The protesters outside Webster University's April 5 production of The Laramie Project, a controversial play about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, were divided by police into two groups, one on each side of the street outside the school's Webster Hall.
Twenty-three people from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas -- notorious as the church of the virulently anti-gay activist Fred Phelps -- were holding signs that read "God Hates Fags," "AIDS is God's Curse," and "Matt: 4 Yrs in Hell" on the south sidewalk. Several groups of counterprotesters, about 75 in all, stood on the other side of the street, near the auditorium.
Shawn O'Connor, a 30-year-old graduate student and activist, got caught in the middle. O'Connor was the only person arrested during the demonstration, charged with failure to comply with a lawful order and creating a peace disturbance. He says the police, charged with keeping the two groups separated, were confused by his ironic counterprotest tactics, which included a placard with hand-painted Bible verses and threats of fire and brimstone.
"The protesters were holding signs with Bible quotes on them. I compiled my own list of Bible quotes, ridiculous Old Testament rules that nobody pays attention to any more," O'Connor says. "I was saying if you take the Bible literally, you have to pay attention to these, too, but they didn't want to hear that."
When he first arrived at the theater, police directed O'Connor to join the Westboro group. The officers there quickly recognized the joke and escorted him to the other side of the street. There, surrounded by friends and people who have participated with him in previous anti-war protests, O'Connor mocked the church protesters on the other side of the street.
A videotape of the event shows O'Connor pointing at the crowd around him. "I have to be with all you sinners now," he says, "You're all going to hell!"
The police on that side of the street didn't catch the irony. Less than a minute later, they walked O'Connor away from the demonstration, down a long sidewalk to the school's gymnasium, where he was held for an hour and a half before being given a citation for violating a city ordinance. "It all happened within 45 seconds of me being there," he says. A court date has been set for May 15.
O'Connor acknowledges that he may have been too clever for his own good. "Essentially I needed to be able to sum up my point in five syllables, but I didn't," O'Connor says. "It confused everyone."
But he also claims that the heavy police presence -- 22 Webster Groves officers on the scene and another 25 to 30 St. Louis County officers on standby a few blocks away -- was intimidating, and that the only order he received from a police officer was to go from one side of the street to the other. O'Connor suspects the arresting officer saw him cross the street, assumed he was part of the Westboro contingent and took the hellfire-and-damnation pronouncements as a real threat to public safety.
The police have a different story. "The arresting officer gave him directions to stop the taunting or harassment, not to engage in that kind of behavior," says Webster Groves Police Chief Dale E. Curtis. "The officer was trying to make sure it didn't get out of hand, and [O'Connor] didn't follow his directions."
Curtis says O'Connor was only given a city citation but could have been booked on a state charge: "We did the minimum necessary to remove him from the site."
Later that night, KDSK-TV (Channel 5) reported the arrest. O'Connor wasn't identified, but his picture was included in the coverage. The report only mentioned that protesters from Westboro had come to oppose the play's "propaganda" and that O'Connor was cited. But it made no reference to the counterdemonstrators, who outnumbered the Westboro group nearly three to one. Now O'Connor fears that his face will be linked to the anti-gay protests and particularly to Westboro Baptist Church.
The church's anti-gay stance is well known; its Web site is www.godhatesfags.org. Fred Phelps led anti-gay demonstrations at Shepard's funeral in Wyoming. Before that, he had organized protests at the funerals of AIDS victims. Since the Shepherd protest, the church has gained a higher national profile and is monitored by anti-hate-crime groups. Church leaders have said that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the Washington, D.C., sniper spree; and the Columbia space-shuttle disaster were all signs of God's wrath.
"Our message, in short, is that there is a God, there is a day of judgment and God hates fags," says Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church's attorney and Fred Phelps' daughter.
O'Connor says he's called KDSK and asked for a clarification but gotten no response. A manager at the station refused to comment.