Wednesday, August 20, 2008

We Have Met Fred Phelps and He Is Us: Reflections on the Gwatney Shooting

I ended Monday’s posting with the following statement,

And, though many church folks profess to deplore the Phelpses of the world, is their ultimate position regarding me and my life, my brothers and sisters and their lives, all that different from the position of the Phelps family—in its effect on us? And in what they actually believe and say about us? And how they treat us?

That statement may astonish—and, indeed, anger—many church folks. What can I mean, when I claim that the churches in general are implicated in the horrific behavior of the Westboro Baptist church crowd who appear at funerals of dignitaries and soldiers, urging their children to hold aloft vile cartoons designed to elicit hatred of gay folks by equating gay people with anal sex? How are churches in general in any way implicated in the outright violence the Phelps clan practices (and encourages) towards gay persons?

On the day I wrote the preceding comments, the blog of the statewide free weekly Arkansas Times had a lively discussion of the presence of the Phelps family at the funeral of Bill Gwatney, the state Democratic Party chair who was recently gunned down in his office ( What interested me in the blog was the determination of every poster—of all political stripes—to distance himself/herself from the Phelpses. One poster informed those reading the blog that he is a Republican Baptist who “would no more condone the Phelps Gang and thier [sic] actions than I would Hitler’s.”

Unfortunately, none of those posting such adamant disavowals of any sympathy for the Westboro Baptist gang spelled out their own views about gay persons in these disavowals. That in itself is rather interesting, isn’t it? It’s the gay thing that got the Phelps group going, isn’t it?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but at the funerals of dignitaries and soldiers where they now shout and carry their hate-filled signs—in the protests that have finally attracted the attention and opprobrium of mainstream America and its churches—they still focus on the gay thing, don’t they? Even at these funerals at which no one else sees a gay connection, the Phelps family sees that connection. They’re there for one sole purpose—to make sure we get it: God hates America because we have become a fag-loving nation.

You’d think that anyone who seriously expects us to be convinced he is horrified at the ideology and behavior of the Phelps gang would feel it necessary to take the next step and condemn the homophobia that is the entire raison d’être of the Phelpses. Wouldn’t you? Unless I’m mistaken, their website still says it all:

I will not hold my breath until those anti-Phelps churchgoers on the Arkansas Times blog repudiate homophobia. I won’t wager much on their willingness to speak out against the current anti-gay adoption initiative facing Arkansas voters in the fall election, an initiative designed solely to target gay people and bring out religious right voters on behalf of the Republican ticket.

My point is, quite simply, this: we are all implicated in the violence that Westboro Baptist church preaches and hopes to foster. It is too easy to point our fingers at Fred Phelps and identify him as our scapegoat, the crazed vulture picking at the entrails of violence in our predictably violent society.

Make no mistake about it: Phelps is that. He’s a scavenger. He feeds with sickeningly apparent gusto on the violence of our violent society. But he does not produce that violence. Not unilaterally. We produce it. We enable it. We stand by in silence as it is produced and fomented, traded and reveled in. If Fred Phelps is the consumer of social violence, we are the ones producing the violence on which he and his ilk feed. We and the Westboro Baptist crowd are bound together in a cycle of production-consumption that needs us to make the violence as much as it needs the Westboro folks to eat it.

The choice of the Phelps family to show up at Bill Gwatney’s funeral on Monday, a few blocks from my house, reminded me of how little things have changed in some essential ways since the Civil Rights period. For anyone growing up in the American South of the 1950s and 1960s—for any white person growing up with eyes beginning to see what African Americans have had no choice except to see—the civil rights period provided a painful schooling that will forever frame our outlook on the social world and how it functions. We learned in those years lessons—about ourselves, our parents, our families and friends, our churches and communities—we’d rather not have learned, but which, once learned, we will not unlearn.

And forever after, we will have the burden of coping with those lessons, of making sense of them and what they tell us about the world in which we live. Once our eyes are opened, we can do no other than see. And we have to determine how to deal with what we now see, eyes wide open. What we learn implicates us. It frames every choice we make, once a lesson has been instilled.

And one of the lessons we learned in those years, one that, now learned, will not be unlearned, is this: violence is not the act of a few. Violence requires a social network to produce and support it. Violence is endemic in our society. It is woven through our society. We are all implicated in it, and it will not disappear until we all face our implication in it and work to eradicate it from our souls, as well as from the social networks in which it is enmeshed.

In some respects, the obscene rhetoric and antics of the Westboro Baptist church at the funeral of Mr. Gwatney within days after he was gunned down are part of an ongoing narrative whose plot we know only too well. We in the South are used to acts of “inexplicable” violence about whom no one seems to know anything at all, acts quickly covered up, as if a stone is thrown into a pond and quickly sinks in it, never to be thought of again after the ripples have subsided.

The Civil Rights period was a period of one atrocity after another in which no one seemed to know anything—anything about who was committing the atrocities, why it was impossible to discover the agents of violence and bring them to justice, why the attempt to dig into identities and motives led only to more violence, and so on.

The one thing that was clear was the why of these acts: terror. These were terroristic acts designed to stop the forward movement of history. They were acts committed, we all knew without being told specifics, by white men attempting to stand astride history and shout stop.

The very secrecy surrounding the acts—the hidden identities, the whispered confidences that never reached public ears, the scent of conspiracy so thick in the air it was like smoke billowing strangely all around, though there was no fire—made them all the more frightening. Anyone might have been committing them, for all we knew. Our neighbors could be involved. Our own family might know more than they said.

In such a social environment, it is best to keep one’s head low and toe the line, unless one is inclined to courage (and martyrdom). “Good” people, white families who thought of ourselves as the decent sort, would not speak up. Because we were afraid. An uncle of mine informed me darkly—this was in the latter part of the 1960s—that if I continued to talk about racial justice and to quote the bible to that end, I’d no doubt end up in some bayou east of Little Rock with concrete around my ankles.

When I once—foolishly, defiantly, never thinking of the real price my friend might pay—invited a black friend to my house in the same time frame, neighbors subsequently paid quiet, emphatic little visits to my family. We’re not against civility, you understand. We don’t like all this hoopla, dogs and firehoses and church burnings. But we don’t want a cross burned in our yards. Please control your son.

In what I am saying here, I am not claiming to know anything at all about the motives of Timothy Johnson in shooting Bill Gwatney last week. I know no more than the media have revealed, and that’s precious little. I know that a classmate of his at Arkansas State University (Beebe) has spoken to the media, noting that Johnson routinely surfed the internet for news of the deaths of Democrats, at which he would laugh (

I know that the police have stated that a sticky note with Gwatney’s name on it found in the house of the alleged shooter has a cell phone number that is not Gwatney’s number. The police have issued a subpoena to find the identity of the phone owner—a process that may take two to three weeks. They have also sent his computer to a laboratory for analysis—another process that may take several weeks (

Like everyone else, I’m awaiting further information. As I do, I keep pondering the theme of inexplicable social violence within my own culture—violence that implicates me—and how long it often takes to get at the truth. The stones all too often sink into the pond, the ripples subside, and that’s it.

That’s how it has long been among us.

That’s how it was in Mississippi when Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered in 1964 near Philadelphia. The stone sank. Silence.

The three young men were murdered on 21 June 1964. Edgar Ray Killen—Reverend Edgar Ray Killen—was not convicted of the murder until 21 June 2005. Justice—to the extent that the verdict may be called justice—came forty-one years after the murders.

And here’s the thing, the thing that slays me, the thing that puts the lie to all those disavowals of complicity with the Phelps gang made by churchgoing Republicans: everyone knew. You understand that when I say “everyone,” I mean the community at large, many movers and shakers, law enforcement officials, judges. Preachers and church members.

The identity of the perpetrators, what they had done and how they had done it, was known. Far more widely than anyone dared say.

That’s how it is, when such things happen in the South. It’s how it has always been. We “good” whites who came to this narrative only in the 1950s and 1960s are latecomers to a history that has been going on right in our midst for generations, which was completely apparent to our black neighbors, and of which we chose to remain ignorant. Lynchings, rapes, acts of ritual abuse and expulsion of any “uppity” black human being on whose skin we wanted to carve the message that history better not change—not for the better, not for their betterment: this is an old, tired, ugly story known far longer to African Americans than to Americans privileged due to the color of our skin.

Several years ago, when I read Diane McWhorter’s magnificent history of the Birmingham civil rights struggles, Carry Me Home (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003), I had the itchy, uncomfortable feeling of watching some nightmare I myself had endured, scrolling through a text written by someone else. The centerpiece of, the driving force behind, McWhorter’s narrative is her quest to find out the extent to which her own father was involved in the violence inflicted by Birmingham’s white community on its black community in those years.

McWhorter’s father was from Birmingham’s social elite. He was from the sector of Birmingham society that watched the violence unfold with horrified disclaimers of responsibility—the folks who sat at the country club talking in disdainful whispers over their Manhattans about the poor whites who could always be counted on to shame all of us Southerners by bombing churches and setting dogs on black children.

I know these people, because I have lived among them. I know the trope of good (affluent) Southern white vs. bad (trashy) Southern white. It began to be carved into my psyche before I even began to walk.

I have learned that the trope is as false as any officially approved narrative always is. It disguises the true nature of things. It conceals the complicity of those telling the narrative in the bloody events they recount. To be precise, it pretends that the racial violence white people have historically practiced against people of color in the American South (and, let’s be honest—all over the nation: the Duluth lynchings were in 1920; slave artifacts are still being excavated in New York; those beautiful houses in old Massachusetts towns display wealth gained through the slave trade) has nothing at all to do with those dominating Southern society. It was solely produced by whites at the bottom of the social scale.

This is a lie. As I think I have noted in a previous posting on this blog, one of the skin-searing experiences of my own coming of age in the Civil Rights period happened when I accompanied my father on a campaign in which he was running for a judge’s seat in south Arkansas. At a barbershop where we stopped one afternoon, he went behind a curtain separating the shop itself from some nether parts of the establishment.

When he came out and we got into the car, I asked him what he had done back there. He told me that he had made promises to the barber, who was a Klansman, that, if elected with Klan support, he’d make judicial decisions favoring Klan interests. He was not elected. And I was jubilant that he failed.

McWhorter’s search? It led her to conclude, without absolute proof, that her father and those sipping Manhattans with him at the country club were almost certainly far more involved—and directly so—in the violence they deplored than any official account of the Birmingham violence ever revealed.

We are all involved. Every one of us. We are all implicated. We are all ensnared in the web of violence.

To be specific: we are all of us, every one of us, part and parcel of the homophobic violence on which the Fred Phelpses of our nation feed. Churches and church members that never lifted their voices in the past to protest, when gay human beings were the sole target of such violence, now tut-tut, now that the targets include soldiers and political or religious dignitaries.

Churches all across the land are complicit in the production of the social violence that Westboro Baptist church exploits. Without the churches of Main Street USA and all that they represent to gay human beings, there would be no Fred Phelpses. Churches are involved in the production of the violence on which the Phelpses feed. By their silence. By their rhetoric, their teachings, their practices of exclusion, their distortion of biblical texts. By their unwillingness to speak out explicitly against the roots of the violence—roots that run right to the church doors and up to the altars and pulpits.

Until the churches of this country repudiate all homophobic readings of scripture, all unjust practices of demonization, subordination, and exclusion in their own structures and the societies in which they live, all the manifold ways in which people of faith continue to permit gay teens to be assaulted in our schools, no church can justifiably deplore Westboro Baptist church and what it stands for.

We are all involved. We are all care of one another ( And until we recognize that and live that way, we have no right to point the finger at those who gobble up the garbage we produce in our disordered lives and dishonest relationships.

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