Saturday, April 30, 2011

Westboro Baptist: One of my predictions about the evolution of an urban folklore tale comes true

Following James Randi's rules for successful prophecy, you need to take credit for your "hits." (Another is to keep quiet about your misses.)

Unfortunately, a prediction I made back in 2005 is coming true. I wrote theen about the protest of the radical Christian fundamentalist sect of Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of American soldiers:

This is the kind of story that, in a few months or years (or maybe even right away) will be translated into folklore as "antiwar protesters disrespecting soldiers and their families by protesting at military funerals". You have to read all the way down to the seventh paragraph to see that the protesters were radical rightwing Christians, or maybe we should call them Christian extremists inspired by radical clerics.
A story now making the rounds online not only goes there but morphs the Westboro Baptist Church into a Democratic activist outfit with suspicious ties to, uh, Al Gore?!?

The story I saw via a Facebook post had to do with a supposed effort by locals in Brandon MS, a small city near Jackson, to prevent Westboro protesters from disturbing the funeral of a soldier recently killed in action. The report was from a posting by "Joni" at a site called Retire Like Me: Mississippi Town Destroys Westboro Baptist Plans 04/21/2011.

The story had some telltale signs that merit questioning. First of all, it described a remarkable degree of cooperation from locals and the city police. And it labels Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro antigay hate groups, as a "Democratic activist" but doesn't describe the antigay and Christian-fundamentalist ideology that they put front and center.

I searched Yahoo! and Google for Westboro Baptist Church Brandon. And I didn't come up with anything I would recognize as an actual news article. There were several references to this version, which was posted at FOX Nation in an unsigned blog post: Mississippi Shows How You Handle Westboro Freaks 04/23/2011. I searched the Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger and only came up with sports stories about Brandon.

The FOX Nation item linked to a blog called The Hayride to a post by someone called McAoidhe, Westboro Baptist Church Goes to Mississippi - and Loses 04/19/2011. Both it and the FOX Nation piece had the following account, as did the Retire Like Me site:

A couple of days before, one of them (Westboro protestors) ran his mouth at a Brandon gas station and got his arse waxed. Police were called and the beaten man could not give much of a description of who beat him. When they canvassed the station and spoke to the large crowd that had gathered around, no one seemed to remember anything about what had happened.

Rankin County handled this thing perfectly. There were many things that were put into place that most will never know about and at great expense to the county.

Most of the morons never made it out of their hotel parking lot. It seems that certain Rankin county pickup trucks were parked directly behind any car that had Kansas plates in the hotel parking lot and the drivers mysteriously disappeared until after the funeral was over. Police were called but their wrecker service was running behind and it was going to be a few hours before they could tow the trucks so the Kansas plated cars could get out.

A few made it to the funeral but were ushered away to be questioned about a crime they might have possibly been involved in. Turns out, after a few hours of questioning, that they were not involved and they were allowed to go on about their business.
That site sources the account to "an Ole Miss [University of Mississippi] sports message board." The link it gives is to a site called "The Oxford Square"; The lead item from "tcreb" is a video shot from a car showing people standing alongside a road, some of them waving American flags, identified only as "USMC Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers returns home." The text is there as of 04/30/2011, as a comment posted by "Weblow.sixpackspeak". It contains the added final line, "Ranking [sic] deserves a hand in how they handled this situation."

The video is this You Tube item, which is identified in its notes: "The following video is MHP Trooper Elmo Townsend's view as his dash cam recorded the escort from Airport Road and along U.S. 80, as hundreds of onlookers gathered to pay their respects." The source is "Uploaded by neosynk on Apr 15, 2011."

It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence when the sources of a story are all pseudonyms.

I did find a bylined item by a Ryan Ebersole reporting the event sort of like in the "Ole Miss" version in People's World, which is the online paper of what's left of the American Communist Party: Extremist Westboro Church foiled in Mississippi 04/25/2011.

I've checked and for this story, but haven't found it mentioned there. Still, until I see a real news report, I'm going to assume this is an Internet urban legend.

But in FOXWorld, it doesn't matter if something is actually true. Once it's "out there" (aka, the Katie Couric rule), it is discussed by many people as though it were fact.

This one includes a new propaganda twist very akin to the urban legend of the hippie girls who were said to have spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam back in the days when the terms of today's "culture war" were largely defined. Instead of identifying Westboro Baptist as what it is, a fundamentalist Christian antigay hate group, this version of the urban legend makes Westboro into a Democratic Party conspiracy against American soldiers and their families. The People's World piece at least described Westboro accurately: "They say that God hates America for its tolerance of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community and that dead soldiers, terrorist attacks and natural disasters - among a myriad of other tragedies - are divine retribution for this tolerance."

The Hayride's version makes it a full-blown Democratic conspiracy - excuse me, a "Democrat" conspiracy:

Fred Phelps, the disbarred lawyer and Democrat [sic] activist who leads the Westboro congregation, will undoubtedly pursue some form of legal action for the way his people were thwarted in Brandon. Let him try. There isn’t a jury in Mississippi which will see things his way.

This is a template for how to handle the Westboro people. If lawsuits don’t work, other means will. Whatever it takes to keep them from harassing bereaved military families on the day their fallen loved ones are laid to rest.

UPDATE: Some of the feedback we’ve received from this piece came along the lines that it’s inappropriate to refer to Fred Phelps as a “Democrat activist.”

We stand by that characterization. If anything, it’s an understatement.

Fred Phelps ran for major office in Kansas as a Democrat no less than four times. He ran for governor on the Democrat ballot in 1990, 1994 and 1998 and for senator in 1992. Phelps received 11,000 votes, or seven percent, in 1990, he received 5,000 votes, or three percent, in 1994 and he picked up 15,000 votes, or 15 percent, in 1998. And in the senatorial contest in 1992 he garnered 49,000 votes, or 30 percent. Phelps furthermore ran as a Democrat candidate for mayor of Topeka in 1993 and 1997.

Phelps also has been closely associated with Al Gore on several occasions throughout Gore's career – Phelps’ son Fred, Jr. was a Gore delegate at the 1988 Democrat convention and the Phelpses hosted a Gore fundraiser in Topeka that year. Phelps claims that Westboro members "ran" Gore's 1988 campaign in Kansas.

Phelps may not fit within the typical definition of "Democrat activist" some of our readers expect – but a six-time Democrat candidate is an activist Democrat. That is quite clear, as unknown to the public as it might be.
I haven't yet dug into whatever tiny fragment that may resemble a fact in that set of claims just quoted. Anyone can register as a Republican or Democrat and run in a party primary.

But as the process I've sketched of researching this particular urban legend illustrates, following crackpot claims to their source can quickly become a pointless effort. In this case, so far as I've been able to determine, this whole tale originated with someone called Weblow.sixpackspeak on an Ole Miss sports blog.

Since I've analyzed an apparently imaginary story this far, I'll mention that there are some telltale signs that this story was weak, and maybe an urban legend:

  • It implies a surprising degree of very effective coordination of the local police with private citizens involving an elaborate secret plan: "There were many things that were put into place that most will never know about and at great expense to the county."
  • Yet the encounter at the gas station is described as a chance event.
  • Brandon isn't such a one-horse town that there is only one motel where out-of-town protesters could stay, which is what the part about "the hotel parking lot" implies.
  • Brandon is small enough, though, that a "large crowd" for a chance encounter that led to a fight at a gas station would be about, oh, five people.
  • The sourcing is basicaly heard-it-from-a-friend-of-a-friend, the classical urban legend sourcing.
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