The first thing I say to Hanna King is: How about doing nothing? But a minute into our interview, it's clear that "doing nothing" isn't in this fast-talking 15-year-old's DNA.
The first thing I say to Hanna King is: How about doing nothing?
But a minute into our interview, it’s clear that “doing nothing” isn’t in this fast-talking 15-year-old’s DNA.
“Speech that isn’t rebutted gets to stand on its own,” she said between classes Tuesday at Seattle’s Garfield High School. “With what’s about to happen here, we decided this couldn’t be allowed to stand.”
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Last week, news swept through Garfield’s student body that an anti-gay, anti-Semitic hate group from Kansas plans to picket the school at 7:10 a.m. Monday, June 15. Called Westboro Baptist Church, the group is infamous for cheering the deaths of U.S. soldiers. They say the deaths are evidence of God’s anger at America for condoning homosexuality.
Their picket signs can be so offensive that two years ago a new state law forced them to stay 500 feet away from any burial ceremony. Lately, since Obama was elected, they have called him the “Beast Obama” or the “Antichrist” and predicted he will bring ruin to Israel.
The initial reaction at Garfield was: Huh? Why us?
Nobody has any idea. The Westboro Web site calls the Garfield students “little brats,” then adds: “It is only fair that they are shown some truth and light and life for one time in their sad lives.” But there is no coherent reason stated for picketing the school (some Seattle synagogues and churches are also on the list).
The second reaction, from the school staff, was: Ignore it. If the pickets come at all there will be only a handful.
Enter King, a sophomore. She met with Principal Ted Howard and a Seattle police officer stationed at the school. She painted them this picture: People carrying signs telling gays to go to hell and calling Obama the Antichrist gather outside Ezell’s Famous Chicken, across from Garfield. At the same time, 1,500 high-schoolers arrive for the day. Isn’t that a combustible mixture?
“We’re high-school students. We’re hotheads,” King told me. “Something is bound to happen.”
She proposed a counter-rally. To give people a peaceful outlet. And support to anyone, from gays to Jews to African Americans, who might be angry or hurt by the signs.
King put it up on Facebook, the social-networking site. Nearly 300 have signed up to attend, plus 300 maybes. Add in more than a thousand Garfield students showing up for school and this could be one enormous rally.
Which of course is exactly what Westboro wants.
“Counter-protesting will only give them more publicity and encourage further protests,” one student objected to King.
“Don’t give them an audience, don’t validate them,” wrote another. “They’re looking to cause a scene. Best way to frustrate that plan is to ignore them.”
And then came some worrisome messages, like this: “I won’t keep it civil … I will spit in their faces. These people disgust me.”
What is the right thing to do? Will countering the hate only amplify it? I wondered whether I should even write this column — especially because Westboro has a habit of being a no-show. As my editor put it, I’m now giving them “another hit on Google.”
A Seattle writer, David Neiwert, has a new book out on this issue. Called “The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right,” it’s about how extremist ideas, when unchallenged, can work their way into mainstream media and politics. Once there, repeated daily by pundits such as Bill O’Reilly, the ideas can embolden fringe movements to take action. Sometimes violent action.
Yet even Neiwert was torn on what Garfield should do.
“The ritual of standing up to extremism, of saying ‘Not in our town,’ is very important,” he said. “But Westboro is so bizarre that you can’t take them all that seriously.”
It’s no longer about political theories or some whacked-out church in Kansas anyway, King told me. It’s about Garfield.
“Are we going to stand up?” she wondered. “Even if there’s only 10 students who feel threatened, it could mean the world to them to let them know that all of Garfield is there for them. Isn’t that what’s most important?”
It is. So let’s also flip the publicity calculus on its head. I would now like to thank the bigots of Westboro. For giving me the chance to highlight that there are 15-year-olds in our city like Hanna King, ready to take on the world.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.