Our Man in Arlington

November 20, 2012 10:20 PM0 comments

I spent part of Veterans Day attempting to witness a dramatic confrontation on the streets of Arlington that never came off. With Thanksgiving upon us, let’s be grateful.

Back in October, the ArlNow blog reported that a Kansas-based church famous for its traveling circus of hateful anti-gay protests had targeted Yorktown High School. (The family-run church’s name will not be mentioned—my humble bid to foil the online search engines that feed the tiny group’s publicity machine.)

On its website, the church—which made national headlines in 2011 when it won a Supreme Court free speech case — vowed to “picket Yorktown High School because we know that Doomed America has turned the school systems into institutions to teach rebellion against God.” Also on their protest schedule for the day: the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery.

My alma mater was not open for classes that day, but that didn’t head off the threat. That’s because my daughter Elizabeth, as coach of the Yorktown Dance Team, had spent months preparing to use the building for an annual dance camp for elementary and middle school girls. Fear that children would have to run a gamut of placards bedecked with crude slogans prompted hours of anguished contingency planning.

School officials turned the matter over to Arlington police. They had to balance the right of protest (they had no permit) against others’ right to enter a public building safely. Reminded me of the time in 1983 when the then-Arlington-based American Nazi Party used Yorktown to stage a “White Pride Day.”

On D-Day at 7:30 a.m., I arrived at the school’s main entrance to find three police officers, members of a Unitarian anti-hate group and cameras from local TV stations. Also visible were several dozen student counter-demonstrators and a dozen veterans in their Army jackets. A truck-based sound system pierced the morning air with repeats of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.”

The Yorktown students filing by the school’s front plaza carried their own placards reading, “Coexist”; “How Do You Know What God Hates?”; “You’re Not in Kansas Anymore;” and “Love Conquers Hate.”

My friend Ron Watt, a veteran, told me the counterprotest called Standup for Veterans was coordinated by John Murphy (YHS’73). The goal was to let the church “know that this is a patriotic area, and that basically their hate spew was not welcome here.” Watt said the police officers, also Yorktown alums, “appreciated our presence,” as did the parents who drove up to drop kids off for other activities.

Dance camp organizers had considered cancelling or relocating their event. But Suzette Timme, a dance team mom, told me they were determined not to let that church “disrupt something we were doing for the good of the community. This way young girls weren’t disappointed, and parents weren’t scrambling to find alternate activities for this school holiday.”

Numerous volunteers were ready to usher in the 150 campers via a separate entrance. “For the Yorktown community, I thought it was a great showing of respect and patriotism,” Timme said, “especially when you consider the majority of those attending to counter-protest were high school students who probably would have enjoyed some extra sleep on an early holiday morning.”

In the end, no protesters presuming to know who God hates showed, and the non-event drew scant notice in the media. A blessing.

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