Macomb community members and Western Illinois University faculty, students, and staff sprang to action this week planning a counter-protest after they learned Westboro Baptist Church will stage a protest on WIU's campus this weekend.
Westboro posted a protest schedule online last week showing planned stops in Macomb, followed by demonstrations outside two churches in Quincy and a church in Hannibal.
Online organizing of a counter-protest in Macomb began shortly after. On Monday night there was an organizational meeting on Western’s campus lead by Merrill Cole, a Professor of English and Advisor to the Queer Studies Minor. Cole said Westboro wants to delegitimize LGBTQ people and their relationships and try to divide the Macomb community. He said they can’t be ignored.
“When we just turn the other cheek on hatefulness and pretend it’s not there, I don’t see that as a positive way of dealing with it because people are genuinely upset about them being here,” Cole said. “Even if they don’t have much power or even if it’s just a group of six people. It’s upsetting and I think it’s healthier for people to have an outlet for that.”
Cole said he wants students to feel empowered and know that they can confront hate.
WIU junior Dannie Kyle came up with the idea of naming the counter-protest the "Rally for Love."
“I wanted to change the event from counter-protest to something more positive because to me it’s really important to show it's an event about love and taking care of each other and not to give the Kansas organization the attention they want,” Kyle said. “But I feel like this sort of display kind of shows what they’re missing out on and what can happen when you love people instead."
Kyle said the Rally for Love will feature music, speakers, and positive energy. The rally is scheduled from 11:00 a .m. until 2:00 p.m. Saturday in Q Lot, near the football tailgating section. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. Meanwhile, the Westboro protestors will be set up down the road on University Dr. near U.S. 67 from 11:45 a.m. -12:45 p.m.
Westboro is a small group from Kansas that is well known for spreading anti-gay rhetoric and demonstrating at the funerals of military service members.
Dr. Ron Williams, the Vice President for Student Services at Western, said the group’s views do not align with the university’s core values or beliefs. But he said the group will be allowed to protest on campus because Western is a public university and thus is technically a free-speech zone.
“It’s very disappointing that a group such as this, although they are following the law and have the right to free speech as every person in this country has, that they would come to a place that is well poised for learning and instructions where people come to develop,” Williams said.
Williams said the university has been in contact with Westboro’s lawyers and expects only a handful of protestors to attend. He is under the impression the group will be visiting Macomb this weekend because Western’s football team is scheduled to play Indiana State University, which has a player who is openly gay.