During brief protest of Unitarian Universalist support for LGBT lives by Westboro Baptist Church, police arrest a local activist. General Assembly Safety Team works to de-escalate situation with police.
Approximately 70 Unitarian Universalists gather across the street from a handful of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed the UUA General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri, with anti-LGBT signs on June 21, 2018. (© Christopher L. Walton)
A Kansas City activist who is not a Unitarian Universalist was arrested Thursday evening as six members of the anti-LGBT Westboro Baptist Church held a brief protest outside the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Kansas City.
At the request of GA organizers, UUs did not engage directly with the protesters, although approximately 70 UUs sang, held LGBT-affirming posters, and displayed a rainbow flag across the street from the Westboro group. The UUs sang and chanted “Side with love!” as members of a Safety Team organized for GA 2018 kept watch to try to de-escalate any encounters between the two sides. Approximately 2,670 Unitarian Universalists are in town for the UUA’s General Assembly at the Kansas City Convention Center June 20 through 24.
“Hate is easy, loving is so much harder—it requires such spiritual depth,” the Rev. Rose Schwab, minister of the Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, Kansas, shouted through a bullhorn.
Unitarian Universalists affirm LGBT lives across the street from a Westboro Baptist Church protest of the UUA General Assembly in Kansas City, June 21, 2018. (© Christopher L. Walton)
The protest started at 5:00 and lasted less than an hour. The six protesters, three men and three women, packed up their signs and hurried away from the plaza as it began to rain.
About ten minutes before they left, though, a woman leapt out of a car and began yelling at the Westboro group. She was immediately surrounded by seven or eight police officers, who were monitoring the protest, and handcuffed. The man driving the car also began to get out, but was told by a police officer that he would be arrested. Criss Crass, co-leader of the General Assembly Safety Team, worked to de-escalate the situation and urged the man to stay in the car and continue driving so he would avoid arrest.
The woman is a local activist in the Kansas City area but is not a UU, according to Schwab. Police at the scene said she would be charged with disorderly conduct and impeding traffic. Schwab and Ana Maldonado, who are leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign in Kansas, asked police to release the women into their care but they refused and transported her away in a police vehicle. A police officer at the scene said the woman would be taken to the 27th Street police station. An officer at that station, also known as the East Patrol Campus, said on Thursday night that he did not have her in custody. It is unclear where she is.
“We feel the police escalated it,” Schwab said. “They arrested her so fast.”
Members of the Westboro church also protested the UUA’s 2016 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, where they were surrounded by 200 UUs—including ten wearing angel wings that first gained national acclaim a week earlier in Orlando, Florida, when people wore them to shield grieving families from antigay and/or anti-Latinx protesters at funerals honoring victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre.
Schwab said the UU Safety Team was organized by the UUA to help limit the police presence during GA 2018, out of concern for disparate treatment of people of color by police.*
Crass, a white antiracist activist, said that UUA Co-Moderator Elandria Williams had the vision for the Safety Team because of problems that UUs of color have experienced at past GAs. Thirty people were trained in de-escalation techniques for the Safety Team, said Crass, whose co-leader is India Harris, a young adult religious educator at the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York.
Crass said that on Wednesday evening, a UU of color was stopped by police as he walked to the Convention Center and asked where he was going. When he said he was headed to GA, the officer asked him why he wasn’t wearing a GA badge, even though there were a number of white UUs in the same area who were not wearing badges but were not stopped by police, Crass said.
Crass said he encountered a police officer on Thursday evening at the Service of the Living Tradition, where the officer was guarding money collected during the service. Crass asked him about the incident with the black UU the night before. “He was not apologetic,” Crass said. “He said maybe they thought the black UU was homeless.” Crass said he asked the officer to register the concern of UUs that racial profiling was taking place.
An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to negotiations with the Kansas City Convention Center by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. BLUU was not involved in organizing the Safety Team and commends the efforts of organizers to find creative alternatives to police, according to BLUU Executive Director Lena K. Gardner. Click here to return to the updated paragraph.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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