Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church
In the mid-1990s, Topeka had both a mayor and a police chief who were seen by many as sympathetic to Phelps, men who agreed that homosexuality is a sin.
Chief Gerald Beavers already was facing some public criticism for assigning contingents of police to the Phelps pickets — not to protect passersby, but to guard the picketers. Later, he would be accused of coddling Phelps in other ways.
This reported coddling had its effect. Gene Roles, whose sisters experienced "absolute physical devastation" from a screaming attack by Jonathan Phelps, likened their experience to "verbal rape." Roles says that the biggest hurdle in eventually convicting Jonathan Phelps of disorderly conduct in that incident came from an unexpected quarter — the Topeka Police Department.
"They all said they had been briefed not to issue reports on the Phelpses," Roles told the Intelligence Report. "We talked to 10 officers and got 10 different reasons why. In the end, winning the case came down to simply following through on a police report. The jury was convinced in 15 minutes."
A few years later, officers came forward to essentially corroborate the Roles story, complaining publicly that they'd been instructed by Beavers not to arrest members of the Phelps family.
Beavers denied that charge, although Fred Phelps says today that the two men "understood each other." In any event, then-Mayor Felker says he told Beavers to resign or face firing. Beavers quit.
Speechless in Topeka
Dean Forster, the current chief, came in with what were seen as strong Phelps-fighting credentials. Phelps Chartered had been forced to pay Forster many thousands of dollars in legal fees after a judge ruled that a Phelps civil rights suit against Forster was frivolous.
But Forster was soon sued again by the Phelpses, and as part of a settlement the police department agreed in writing to allow only five Topeka officers — not including Forster — to deal with WBC. Department officials say Forster also verbally agreed not to publicly discuss the church or the Phelpses.
For some, the new administration has changed little.
Bridget Newman was 16 in the summer of 1999, when she says she was "verbally attacked" by Jonathan Phelps on the street. She and her mother contacted the police. "When we told the police officer we wanted to press charges, he smiled and said, 'Oh, you must be from out of town. The Phelpses just do these things and there's nothing we can do about it. It's within their legal rights,'" Bridget recalls.
"I turned away crying and really upset. They had all the rights and I had none."
The Newmans ultimately did file a report. But Bridget says a Topeka detective called her mother a short time later. "He advised us not to press charges and said they could make our lives hell, that we didn't know what they could do."
A hearing in the case has been postponed indefinitely.
Police official Ed Klumpp — one of the five officers allowed to publicly discuss WBC — says officials can do little other than police the pickets for violence or other lawbreaking. In fact, Klumpp says he often recommends that communities facing Phelps pickets concentrate on preventing potential violence from counter-demonstrators.
But retired detective Doug Mauck disagrees, saying officials could do things like separate picketers from their targets. "If we had been alert in 1991 and known where it was going," he laments today, "we could have stopped in then and there. Law enforcement could have been a big help."
In some ways, the raw vitriol peddled by the Westboro Baptist Church has had some positive effects. There have been years of counterpickets, meetings, street fairs, fundraisers, rallies and invited speakers. Many targeted churches have joined together to proclaim that "God's Love Speaks Loudest."
And last spring, the city council unanimously passed a resolution condemning hate — although even that mild document prompted as yet unfulfilled threats of retaliatory lawsuits.
Even some local homosexuals say Phelps has managed to unite the city in unexpected ways. "Phelps has actually been good for Topeka and for the gay community," says J.L. Cleland. "Topekans would rather sweep problems of race and sexual orientation under the carpet. Now, they can't do that."
State laws passed in the early 1990s — mainly as a response to Phelps — regulate funeral picketing, stalking and fax machine harassment. City ordinances now limit the picketing of private residences and church services.
Today, in the wake of the handful of criminal convictions of picketers, some say there have been noticeable, if mild, changes in WBC'S behavior. In Topeka, members don't scream as much at passersby — although they still do in other states. Complaints to police and Phelps lawsuits have slowed as WBC'S efforts have shifted to the national scene.
One local lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, came up with a novel way to battle the Phelpses. When Phelps Chartered, alleging "emotional damage," sued someone who had filed a criminal complaint against a WBC member, Irigonegaray's team requested court approval to have a psychiatrist evaluate Phelps family members to determine the alleged damage. The Phelps firm settled without delay.
For his part, Fred Phelps, holding one of his church's 800 picket signs, says he's gone "way past 'hate' to 'detest,' 'abhor.'" He pauses, searching for the right words for his enemies. "All they think about day and night is fornicating."
Well, maybe. Many people have speculated about Phelps' desperate hatred of homosexuals, wondering if he has something to hide.
"There's only one person in this town who thinks about homosexual fornication day and night," says Richard Alexander, the former human relations commissioner who is also a member of Topeka's Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "And he's not in our task force."
In the end, the city of Topeka may yet get the better of Phelps, a man who many in this Kansas city think of as the demented uncle best left locked away in an upstairs bedroom.
"If there's one thing we've learned through all of this," Suzanne James concludes, "it's that you can only beat a bully by standing up to him."