Since the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) announced plans to picket Miami University nearly a month ago, students, faculty and community members have engaged in an emotional and sometimes contentious debate about how best to respond.
Two initiatives – the Associated Student Government (ASG) led “We’ve Got Your Back” pledge and a rally to “Unite Miami” being headed by Spectrum – represent complimentary approaches to countering WBC’s visit, by encouraging students not to directly engage with WBC but instead attend an event focused on unity, love and support for the very groups WBC targets.
The WBC picket will take place from 4:15 to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25 on the corner of Maple and Spring Streets, according to Claire Wagner, associate director of university communications.
Unite Miami will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Central Quad, according to Billy Price, Spectrum co-president.
“The event isn’t anti-Westboro, it’s pro-Miami and pro-diversity,” he said. “It will be a bunch of people who want to celebrate the diversity we have here, who appreciate the fact that you can meet someone who is vastly different from you.”
Price said Westboro’s right to protest is an important one.
“We are a college campus,” Price said. “This is where we are supposed to encounter ideas that we aren’t necessarily comfortable with.”
The event will include performances from a cappella groups, speakers from military, LGBTQ and religious backgrounds and a drag queen. Unite Miami will include fundraisers for an AIDS support group and disabled veterans.
The Greek community, religious organizations and uptown businesses are among groups that have been invited to co-sponsor the event. The Office of the President, Ambassadors for Children and Sigma Lambda Gamma are among the organizations that have signed on as co-sponsors.
“We want to celebrate the concept of love, diversity and unity,” Price said. “We are one student body, we are one community.”
Miami senior Ben Richardson plans on attending the event.
“WBC wants you to attack them and harass them,” Richardson said. “They make their profits off suing groups that infringe on their rights. I think the best way to counter the WBC is to show support for the groups they oppose.”
Student Body President Nick Huber said the university wants to avoid interaction between the group and students and urges students to ignore the group.
“I would suggest that anyone and everyone stay as far away from them as possible,” he said. “They thrive off of counter protests.”
Huber hopes no students are drawn into an argument with the group.
“My worst nightmare is for a student to engage with the group and provoke a prolonged dispute,” Huber said.
ASG has developed a pledge for students and faculty to sign prior to the visit, according to Scott Walters, assistant vice president for student affairs. Walters said about 1,000 students have signed so far.
By signing the “We’ve Got Your Back” pledge, students are supporting and welcoming all people within the Miami community and their uniqueness. The goal of the pledge is to protect individuality and stand up in support of others within the Miami community, according to the text of the pledge.
When asked about the pledge, Price said “While I agree with not engaging Westboro, I do feel that ASG’s support for our alternatives fell a bit short.”
ASG has had two lengthy discussions about their approach to this visit, Walters said.
“Everybody has a different opinion on how this should be handled,” Walters said. “We want to make sure that our students don’t become the story. This group takes hatred to a whole different level.”
Wagner hopes the visit doesn’t become an opportunity for WBC to spread their message.
“Their victory is media interest and publicity,” Wagner said. “Our victory is as little publicity as possible.”
Wagner said WBC is very well practiced at confrontation and the university has not received any requests to counter-protest.
Price hopes that people will attend the Unite Miami event instead of giving Westboro what they are looking for: publicity.
“Any picture that winds up on Facebook reinforces their goals,” Price said.
Spectrum is asking the Miami community to participate in the White Out campaign by wearing white on picket day.
“We want a way for everyone, including people who can’t make it to Unite Miami, to be able to show solidarity and support,” he said.
Richardson is still contemplating his picket day outfit.
“I will either wear white or the most ‘American’ shirt I have,” he said.
There will be volunteers positioned close to the picket location warning students that there will be a demonstration ahead that may be hurtful to them while suggesting an alternate route to get to class, according to Price and Wagner.
There will also be support spaces Tuesday for both students and faculty. Students can go to 111 MacMillan Hall to speak with counselors or converse with other students. Faculty can go to room 257 in the engineering building. The Hillel Center, located on Walnut Street, will also have its doors open from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Unite Miami will be preceded by a “Teach In” at 3:30 p.m. in 322 McGuffey Hall.