MU students and Columbia residents formed a line half a mile long between Stadium Boulevard and Tiger Avenue on Saturday in response to a protest by members of Westboro Baptist Church.
The church brought around a dozen members to voice opposition to the coming out of former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
The approximately 2,000 counterprotesters in attendance made clear the WBC's message was not welcome. The event, named “Stand with Sam,” asked participants to stand in a line in support of Sam.
The event was organized by sophomores Alix Carruth and Kelaney Lakers.
“Just because they have the right, doesn’t mean I want it on my campus,” Carruth said in reference to Westboro Baptist Church’s protest.
Missouri Students Association President Mason Schara led attendees in singing Missouri’s alma mater and handed out rainbow buttons stamped with the words “Stand with Sam.”
Schara said that once Carruth and Lakers created the event Sunday on Facebook, MSA threw its support behind it.
“When someone targets a student in the way Westboro Baptist did, I expect nothing different than this,” Schara said. “We are such a progressive university, compared to what we used to be like.”
Westboro’s members said the opposition was nothing unusual, especially in a college town.
“Most young people nowadays don’t have a lot of Bible upbringing,” said Betty Phelps, toting signs reading “Fags are violent” and “2 gay rights: AIDS and hell.”
She sang along to dubbed-over pop songs that decried “sins” like homosexuality and adultery. One aimed at Sam — written to the tune of The Beatles’ “Get Back” — told him to “Get back/Get back/Into the closet where you belong.”
“Pretty cool songs, right?” said Fred Phelps Jr., holding two more signs reading “Fags doom nations” and “America is doomed.”
He said his contingent focused on Columbia because of what he claimed were Sam’s misdeeds.
“The national and international spotlight is on this town in one of the most evil states in the United States of America,” he said. “It’s disgusting and unnatural.”
Counterprotesters and onlookers gawked at the provocative signs, and passing motorists hollered unpleasantries and took photos with cell phones. MU police restricted pedestrians from Westboro’s assigned street corner to diffuse any conflict.
MU Police Department spokesman Brian Weimer said the force would station extra officers in front of the stadium park throughout the day due to the increased crowds. The protest coincided with the beginning of Missouri’s men's basketball game against Tennessee.
The crowd dissipated as the game time neared and the 16-degree wind chill took its toll. Dr. Cathy Scroggs, vice chancellor for student affairs, encouraged participants to stay warm and helped Carruth and Lakers maintain control.
“You talk about the values of this institution, and here’s your proof,” Scroggs said. “It’s pretty impressive.”