’re targeting, but that image is one we have to preserve to ensure that they remain powerless.
Ashvini Kartik-Narayan is a first-year in the College.