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10 Nonviolent Ways to Thwart a Westboro Baptist Church Protest

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You're probably familiar with the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe religious group of anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-kindness-in-general people infamous for picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers, protesting charitable organizations, showing up with hateful signs after national tragedies, and for being generally terrible, terrible people. This weekend the WBC's spokesperson announced their plans to picket at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Here are 10 nonviolent counterprotest techniques — used previously or newly planned — that we may see in action if Westboro shows up in Newtown.

1. Strap on Angel Wings

Image credit: The Laramie Project at Duke

Angel Action is an organization that helps counter-protesters organize and construct 10-foot-tall "wings" for protesters to wear, which are used to block the view of WBC members and their signs. The group was informally founded during the murder trial of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and killed in 1998. WBC founder Fred Phelps staged a protest at the courthouse, and Angel Action founder Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard, devised the wings and set up around Westboro protesters. The organization is still involved in thwarting WBC pickets, including the planned Sandy Hook appearance, and has set up a Facebook event to provide details as they are available.

2. Build a Wall of Humanity

Image credit: Leslie Mott

At many funerals and events protested by Westboro Baptist Church, anti-WBC protesters will stand hand-in-hand to form a human wall around the venue to protect the victims' families or event attendees from seeing protesters, and also to prevent Westboro members from accessing the site. One such human wall was formed at Texas A&M after alum Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale was killed in the July 2012 Fort Bragg shooting, and again in August 2012 at the Palm Bay, Florida, funeral of Army Specialist Justin Horsley, who was killed in Afghanistan by an IED.

3. Bring Better Singers

Image credit: NBC

While they often sing at protests, it seems the Phelpses are not Foo Fighters fans. The church picketed a Kansas City concert in 2011 because instead of using their fame "to encourage obedience to God," Dave Grohl and Co. "teach every person who will listen all things contrary to him." (The list includes adultery and idolatry, which without the Foo Fighters would surely not exist.)

Undeterred, the band put on a bonus performance across the street from the Westboro folks. Dressed in overalls and fake facial hair of varying fabulousness, the band sang "Keep it Clean (Hot Buns)," which just happens to be a song about the lonesome life of a gay long-haul trucker. The band even made a great video, which begins a minute in to remove most of the NSFW language:

4. Don't Fix a Flat

Image credit: CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World

In 2010, Army Sgt. Jason James McCluskey died in combat in Afghanistan. When WBC showed up to picket his funeral in McAlester, Oklahoma, they were met with a mostly unremarkable counterprotest; people held their own signs and yelled across the street. But when Westboro's protesters tried to leave, they found that the tires of their minivan had been slashed. As they drove through town on shredded rubber and rims (followed by a police cruiser), it became clear that no person or business in McAlester was going to help them repair or replace their tires. Eventually, the WBC had to pull over in a parking lot and call AAA to have the van towed to a location willing to assist them. While we don't suggest vandalism, maybe consider not lending a hand should you find a Phelps with a flat.

OK, that one was kinda violent. Moving on...

5. Turn the Protest into an LGBT Fundraiser

At almost every WBC protest venue, you'll find an equally-vocal group heavily armed with signs and message t-shirts and megaphones. What you don't often find is a real method for turning Westboro's presence into something positive. That all changed in 2010 when UIC student Jason Connell had an idea.

When Margie Phelps and other members of WBC showed up in protest of the university's Jewish United Fund, Connell set out an empty pretzel jar and took donations. Funds raised by Connell were donated to charitable organizations the WBC targets specifically (mostly Jewish-, LGBT- and AIDS-related charities). But the real kicker was the thank-you notes mailed to Fred Phelps and his family. Without their protest that day, the couple hundred dollars raised by Jason Connell and the dozens of copycat campaigns that followed wouldn't have been possible.

6. Invite Zombies

Eight Westboro members found themselves surrounded by several dozen zombies when the group showed up to protest at a Seattle-area military base in July 2011. The zombies were such an interesting (and numerous) diversion that no one paid much attention to the Westboro people. The protest's organizer said, “It was the easiest way to divert attention from something so hateful.”

7. Invite Other Terrible People to Steal Some Thunder

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A large portion of Westboro's energy goes toward explaining how American soldiers die in combat as a result of the country's increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. That's why, in 2011, they picketed at Arlington National Cemetery during the president's address on Memorial Day at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The turnout against WBC was enormous, and included a separate-but-equal response from a group of KKK members. The Klan, who were cordoned off from the general protesting population, passed out flags and made it known that they were there in protest of WBC's anti-military message. And it looks like even the KKK is disgusted with Westboro's latest move, because rumor has it they're planning to make an appearance in Connecticut if Westboro goes through with their picket. (You know you're beyond reprehensible when other terrible, terrible hate groups align with the public against you.)

8. Diversify the Protest Agenda

Image credit: Flickr user froboy

When six members of Westboro showed up at the University of Chicago to protest the school's employment of Barack Obama, more than 100 students organized various counterprotests, which ran through the duration of WBC's "visit." Student events included a simultaneous picket featuring signs warning of America's doom-by-figs, flyers deploring fig-eaters and speakers who told of God's vengeance upon fig-loving nations (all sourced from a reference to evil figs in the book of Jeremiah). Down the street, a ragtag dance troupe of frat boys did a little song and dance to "It's Raining Men." And in a nearby courtyard, passersby were distracted by a diversity fair featuring s'mores, more scantily clad dancing men, hot cocoa and petition-signing. Basically the idea was to outnumber and out-distract people who weren't protesting, which seems to be the most common action (aside from just making funny signs) to detract from Westboro's presence... which brings us to the next point:

9. Petitions!

Anonymous opened a petition to ”legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.” (They also released a list of WBC members' personal information, which is not at all a thing we advise being involved in.) Anonymous's motion is not the first and unlikely to be the last such petition, and it may even go unrecognized by the government (though it already had more than 84,000 signatures as I typed this). But it's worth noting that a hate group's actions — which include intimidation and harassment directed at a person, institution, or any other entity that "manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity" — may be investigated as domestic terrorism by the FBI.

10. Good Old Mockery

Image credit: Comics Alliance

There is no shortage of examples of signs mocking the WBC. Large, funny, meaningful and/or well-placed signs can be effective in reducing Westboro's negative impact in a community, and though there are no records for this sort of thing, we doubt there has been a WBC protest that hasn't been mocked relentlessly by civic-minded citizens.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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