03/23/2005

Ole Miss Students Speak Out Against Hate

About 200 counter-protesters gathered in front of the University of Mississippi's Fulton Chapel last night to speak out against the Rev. Fred Phelps, proprietor of "godhatesfags.com," "godhatesamerica.com" and similar websites.

His Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) (see A City Held Hostage) has been listed by the Center as a hate group for years.

Phelps, who failed to appear after informing campus media Sunday that he and a dozen of his parishioners would protest guest speaker Judy Shepard, is notorious for his frequent demonstrations at public events. Members of his Topeka, Kan., church carry brightly colored signs with phrases like "God Hates Fags" or "Thank God for Sept. 11."

Phelps' family brought their demonstration to the Center in 2002 and again last year. 

"I think the main reason Phelps announced he was going to show up was to see if he could scare the campus Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) into backing out of hosting Judy Shepard," GSA president Steven Hall said. "Once he saw he had no chance of stirring things up, maybe that's why he and his group never came."

WBC members declined to comment when asked about parishioners' failure to attend their scheduled protest.

During the early morning hours of Oct. 8. 1998, two men later identified as Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson kidnapped Shepard's son, 21-year-old Matthew, drove him to a remote location east of his Laramie home and beat him nearly to death.

"I think that night started out as just a robbery," Shepard said. "[The men] were looking for money to feed their drug habits."

The murder though, Shepard said, probably would not have taken place if Matthew had been heterosexual.

"He handed over his wallet within five minutes," she continued. "Yet he was beaten 18 times on the skull and sustained four skull fractures. The last one smashed his brain stem. The level of violence was not [just a part of his] robbery."

Matthew spent 18 hours tied to a fence and became hypothermic before a bicyclist discovered him. He died four days later.

Speaking to a nearly packed house, Shepard began her lecture by playing a video that compared her son's death to that of James Byrd Jr., a middle-aged black man whose throat was slit before he was chained to a truck and dragged for almost three miles on June 14, 1998.

"The reason I show this video that includes James Byrd Jr. from Jasper, Texas, is because hate is not relegated to the gay and lesbian community only," Shepard said. "It is alive and well in regard to all minorities still today."

She discussed the need for equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as the necessity of hate crime legislation.

"Tax benefits [and] survivorship benefits [are] all unavailable because homosexuals aren't married," she said. "They can't marry, they're not allowed."

Toward the end of the evening, an audience member asked Shepard to explain what constitutes a hate crime and why legislation against such crimes is necessary.

"Hate crime [laws] protect everyone," she responded. "Everyone is a gender, everyone is a race, everyone is a religion [and] everyone is a sexual orientation. If someone were to murder a Christian, shouting [anti-Christian] epithets while bashing in their brains...that's a hate crime. Christian falls into the religion category."

She said a crime becomes a hate crime when a group the victim belongs to, rather than just the victim himself, is affected or intimidated by that crime.

"Burning a cross on someone's yard is not meant to intimidate just the person who owns that property; it's meant to intimidate the entire community," she said. "What happened to Matt sent his community into a tailspin because they knew it could have been them."

University of Mississippi graduate student Rima Chaddha contributed this story.