Members of the Santa Monica and surrounding communities assembled in front of Santa Monica High School Monday morning in opposition to protests by members of Westboro Baptist Church, known for their anti-gay sentiments.
People in opposition of WBC created a “positive wall of humanity,” according to Ruhi Bhalla, co-president of Samohi’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, that stretched half a block in front of the high school and down Seventh Street. Over 200 people attended.
Bhalla and fellow GSA club president, Molly Chaikin, researched 10 peaceful ways to protest WBC, and decided on the wall, which is a human chain facing the school to block views of protesters.
“We hope to make this a positive experience,” Chaikin said.
With a week and a half of planning, Chaikin, 17, and Bhalla, 16, made a Facebook group and encouraged people to suggest anti-protest ideas.
“It’s not about us; it’s about our student body,” Chaikin said.
A total of seven members from WBC were present, including a teenage girl.
Among the WBC group was Rachel Hockenbarger, who expressed little worry about their lack of support.
“This isn’t a competition as to how many people believe or how many people don’t believe,” she said. “The children go from the high schools to the killing fields in Iraq and Afghanistan. No group of people needs this word more than this group of people in these days.”
Hockenbarger said Samohi is not the first high school WBC has visited. The Topeka, Kansas-based congregation also protested the Oscars this past weekend.
To reach appropriate age groups, WBC parodies popular songs by adding their own lyrics. One of the songs chosen on Monday was Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” to which the protesters replaced the hook with “you need us now.”
“We have to speak to a generation, and we use their songs to speak to them,” Hockenbarger said.
By 7:48 a.m., WBC had left.
Among the community effort toward WBC were teachers, parents, religious officials, and members from Santa Monica to North Hollywood. GSAs from Brentwood, Palos Verdes, Santa Monica College, and Loyola Marymount were also represented.
“Santa Monica has a pretty rich history of excepting and really fostering diversity,” said Sandra Lyon, superintendent for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. “Clearly, that’s not something they support.”
Nathanial Acker, an advanced placement government teacher at Samohi, pulled students out of his 7:10 a.m. class to experience the protest.
“They need to be able to see all aspects of society,” he said. “The good, and the bad and the ugly. The constitutionality issue of when the first amendment begins and ends.”
Posters hung and held around Samohi stated things like “God cares for all people” and “Unity is my value – Samohi unites” in opposition to WBC pickets, one of which read “God hates fags.”
“Our GSA here at Santa Monica High School really saw this as a great rallying cry to support all of our students,” Lyon said. “Our students really took great leadership in this event.”
The high school held events inspired by the protest for the rest of the day.
This story was co-written with Elizabeth Moss