By Desiree Perez
By Desiree Perez
With a community as diverse as Riverside, it’s expected that people won’t always see eye to eye. However, on the night of Nov. 20, community members set aside differences in race, creed and sexual orientation to rally against hate and discrimination.
Westboro Baptist Church, based out of Kansas, had planned to come to Riverside City College to protest the opening of “The Laramie Project.”
Westboro is known for protesting at military and police funerals, churches and political events. They lay blame for tragic events on America’s acceptance of homosexual lifestyles.
The play is a dramatic take on the beating and resulting murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student victimized because of his sexual orientation.
As word of the church’s intent spread throughout the community, many people organized to form a counter-protest.
Whitney Fournier, president of RCC’s Gay Straight Alliance club, was one of many students in attendance. “We came down here today to counter-protest because we don’t want this kind of hate going on in our backyard,” she said.
By approximately 6:30 p.m., hundreds of community members, students and RCC faculty and staff had gathered in front of the Martin Luther King building.
Chief of the Riverside Community College District Safety and Police, James Miyashiro, commented on the crowd.
“It looks like maybe 200 to 300 people,” Miyashiro said. “It’s (on an) individual basis.”
While counter-protesters all gathered in solidarity against the Westboro church, there were many different points of view represented in their ranks.
Community member Beth Musial took pride in the diversity of the community as well as the counter-protest.
“You’ve got to accept people for their differences, that’s what makes America what it is,” Musial said. “The bottom line is, the god I believe in loves everyone.”
Other counter-protesters, such as Patric Westmarc, member of the Inland Empire Atheists, preferred to leave gods by the wayside.
“(I’m here) speaking out against intolerance and hatred,” Westmarc said. “(Westboro church members’) ugliness and their point of view is coming from an old book written by old men that doesn’t apply today. So much ugliness comes from religion, and religion itself has become a problem”
Cal Baptist University alumnus, Vanessa Runner, also commented on the gathering, noting the unity in its message despite the diversity of its members.
“I’m a Christian, Republican and I’m straight, and I’m here to stand against hate,” Runner said.
RCC Safety and Police lined up in the street between the growing crowd and the Landis Auditorium. Each officer had a riot helmet and other protective gear.
Despite the size of the crowd present to protest against Westboro Baptist Church, Miyashiro was confident that he and his colleagues could contain the crowd.
“I imagine it going down very peaceful,” he said. “We have policies and procedures.”
At approximately 8 p.m., “The Laramie Project” performance began in Room 144 in the A. G. Paul Quadrangle.
Protesters from Westboro never made an appearance. “The rumor is that they got stuck in traffic,” Miyashiro said.
Soon after the performance had started, RCC Police were called off the scene and the official demonstration was over.
Despite the church’s absence, counter-protesters like Brandon Wagner, president of the UC Riverside Queer People of Color group, gleaned a sense of hope from the turnout.
“I did not imagine it would be this big,” Wagner said. “Look around. Clearly, we do care.”
Mama Joi, co-founder of “Equal Rights Equal Love” also commented on the sizeable turnout.
“This happened because one person talked to another person and started spreading word that, hey, we’re hurting and we need to share in unified love get out, get up, stand up, and here we are,” Joi said. “If there is any clear statement that lingers in people’s hearts and minds tonight may it be that truth and love will always win.”
Additional reporting by Erin Hudson.