Leader Blues

Friday, June 09, 2006

TOP STORY >> Bikers protect funeral

Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: An anti-gay group mars funeral with chants and signs.

Six wholesome-looking church-goers holding signs proclaiming God’s hate for America faced off against hundreds of grungy-looking bikers in vests and doo-rags proclaiming His love.

That was the scene in Beebe on Wednesday afternoon for the funeral service of Army Specialist Bobby West, who died May 30 in Iraq.

Surreal, perhaps, but it is a scene played out almost daily across the nation as soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan come home for the last time. Members of the small Topeka, Kan., Westboro Baptist Church, whose 70 to 100 members are mostly the family of Fred Phelps, who founded it in 1955, schedule anti-gay protests wherever time permits. And where they are, the Patriot Guard Riders are there also, waving American flags and serving as a human shield to block the mourners’ view of the protesters.

Jonathan Phelps, the seventh of Fred Phelps’ 13 children, and one of the lawyers in the family, was leading the group Wednesday, which also included his younger sister Abigail, and four teenage boys.

He said the church’s mission is to tell the world that homosexuality is wrong and that nations that tolerate it are damned. That the dissenting viewpoint from the bikers across the highway was the one shared by most people was not a concern.
“We don’t care,” Phelps said. “We publish the message. That’s all that matters. We’re not interested in changing anybody’s views.”

And whether the bikers (whom Phelps called “biker bitches”) like it or not, they help get that message out.

“Even though they sometimes beat us to a bloody pulp, they’re serving us so we love them,” he said. “When they come we get more publicity, so we love them to death.”

If the signs they carried – “Don’t worship the dead,” “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God hates your tears” — weren’t enough to rile the bikers, the Phelps’ family’s actions were.

Abigail Phelps wore an American flag for a skirt.

“I’m not just wearing it,” she said. “I’m wearing it upside down to show this nation is in distress. I’m giving it its due respect.”
Later, her brother dragged it on the ground, as the two groups shouted across Hwy. 64 at each other.

Most of the bikers, who lined up for for a roaring procession down Hwy. 64 and in front of First Baptist Church where the funeral was held, came from Arkansas and had never attended one of the Phelps’ rallies. But some, like John Leke from Trinton, Tenn., makes it a point to be where they are as often as he can.

“I’ve been to at least a half dozen,” he said.

The Patriot Guard Riders are a loosely knit organization made up of numerous veterans and biker groups who have been working together since last summer to counter the work of Phelps’ church. They reportedly started with the American Legion Riders Chapter 136 from Kansas who mustered enough bikers for a counter protest at the funeral of Sgt. John Doles. Since that time their campaign has gone national, with every state responsible for finding enough bikers to cover funerals where the church pickets.

In the case of the West funeral, the family asked the guard to attend, said Pete Waddell, the state president. The family asked for 30 bikers, but by using mass e-mail to get the word out, 300 showed up.

Among them was Lee Lowder whose biker vest said he was a member of the Highway Hedges Ministry in Little Rock.

That the bikers’ appearance at the funeral brought more attention to the demonstrators was not of particular concern to Lowder.

“We’re bringing more attention to what’s right,” Lowder said. “These people have a very distorted view of who God is.”

Some of the counter protesters said they were there because they remembered how they were treated when they returned from Viet-nam. Still others said they came to block the view.

Dressed in typical summer apparel and standing elbow to elbow with the bikers were Josh Kamer, Ashley Mitchell and Cassie Metcalf, teenagers from Beebe, who said they came because it was the right thing to do.

“We’re here to support the family and all the people overseas doing what they’re doing,” Kamer said.

Margie and Micah Briley and their three children from nearby Austin stood quietly on the corner near the church driveway holding a large American flag in an attempt to shield West’s family from the protesters.

Micah Briley’s brother, Chief Warrant Officer Donovan Briley, died in Mogadishu, Somalia, when the Blackhawk helicopter he co-piloted went down. The Oct. 3, 1993, mission in which 18 Ame-rican soldiers were killed, 73 were wounded and 500 to 1,000 So-malis were killed changed Ame-rican policy on interfering with foreign governments and became the subject of the movie “Blackhawk Down.”

“We tried to get right in front of them, but the police asked us to leave,” Margie Briley said.

The Phelps’ demonstration was just as disgusting as she had anticipated it would be, Briley said.

“I believe they have the right to protest, but you shouldn’t protest the very people who give you that right,” she said.

Army Reserve Sgt. Kenneth Kimball, who said he had been home from Iraq for only two days, was the only person across the highway from the protesters who was dressed in uniform. He squatted in the middle of the driveway to the church, seemingly contemplating the scene.

“It’s disturbing,” he said of the protesters and their signs. Asked what bothered him the most, he said, “The kids.”

Keeping the peace at the protest were dozens of law-enforcement officers, including 18 from White County, 12 state troopers and two policemen from Bradford.

Asked if he was concerned for the safety of the children who accompanied him, Jonathan Phelps said, “That one over there in purple is a champion runner. And the other three, I guess are in training.”

Bradford Police Chief Josh Chambliss, who returned home from Iraq to a 9-month-old baby he had never seen before, had no comment about what he witnessed Wednesday.

But he said he felt he should be there, so he volunteered himself and one other officer.

White County Sheriff Pat Garrett said he brought in volunteers and off-duty deputies to make sure the county was covered while so many were in Beebe.

“This man gave up his life so these people have the right to protest,” Garrett said.

“As a Marine veteran, I find it offensive, but this is the United States of America, and they have the right to believe what they want.”

Phelps said members of Westboro Baptist Church never picket the funerals of soldiers whose families have indicated that the services are to be private.

“We target only those wanting to use dead children to promote the idea that America is OK,” he said.

A new state law prohibits de-monstrating during funerals, so eventually, the Phelps group left, the police officers thinned out and the counter demonstrators relaxed and waited for the funeral procession to the cemetery while “An American Soldier” by Toby Keith played continually from a car parked on the grass near the highway.

Jessica and Janette Allen, sisters from Sherwood who are home from college for the summer, arrived after the demonstrators left and took their places at the end of the church driveway, saying they wanted to be sure the family saw their signs.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend, John 15:13,” read Janette’s poster board sign.
Her sister’s was simpler. “We love you Bobby,” it said.