By Catherine MacDonald
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – About 350 people rallied Tuesday at Virginia Commonwealth University to show their support for diversity and to take a stand against discrimination and hate.
The student-organized rally was a response to protests held around Richmond by members of Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, Kan. The church members and their pastor, Fred Phelps, are notorious for making inflammatory remarks about gay people, Jews and other groups.
Students from the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority and VCU Hillel were joined at the VCU rally by representatives of the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and Virginia State University.
Tim Reed, VCU’s director of Student Commons activities, said representatives of AEPi, AEPhi and VCU Hillel came to him last week to organize a counter-rally after they learned that members of Westboro Baptist Church planned to come to Richmond.
The church members protested outside the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Weinstein Jewish Community Center and Hermitage High School on Tuesday. Other counter-protests were held at those locations.
Here is a video of the Westboro Baptist Church protests and the counter-demonstrations. The video was produced by CNS reporters Frances Correa and Marcos Chappell.
Liz Canfield, an instructor in the VCU Department of Women’s Studies, attended the rally at the University Student Commons Plaza. She said she had learned about it from Facebook and her students.
“A while back, it came to my attention that WBC would be hitting the road again, and might stop by Richmond, and almost immediately, folks started to organize counter-protests and rallies,” Canfield stated in an e-mail.
Canfield said she was touched by remarks made at the rally by Renee Hill, a professor at Virginia State University‘s Institute for the Study of Race Relations. Hill urged an end to the spread of hatred throughout the world — even the hatred that counter-demonstrators might have toward Phelps.
“Whatever your religious beliefs, I like the idea that everyone, even Fred Phelps, is loved and chosen,” Hill said. “You are in charge. You can choose to let someone make you hate them, or you can recognize that they are loved and chosen.”
KB Levin, director of Hillel of Richmond, helped students organize the rally.
“It was a beautiful showing of really incredible, diverse people coming together with messages of love in our campus community,” Levin said. “I thought the students did an incredible job and showed such maturity on their part in the way they were able to get the crowd out there, and every one of their speeches was just great.”
Jon Bridge, the president of AEPi, helped contact the participating groups. He said the counter-demonstration was definitely a success.
“The rally showed that hate won’t be accepted at VCU,” said Bridge, a health and physical education major. “VCU is a place where diversity is what makes us function.”
Melanie Phillips, a representative of AEPhi, said the rally made people aware of where VCU stands.
“It was important to show the community as a whole that VCU stands together against hate, that we are a very inclusive community,” said Phillips, a sociology major.
Reed said such rallies reflect the university’s goal to be “an open forum for differing opinions.”
“This is just a good example of students coming together, drawing a crowd and really doing what a university is about, which is educate people,” Reed said.
CNS reporter Kelsey Radcliffe produced an audio slide show of the Westboro Baptist Church picketing and counter-protest.