The Story I Shouldn’t Tell?

I didn’t look up.

All it would’ve taken was a simple glance in the right direction and I would’ve had a great interview and even better story.

One of the most vilified organizations in the nation that loves to dish out hate speech couldn’t handle a crowd’s worth of criticism.  It happened in Kansas City on Saturday night.  I didn’t look up.

There are things I believe I’m good at and others I know I’m not.  At my apartment, my strengths are laundry and taking out the trash while my many weaknesses include washing dishes and making ice.  It’s really more a question of effort than ability, but if consistency is any measure of strength or weakness, I’m quite possibly the world’s worst ice maker.

At work, I’d like to think I’m aware of my surroundings.  Saturday made me question that.

THE STORY I DIDN’T WANT TO TELL

On Saturday night, Kevin Smith brought his newest movie to Kansas City and dared the members of Westboro Baptist Church to attend.  The maker of such cult classic films as “Clerks” and “Mallrats” had produced a horror movie called “Red State” containing direct and indirect digs at the Topeka church.

"Red State" promotional poster. Creeped out yet?

The hate and intolerance preached by the members of the Westboro Baptist Church is well-publicized (and I suspect if it wasn’t, they might have gone away long ago).

Most local media outlets’ general policy is to ignore the people who follow Fred Phelps.  Don’t get shots of them.  Don’t air anything about them.  It only creates the playground-bully effect of encouraging them to continue protesting American soldiers’ funerals.  Phelps says God is punishing the United States for our openness to homosexuality.

As recently as two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the church had a right to carry out its pickets.  The vote wasn’t even close as only one justice dissented.

Church members don’t just picket funerals of soldiers, of course.  I was in Great Bend covering teenager Alicia DeBolt’s memorial last August when Westboro members fled as it became clear there’d be violence if they stayed.  Police even arrested one man as he smashed the window of a fleeing Westboro car, which is no doubt the wrong reaction to the Phelps’ presence.

I don’t like situations where I’m told to do a story about Westboro.  I hesitate to post this because their members’ strategy is very clearly there’s no such thing as bad publicity (then again, it’s not like this site gets 1,000 hits a day…or even 100…sigh).

When several members of Phelps’ church not only agreed to attend, but also offer an honest critique following Saturday night’s screening…we had to cover this thing.

THE INTERVIEW…OR LACK THEREOF

Without an interview with Smith and shots of people watching the movie, there’s no story.  Only shots of the Phelps’ protest and movie-goers’ counter protest remain, and that’s not a story.  It’s just more publicity for Westboro with no redeeming newsworthy content.

Unfortunately, Smith’s PR guy said the movie producer was in meetings all the way until the start of the screening and wouldn’t be available for a two to three-minute interview.  That was a lie.

While trying to figure out how to turn a brand new story at 7:00 on a Saturday night, the photographer I was working with and I looked up just in time to see Smith carry a bag of food into the Midland Theater’s side stage entrance.  We had enough time to recognize the movie producer, just not grab him for an interview.

I have no personal experience to confirm it, but Smith’s reputation is that of a nice guy who I’m willing to bet would’ve taken a couple of minutes with a local news crew to promote his movie.

THE SCREENING

“Epic.”

That’s all my friend and former coworker, Scott (yes, the same Scott who pulled a muscle while driving), could think of to describe Saturday night.

While, of course, this was going to be a rowdy crowd to begin with, I’m guessing none of them really saw what was coming as the Phelps left the screening less than 20 minutes into the movie.  Left their shot at both ridiculing a movie they were clearly going to hate and berating the crowd that clearly hated them back.

The Westboro members immediately began sending out messages over Twitter calling the movie “filth” and other deplorable adjectives.  It already didn’t matter.  By that, I mean the insults and vitriol they hurled at Smith could not possibly have mattered any less.

The moment the Westboro members walked out of the theater, Smith and his fellow cohorts accomplished more than even they likely expected.

They showed the Phelps have feelings.

THE UPSHOT

Westboro Baptist Church is to church as Chicken McNuggets are to chicken.  They take pieces of the original, chop it up, mix in things that probably shouldn’t be there, and scream you must have some.

Still, I doubt the events of Saturday night will do much of anything to slow down or stop the hate spread by Fred Phelps’ followers.  What happened after the screening provides some hope, though.

As Smith got on stage to discuss the movie with his fans, two members of the audience spoke up.  Smith immediately called for extra chairs and microphones on stage for Josh and Libby Phelps, estranged family members who left Westboro Baptist Church.

Josh, one of Fred Phelps’ grandsons, left his family in the middle of the night long ago.  He made the crowd laugh as a self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd.  “The whole stand-up-to-people thing was probably a bad thing to teach a kid you wanted to stand on a street corner and picket people’s funerals,” Josh said.

Libby says she, too, got sucked into a world forced on her from birth.  Speaking of being recognized as a Westboro member, she said, “One time, I was walking to Best Buy and they were like, ‘There’s that damn Phelps.’  I was like, ‘Yeah!’  That’s how we were, like really happy if someone recognized us.”

This rebellion is what Smith says he hopes for other members of the church.

If the Phelps didn’t leave Saturday’s screening because they have feelings, at the very least, it was because they feared other members in the group do.  They fear the Josh’s and the Libby’s.

I really wish I’d looked up.

*Scott shot some videos with his phone (not of the movie, but what happened before and after the screening).  I’ll upload one or two here soon.

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