Dealing with Anti-Gay Protesters at NEPA Pridefest

Image Credit: silentwitnesspa.org

This weekend, members of the NEPA Freethought Society, a local community group of non-theists, attended NEPA Pridefest in order to show solidarity with the gay community, have fun, socialize, and most importantly engage the anti-gay protesters who were bound to show their faces. Instead of ignoring the protesters, like others do at these events, I felt it necessary to engage the protesters in order to mainly distract them from interfering with the event and the event-goers and quiet their voices. I find the tactic of engagement far more beneficial than ignoring. Despite this, we worked alongside with and respected the authority of the Silent Witness Peacekeepers at the event who escorted people into the event, maintained peace, and did not engage with the protesters.

Before NEPA Pridefest, I discovered that many anti-gay protesters attend these events in order to provoke people and file lawsuits if someone was violent toward the protesters. Before Pridefest, I attended an express orientation given by the Peacekeepers in order to learn what their role was, more about the protesters, and how to handle the protesters. One of the main parts of their code of conduct, though, was not to talk to the protesters, so I could not be a Peacekeeper at this event. Regardless, I respected the authority of the Peacekeepers at this event and worked side-by-side with them.

When the protesters -- a group of teens and young children, a relatively quiet adult male, and two very vocal adult males with a sound system and some sort of horn -- arrived, NEPA Freethought Society members observed them and asked the leader of the Peacekeepers if we could engage them, but we were told to wait and see what happens (and we respected that). The two vocal adult males with the sound system were saying all sorts of nasty things about homosexuals and, among many other phrases, was preaching and saying that we [everyone at Pridefest], in our pride, are elevating ourselves about God, rejecting God's truth, celebrating sin, turning people away from God, etc. After about five to ten minutes of this, both of their sound systems failed and the vocal males approached the NEPA Freethought members including myself and wanted to chat. The leader of the Peacekeepers gave us the nod.

One of the most interesting discussions I had with one of the protesters was regarding the problem of evil. He gave most of the usual responses and some really bad infrequently mentioned responses. I argued that one can not properly reconcile an omni-god with the current state of the universe and mostly focused on natural evil. When I told him that the world would be a better place without natural disasters, his defense was surprisingly that I can't know that because I am a finite being and do not know more than God, perhaps God has reasons for this. This defense mainly fails because an omni-god, if he exists, is all-powerful and could accomplish these reasons without natural disasters. He also argued that God has the authority to take life away and him doing so is always just. This defense also fails mainly because this doesn't give a reason for natural disasters and even if this were true, people need not be devastated by natural disasters.

Another interesting discussion was about Biblical prophecy and "the law of compound probability." One of the protesters said that so many prophecies in the Bible have come true and this is why we know God exists; the chances of all of these prophecies coming true is really slim, therefore the Bible must be inspired by God. This argument mainly fails because he is cherry-picking the Bible (there are many predictions that did not some true), the person is liberally interpreting [vague] passages, and many of the 'prophecies' are not prophecies. Regardless, even if propechies came true that were prophecies and they were not self-fulfilling, this doesn't demonstrate that the moral teachings in the Bible are true or even that a specific god exists.

In what might have been about an hour and a half, standing in pouring rain and going back and forth with the anti-gay protesters, NEPA Freethought Society members effectively distracted the protesters, quieted them, and had an interesting discussion. It was obvious that their positions would not change and we did not expect this, but we had fun discussing and accomplished our goals. Eventually, and unfortunately, the leader of the Peacekeepers asked me and the other NEPA Freethought Society members to withdraw from the conversation because she believed that we were drawing crowds, keeping the protesters there among other reasons. After we left the protesters, they were 'back at it;' they continued to harass people, be very loud, and even started following people as they left Pridefest. Once again, people were angered and the protesters were undeterred by people who were engaging them.

It is obvious that I disagree with the tactics of the Silent Witness Peacekeepers, but I respected their authority there and believed they did a great job. Peacekeepers escorted people into the festival with their big umbrellas, encouraged passer-bys not to get violent, distracted peoples' attention away from the protesters (at least somewhat), and served as a security team of sorts. Both the NEPA Freethought Society and the Silent Witness Peacekeepers effectively dealt with the protesters. Just because I preferred engaging the protesters does not mean that their tactics were 'wrong' and just because Peacekeepers did not prefer engagement does not mean that the NEPA Freethought Society's tactics were 'wrong.' Here, we see multiple ways to effectively accomplish a goal and both sides do not have to be at odds.

The Peacekeepers have more experience than NEPA Freethought Society members in 'working' events like this (we've never, to my knowledge, dealt with anti-gay protesters), but our members have lots of experience as far as debate/argumentation is concerned. We could have went back and forth with the protesters for hours, but we were asked to withdraw from the conversation. Working together with the Peacekeepers and offering what the other group does not have to offer, we were effective as a team. Some people, in previous discussions, unfortunately, 'don't get it' and think that people who disagree can not get along, but this was far from the case in this situation.

I also had some other major disagreements with the Silent Witness Peacekeepers. Their website, for example, says that confronting the protesters is "clearly useless" and that the protesters are "impervious to logic." During the express training, this sentiment was echoed along with the common sentiment of "those who do not have a position based on logic are immune to it." While this might be the case with some people, it certainly is not with all. Many former evangelical ministers and 'hardcore fundamentalists' are now activist atheists who have performed a 'cognitive 180.' One conversation probably won't change someone's positions (and this is never a goal of mine, for it is very niave), but a conversation may plant the 'critical thinking seeds' and might embark someone on the journey to reason.

The 'audience,' too, can always greatly benefit from the conversations with protesters (there were multiple Silent Witnesses recording the exchanges for everyone's safety). Perhaps it was the case that those recording never heard responses that I had given to the protesters and may, in the future, use my responses or further research. My discussion was not only limited to discussion about homosexuality; I talked a great deal about God and morality. The other obvious benefits of confronting the protesters, as I mentioned, were distracting them and quieting them.

The Peacekeepers were happy with the NEPA Freethought Society members and thought that we handled the protesters really well. None of us got angry, threatened the protesters, levied personal attacks, or raised our voices. Passer-bys, security, and the Peacekeepers gave us kind compliments. It was great to work with the Silent Witness Peacekeepers...and although we disagreed in the matter of tactics, we were effective as a team and hopefully made the Pridefest a better place for all who attended.