In a moment that became a rallying point for a wide swath of the Stanford community, hundreds of people gathered Friday morning outside Hillel House and along Mayfield Avenue to respond to five picketers from the Kansas-based fringe group Westboro Baptist Church.
Police estimate that 800 to 1,000 people, mostly Stanford-affiliated, turned out Friday morning. The gathering, dubbed “Stanford United” by organizers from Hillel and the Jewish Student Association, drowned out the Westboro demonstrators and went largely without incident.
Students began to gather at Hillel more than an hour ahead of the Kansas group’s 8:10 a.m. arrival time in response to a weeklong organizing campaign against Westboro’s visit. By the time the five Westboro members arrived on the corner of Campus Drive and Mayfield Avenue, Hillel’s front lawn was full and people were standing five deep on the other side of the road.
The church’s songs — targeting the Jewish and LGBT communities and U.S. Marines — were made inaudible by a crowd rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, is notorious for demonstrating with profane anti-gay and anti-Semitic signs, including at funerals of American soldiers. On Friday, five adult members picketed the Mayfield-Campus intersection for half an hour.
The student demonstration, organized by the Jewish Student Association and Hillel at Stanford with 22 co-sponsor groups from Stanford and Palo Alto, kept true to the goal it publicized: “to affirm our common values, regardless of WBC’s presence.” Many people never saw the church members, who remained at the street corner with trees and shrubbery between themselves and the front lawn of Hillel.
“Stanford really successfully came together and created a message of our own,” said Joe Gettinger ’11, president of the Jewish Student Association.
University spokesperson Lisa Lapin agreed the event had turned a potentially ugly scene into a positive moment for the Stanford community.
“While I really abhor what the Westboro Baptist Church stands for, it resulted in a positive opportunity for the University, to have so many students come together to support each other and make a statement for tolerance and against hate,” Lapin said.
Three tires on the church’s rental minivan were slashed during their demonstration. Lapin said the University offered reserved parking and security to the group as their vehicles have been vandalized in the past. The group instead parked a block from Hillel. Lapin said the police took a report on the tire slashing and, as of press time Sunday, had no further details.
Gettinger disavowed the vandalism.
“That should not be associated with our event,” he said.
Hillel and the Jewish Student Association began planning their counter-event soon after learning, via Westboro’s Web site, that the group planned to picket outside Hillel after making stops in San Francisco and at Gunn High School in Palo Alto.
At first, worried about attracting attention for the church, Gettinger said he considered whether doing nothing might be a better idea than a massive rally. But a strong student reaction following independent e-mails alerting student chat lists to the WBC’s plans convinced Gettinger that a simultaneous demonstration would only do good.
“There was so much energy on campus around this and it seemed better to channel it into something rather than bottle it up,” Gettinger said.
Fittingly, students on Friday expressed messages of tolerance — and flair.
The a cappella group Talisman stood on Hillel’s front steps and sang songs, including “Lift Every Voice.” The crowd read aloud a declaration titled “Stanford United.” Halfway through the event, Blake Parkinson ‘10 emerged from Robert S. Moore House playing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes, the crowd joining in after a cheer.
Calling the picketers “clowns,” a juggler in a bow tie tossed beanbags in the air on the same street corner.
Plenty of students brought signs, too. “Gay is OK,” one read. “I love Jews,” said another. One student carried his sign — “Don’t feed the trolls” — while wearing a bright pink bunny suit.
John Machacon ’13 and several others carried signs reading, “Out of many, one.”
“At Mass, the priest suggested we come out to support our fellow man,” Machacon said. “This group is about hating people for who they are, and I’m not okay with that at all.”
About 40 of the students in attendance were volunteer marshals working with the Stanford Department of Public Safety (DPS). They met inside the Ziff Center behind Hillel at 7:20 a.m. for a briefing from police Sgt. Hilary Karp on how to make sure the gathering remained calm.
Afterward, the volunteers donned bright purple T-shirts and formed a human barrier at the edge of the Hillel lawn in case the Westboro group approached the crowd.
“We were prepared for them to come onto the sidewalk, but things were really calm,” said George Michopoulos ’13, one of the volunteers.
Department police officers were out in full force as well. About eight uniformed officers kept watch on the Hillel grounds while another four monitored the event directly across the street. Lapin confirmed that plainclothes policemen were on duty as well.
The DPS also barricaded the lower block of Mayfield Avenue to traffic at 8 a.m. as people streamed toward Hillel from both directions. Police lifted the barricade at 9 a.m.
Other than the tire slashing, the gathering passed without incident. The crowd began to disperse after the Westboro protesters left at 8:45 a.m., though many stayed, as “All You Need is Love” blared from a speaker outside Casa Italiana and the Stanford Band ran in to cheers.
Never ones to pass up a tongue-in-cheek joke, the set list included Squirrel Nut Zipper’s “Hell” and Green Day’s “Welcome to Paradise.”
After the Band left, the roadblocks were gone and there was little physical evidence of the gathering except for thousands of footprints on Hillel’s front lawn. The emotional evidence lasted longer.
“I thought it went really well,” said Molly Bauer ’12. “The bagpipes were great.”
“It was incredible to come around the corner and see all the people already there,” said Daniel Mattis ’12, who worried that the early time would keep students from showing support. “It was just amazing.”
Jordan Knox ’10 may have put the general feeling best.
“You gotta love the love,” he said.
Correction: The Stanford Department of Public Safety estimated that at least 800 people attended the Stanford gathering, not 700, as appeared in an earlier version of this report.