A few weeks ago I wrote about the incredibly futile losing cause that some people embark on when they attempt to picket or counter protest the Westboro Baptist Church. It was in advance of their actually coming here to Albany to protest against what I have still yet to figure out. Their protest announcement, which is by now unavailable on their Web site, mentioned President Obama in particular, but then again most of their protest announcements do. During their few hours in Albany, the Phelps held up their incendiary signs alongside a house at 677 Washington Avenue, directly across from Albany High School. The also protested in front of the State University of New York building on Broadway and at a spot on Fuller Road off of Central Avenue. None of spots seemed particularly sensible, but then again this is the Phelps we are talking about. Today, they are up in Plattsburgh making their rounds.

The house next to which WBC protesters carried on their demonstration in the morning

The house next to which WBC protesters carried on their demonstration in the morning

In today’s Albany Times-Union there was a brief story by staff reporter David Filkins about their trip to the Capital City on the Hudson.

Said Margie Phelps, a daughter of church patriarch Fred Phelps, “We use words and do things you can’t ignore. The irony is that they think they’re hurting us. If they really wanted to do damage, they wouldn’t show up. But the bigger the commotion, the more attention we get. More media, more photos, more coverage.”

And therein lays the whole strategy of the circus act that is the Westboro Baptist Church. If nobody took them seriously, they wouldn’t have any pull and get any extra attention. Instead, too often, when the church makes one of its bizarre trips to a new town, people come out in droves to counter them, which to me is insane because these aren’t exactly people who are fickle in their beliefs. They may be a part of a destructive cult-family, but they are certainly set in their ways and unbending. Only God Almighty can move that mountain.

Rather, I think that the Phelps touch on a raw nerve of insecurity in a lot of folks. They may not necessarily be worrying if the bold statements on the placards are true, but at the same time they also may be unsure of their own beliefs to a degree and made uncomfortable that others may believe things about God that really seem so contrary to what they’ve been taught to believe or want to believe.

counter protesters

counter protesters

At yesterday’s brief showing near Albany High there were several Evangelical groups that rallied against the Phelps with various speakers calling on God to spread his love around the crowd. At the same time, they were standing next to people who were angrily doing what the Phelps do, which is to condemn others to hell. There were also people with signs quoting scripture that would condemn the Westboro Baptist Church members to hell, which to me seems very insecure.

On the secular side, there were other people who felt the need to be bothered by Westboro members walking on the flag.

I stood near a cop who was asked by a few men if he could  arrest one young woman for trampling on the flag. They seemed to have some vague notion in their mind that it is permissible to arrest someone for desecrating a flag. Actually, the Supreme Court has held that most forms of desecration are protected speech. Would we want to live in a country where you’d be put in the tank for that? I wouldn’t.

In all, it was something to observe, not to get up in arms about. Margie Phelps has laid out the organization’s priority, which is to rattle cages. When people allow themselves to be disturbed by their shocking and crazy message, they betray a particular weakness that is very unappealing.

Overall, we know that the Phelps family has problems. If the Bible tells us that we can know people by their actions then I think it is safe to deduce that there is a lot of pain and fear in the Phelps family. After all, three of Fred Phelps’s four defected children have recounted stories of awful physical and psychological abuse the whole family suffered from him.

It is more than likely his church, which is mostly made up of his family members, suffers from some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. He has acted as a God-man for so long and he has put the fear of hell in their brains so much that they are all disconnected from the world, hostile and uncaring.

But if people didn’t give them the finger, curse at them or even hold their own placards, it’s more likely some more church members would fall away. That is because they only know negative attention. They only know the nasty man who runs the show there.

I’m sure the Phelps will be away a long time before they return to Albany. In the meantime, I think people have to be a lot less insecure and certainly a lot less corny.

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As I understand, Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas will be here in Albany in a short while to picket Albany High School and hold a demonstration on the SUNY Albany campus.

A lot of people are predictably up and arms about the firebrand (likely insane) preacher coming here to protest against the gay lifestyle, which–as a Five-Point Calvinist–he believes is an insult to God and the source of all misfortune and wickedness in the world, particularly here in America.

I understand there is a call for a counter protest of Phelps and his church (which is largely comprised of family members, it is so small and insular). I myself look forward to snapping some pictures of their interesting, albeit offensive signs. I live right near Albany High and I like taking pictures of strange things.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out to those out there who may be participating in a counter protest that Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, their God Hates Fags mantra and anything else that defines them, are crazy. They are so crazy in fact that 99 percent of the world–including the clinically insane–believe that they are nuts. Therefore, the point of a counter protest (most protests in my opinion do nothing at all) is just kinda, well, futile.

As offensive as Fred Phelps may be to gay people, their families and even most Christians, there’s nothing getting up in arms about Mr. Phelps’ people will to stop them. If you do that, you only play an integral part in the street theater that Westboro Baptist Church so much enjoys, which is confrontation. If they did not have confrontation, they would be little more than an afterthought, but in the decade since they first caught America’s attention, they have continued on precisely because they know that it bothers people and like a child who pulls a classmate’s pigtails for enjoyment, they like to get a rise out of folks.

There are few people in the world who are converted to the Westboro Baptist Church’s thinking and reports have shown that even children who grow up in the church often leave, so it’s not as if you’re really doing them much of a favor.

If you want to do gay folks a favor, it probably makes more sense to petition your state senator or assembly person to support marriage equality than to go out to a sidewalk and do a whole lot of shouting at people who really don’t give rat’s ass if you disagree with them on whether the sky is blue.

Fundamentally, Fred Phelps is a sad figure. He’s a man known for an abundance of anger and hatred. Still, he’s just a small figure in America, the representative of a loony fringe element that has no particular political influence and are so marginal that even mainstream conservative Baptists wont acknowledge them.

My advice is to watch Most Hated Family in America, a documentary that came out a few years ago about the Westboro Baptist Church. If nothing else, it is humorous because the host, Louis Theroux did such a good job of making it just that, comedic.

If you wouldn’t argue with a mentally ill man on the #55 bus who wears tin foil on his head, smells like urine and tells you that the spirit of Heinrich Himmler is controlling his mind, then why would you care what Fred Phelps says. You’re only playing an essential role when you counter protest this guy. Better just to watch.

Our nation guarantees most forms of free expression, including some of the most shocking and offensive. Certainly, picketing the funerals of dead gay people, troops and priests is offensive, but in the end, no one really takes the Phelps seriously except a small, fringe group of folks. They are a cult, but unlike the People’s Temple or Heavens Gate or other destructive cults, they largely abide by the principle of peaceful–albeit crazy–protest. That said, they are rarely cited with breaking laws and instead, gain publicity when people show up to incite them.

In closing, if you have any doubts of the futility of protesting Fred Phelps’ crew (and I seriously doubt he’ll be there) watch this segment of the BBC documentary, particularly the last few minutes of the clip. You’ll stand corrected.


Yesterday, as the sun was setting over us here in Albany I took this photograph. I was looking to get some shots of the sun falling westward, but instead I was captivated by the urban ruins nearby the Corning Preserve. It’s easy to become depressed by the shuttered buildings that are so common in our cities in Upstate New York, but I suppose there’s another way to look at it, which is that the shut down businesses are just a part of the natural progression of life which is towards disorder. After all, nobody who visits the Roman Coliseum, stands by the toppled pillars of ancient Greece or sketches the crumbled churches of the middle ages has the first reaction of morbidity. There’s something strangely beautiful with things coming apart, though it’s harder to appreciate them when the are coming apart in your vicinity and your lifetime. I suppose that’s the difference. As I was staring at this car through the viewfinder I wondered a few things about its life, questions that only God himself I suppose knows like how it get to be pushed up against the fence, if it broke down at the side of a road or simply wouldn’t start one cold morning despite it’s owner’s desperate attempts to revive it. Who was in the Oval Office when it was driven of off the lot and who was president when it stopped running? Did an eager, horny couple ever steam up its windows and paw at each other in the backseats or the front. How much carbon did it spit out during its life. Nothing deep to think about really, but interesting to me. This car, like the abandoned buildings around it, was once reliable. Now it’s scenery and nothing more. Someday it will likely be moved to a junkyard to completely rot away, but right now, I suppose you just have to appreciate that it’s there to see.

When I woke up this morning–or rather forced myself out of the bed I was sleeping on–the sun to the east was putting a really invigorating burst of light right across the room I was in. An old off-white radiator at my friend’s house turned a golden shade. It was the perfect thing to step out on to on new day in a new year.

Outside, few people were out and about. The city is frozen and covered with powdery snow that is picked up now and again and deposited where your coat or scarf don’t cover, the neck and the ears. I’d estimate it is 10-f degrees before the wind blows.

When I got back to my place, I took my dog out for a walk. I made sure the Albany Police officer in his Dodge Durango passed us by before I let my dog feel comfortable to relieve himself on the snow-covered sidewalk. He was looking right at me, perhaps waiting for that moment to write a ticket. On the other hand, he could have just been feeling sorry for the lone schmuck out on the street with his dog in frigid weather. Normally, I bring a bag, but recently when I got to the supermarket, I bring my reusables for the discount and I couldn’t find any newspaper to wrap it in. The walk was painful. My sinuses really hurt from it.

When all was said and done, 2008 was certainly a good year for me. I lost nearly 20 pounds–on top of nearly 20 in 2007–and took thousands of photographs.

Although I want to say that I don’t have resolutions that begin on January 1, I suppose I do. They’re in my head though. I don’t want to let anyone know. But they’re reasonable goals, I think. Anyway, I’m off to the gym, which will doubtless be filled with people working off last night’s booze and snacks. Gyms are always tough this time of years.
Happy New Year.

Some people say that steady marijuana smoking will ruin your brain and make you lazy. I defy you to answer me this question; how is it that my old roommate Brandt Wall was able to pull bong hits every morning, smoke a bowl during the day and hit the bong again during the evening and still be able to hook our apartment up with satellite television with nothing more than a dish and box he bought on Ebay? And not only that. Brandt was also able fix the reception each time it went out. Would a shiftless, brain dead person be able to do that?

I didn’t think so.

Out of all of nearly 30 people I’ve lived with in the last decade, Brandt ranks up there as one of my favorite roommates of all time. Sure, he could get stone drunk and high and turn psychotic, challenging everyone in the apartment to rumble with him. Yes, he did blow out power to the rear part of our apartment and drive up our utility bills with a grow light he made out of a lamp. And of course, there was that night he got so drunk he dangled my laptop in front of my rambunctious pitbull. Those were all incidents that might lead one to believe Brandt wasn’t an ideal person to share space with, but there was just so much more to this guy and some days, I really miss him.
I went to high school with Brandt, but I didn’t really know him until he moved into my current place in Albany a few years back. I knew he was short, looked and acted like a surfer and liked ganja, but there was a lot more to this guy than all that. (more…)