On Monday morning, our campus was the target of a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church, an extreme Christian (and I use the term Christian very loosely here) fundamentalist organization that travels the country protesting various progressive organizations. Penn’s very own Hillel was the subject of a recent protest.
After conferring with several student leaders across campus, Hillel President Aviva Vogelstein, a College senior, came up with the perfect response to this hateful action — ignore them. “They want publicity. They want to be seen as the victim,” Vogelstein said. Instead of organizing a counter-protest that would have fanned the flames and provided the organization with undue publicity, Vogelstein and other Hillel leaders decided to hang a simple banner outside of Hillel that read, “We celebrate diversity.”
That banner carried the logos of over 118 student groups. It hung above protestors, who carried signs displaying slogans such as “Your rabbi is a whore,” and “Fags are beasts.” Rather than directly responding to these hateful messages, Hillel decided to take the higher road. “By having a banner, we were offering a silent protest. It did not give them the undue attention that they wanted,” Vogelstein said. That banner was a symbol of the diversity and tolerance Penn counts among its highest attributes.
While Hillel chose to ignore the Westboro Baptist Church, Alpha Tao Omega, the fraternity located several feet away from Hillel at the corner of Locust and 39th streets, decided to take a different approach. The fraternity’s brothers decided to host a barbeque in an effort to overshadow the protestors. The event’s goal was to “completely ignore the church and to have such a big crowd with so much positive energy, that we overshadow their protest,” according to an e-mail sent to advertise it.
I will concede that the Westboro Baptist Church was wildly successful in one respect: I’ve never seen our campus unite so quickly behind a cause in my three-and-a-half years at Penn. Vogelstein agreed. “It was really impressive how such a hateful group could produce such unity on our campus.” Confronted by an organization whose sole purpose is to condemn peaceful organizations, students quickly showed they whole-heartedly supported the level of diversity that Penn has striven so hard to create. We stood in solidarity and collectively exclaimed, “Your message of hate has no place on our campus.”
As a campus leader of a diverse community at Penn, it was heartening to see so many of my peers defend our many communities against the hateful message that was brought by the Westboro Baptist Church. It would have been exceedingly easy to simply let this organization descend upon our campus with their words of intolerance. Instead, we chose to place a symbol of Penn’s diversity and acceptance on the front line of the conflict.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a pathetic, hateful organization. They have hijacked the traditional Christian message of acceptance and humility and replaced it with one of bigotry and intolerance. Such a message is incompatible with the fundamental tenets of Christianity, and it is also incompatible with the mission of our University.
Penn is a premier institution of higher learning. As such, we provide an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves, regardless of their identities or backgrounds. Westboro Baptist Church represents everything that runs counter to this welcoming environment. Their hate speech was on full display Monday morning. As a community, we not only rejected their philosophy, but we offered our own.
I have never been more proud to call myself a member of the Penn community. I hope we can take this experience as a reminder of all the values that we, as an institution, hold dear.
Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, N.Y. He is the chair of the Lambda Alliance. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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