Hate groups not welcome

DSC04172There’s been a lot written on this site and elsewhere about what makes Rhode Island so great. The Rhode Island Foundation has even launched It’s All In Our Backyard, “an internal marketing campaign designed to change the way Rhode Islanders talk about their state” because, they say, the “state has a self-esteem problem.”

In this spirit I’d like to share an observation that occurred to me yesterday as I covered various marriage equality celebrations throughout the state:

Rhode Island is great, because we don’t have hard-core hate groups, they have to be imported.

Think back to the marriage equality hearings that took place at the State House earlier this year. Many people spoke passionately for and against the marriage equality bills. Those opposed to the bills on deeply religious grounds, whether we agree with their theology or not, were for the most part not motivated by hate, but by faith.

When the Faith Alliance, a coalition of various religious groups, was formed to oppose marriage equality here in our state, only one member organization had the distinct “honor” of being cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an actual, certified hate group: MassResistance. As their name implies, MassResistance is from Massachusetts. Sure, the Faith Alliance was organized by the National Organization for Marriage, but that’s also an out of town organization. Other members, including local chapters of the Knights of Columbus, the Hispanic Coalition of Pastors and Ministers and even the Catholic Church might have hateful members, but their primary mission is not one of hate.

Mark Potok, senior fellow with the SPLC confirmed this for me when he said, “it is highly unusual for the Catholic Church to work with groups like MassResistance.”

Yesterday the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a crazed religious cult best known for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in our foreign wars, came to Rhode Island to protest the first day same-sex marriages licenses were to be issued.

They came from Kansas. All four of them.

In response to yet another visit from an out of town hate group, Rhode Islanders responded the best way they could: they partied. Hundreds of Rhode Islanders, united in the spirit of tolerance, acceptance and equality, sent the WBC back to Kansas with their tail between their legs by singing, dancing, dressing in costumes and displaying humorous and mocking signs. Our message was clear: In Rhode Island, expressing intolerance and hate makes you an object of ridicule.

The WBC did our state a favor by coming to town yesterday. There are some people in this state who might have wanted to protest the arrival of marriage equality, but to do so they would have had to stand side by side with the WBC. As I tried to point out in my posts concerning the Faith Alliance and MassResistance, we are, rightly or wrongly, measured in part by the company we keep. As long as the WBC clown car was in town, unintentionally mocking those opposed to marriage equality, our local anti-marriage equality response had to be muted. Even our most vocal and local purveyors of hate (and they are out there, as you know) knew better than to appear to be aligned with the WBC.

Perhaps the WBC’s appearance here in Rhode Island even gave some marriage equality opponents something to think about regarding their attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. (Perhaps not.)

Groups like MassResistance and the Westboro Baptist Church, when they do come to Rhode Island to spread their noxious filth, should not be ignored by reasonable and responsible people. The Rhode Island Council of Churches (RICC) issued a statement to the press on Tuesday appealing “to the media to ignore the Westboro protests as the tangential and irrelevant phenomena that they are.” I could not agree more with the spirit of the RICC’s statement, but in practical terms, when reasonable and responsible people fail to counter and cover the WBC, only the unreasonable and irresponsible are left.

In yesterday’s celebrations and counter-protests, people of good character modeled decent behaviors for those who might be less inclined to act responsibly in reaction to the WBC’s presence. Large groups of people can sometimes become unwieldy and dangerous things, but one factor that can minimize the risk of a crowd becoming a mob is the presence of strong leaders and responsible participants. Another factor that tends to reign in bad behavior is cameras. People act and speak differently if they suspect their behaviors might be broadcast to the world. Yesterday’s counter actions in response to the WBC were the height of civility and peace because the people participating were at their core civil and peaceful, but also because those who might have more sinister motivations found their ideas lost in the crowd.

Hate needs to be actively countered and exposed to sunlight, lest it fester and grow.

We in Rhode Island should be proud because yesterday we as a people demonstrated decency in the face of indecency, love in the face of hate and laughter in the face of insult.

Good job, Rhode Island.

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Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

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