by Jeff Klopmeyer
It’s been 30 years since I was a high school student, but on Monday, January 11 2016, I learned a lesson at Redondo Union High School that will stay with me forever.
My son is a student at RUHS, and about a week ago, I received an email from the school to inform us that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church — a hate group recognized by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center — had scheduled a protest at the campus. The very idea seemed ridiculous. Why had they chosen Redondo? No one seemed to know for sure. There was some vague speculation that it had something to do with the fact that Redondo had received some recent press coverage of their Gay-Straight Alliance organization, or the fact that Jennifer Stevens, a 2011 RUHS graduate, was a victim of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino last month. Neither of these reasons seemed to justify the ire of a group known for heinous acts such as picketing the funerals of American soldiers.
As it turned out, their reasons for choosing our city’s high school were irrelevant. The important part was how Redondo chose to react. My biggest concern wasn’t in regard to the students being physically assaulted or verbally accosted by the Westboro members. Conversely, it was that RUHS students and the community being angered by their presence to the point of taking actions that could result in lawsuits against them. This has been one of the main ways that this hate group has continued to raise funds to spread their repugnant messages.
I decided that instead of driving down Diamond Street to drop my son off that morning as usual, I would simply go around to the other side of the school, on Vincent Street, and avoid the demonstration altogether. Why would I expose my child to this group’s display of hatred and bigotry?
But then, something happened. Something wonderful.
In a very short time frame, the students of RUHS, along with much of the entire community, had pulled together, and they had plans. It wasn’t anything involving countering the message of hate with violence. Members of Redondo’s Gay-Straight Alliance partnered with the South Bay LGBT Center to create signs of their own. They were messages promoting love, or whimsical signs that brought a smile to the faces that would otherwise be contorted in anger.
Despite their excellent organizational plan, it would have seemed that the combined strength of these groups wouldn’t be enough to fully oppose the hateful messaging of the Westboro people. However, it was a needless concern; people of all orientations, people from every South Bay community, banded together to create the strongest possible retort.
Back to January 11. I awoke that day and immediately got the news that one of the world’s most respected and influential musicians, David Bowie, had passed away. It was shocking and deeply saddening, but I knew that if anyone in the world would have wanted me to focus my energy on the task of fighting hatred and bigotry, it was Ziggy Stardust himself. My son and I drove toward the school, not knowing what we’d encounter when we arrived.
At the last minute, my plan to avoid the demonstration took a 180-degree turn… literally. The lesson of confronting this group rather than avoiding it was the more important one for my child. And besides, was I really going to let a group of hateful idiots holding signs prevent me from going about my daily routine with my son? I think not.
I took a right onto Diamond Street from Prospect and headed west toward the school, directly into the midst of the zone where the demonstration was scheduled to occur, and having no idea what to expect. Would there be ravenous bigoted zealots and their well-known signs of hate overwhelming the area? Would they be acting aggressively or maliciously toward our local children? Would I be able to stand by and watch without reacting in a way that would end up badly for everyone involved?
With the clarity of retrospection, I should have known better. After all, we’re the people of Redondo Beach. Our kids wake up early and get into freezing water to catch waves before school in the morning. They take their skateboards and drop into half-pipes like it was second nature. These are kids raised with respect for all, and many of the adult members of the surrounding communities come from similar cultural upbringing, or moved here specifically to find other like-minded who enjoy our “live and let live” attitude that prevails throughout the South Bay.
As I pulled up to the stop sign at Lucia Avenue, I saw something that filled my heart with joy. Yes, there were a few people on the north side of the street, perhaps five or six of them, holding their signs with messages of hate. I won’t glorify them by repeating what they said. But the south side of the street was packed with hundreds of people. They weren’t taking the bait of the Westboro members. Instead, they held their own signs, and cheered the obvious victory they’d accomplished. If the success of the opposing sides was measured like a football game, the score was roughly 350-8. Winner? Redondo, in the biggest rout imaginable.
Instead of avoiding the scene, I ended up stopping my vehicle in the midst of the demonstration to allow my son to get out and head to class. Once I ascertained that he wouldn’t be in danger, I felt that his experience in seeing democracy in action, with all the upside and downside of free speech happening right there in front of him, would be a positive experience that he could draw from throughout his life. The whole thing put a lump in my throat, and my heart filled with pride at how our community chose to take on adversity. They didn’t counter hate with hate; they countered it with love.
When the few Westboro members slunk away, another huge cheer went up from the massive crowd. And when it was all over, as we tend to do in Redondo Beach, people got back to their own business… going to work, going to school, and so on. But perhaps all of us are a little stronger as a result of this experience. The LGBT community knows that the grand majority of the South Bay — gay, straight, or otherwise — has their back. The young people of the city have seen for themselves how hate speech can be countered in the most effective and appropriate way. And above all, we know that despite the diversity for which the South Bay is well known (or perhaps because of it), we will always come together to defend our home against people who would subvert our chosen way of life.
I applaud everyone involved in organizing the counter-protest to the Westboro Baptist Church at RUHS, and am more proud than ever before to be part of the Redondo Beach community.