Members of Westboro Baptist Church stood at the corner of Stadium Boulevard and Providence Road on Saturday. They were there for Michael Sam.
Sam, the 2013 Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year, came out as gay a week ago, Feb. 9. Westboro was there to protest his sexuality.
Across Stadium Boulevard stood another organized group — MU students, graduates and Columbia residents. It was a counterprotest, spawned from a Facebook event called “One Wall, One Mizzou.”
As Westboro held up signs that read “Fags doom nations” and advertised the Mizzou logo above the words “Fag Enablers.” The Missouri football equipment truck was parked in the background. Behind Westboro’s protest and signs was another message.
The truck read: “We are … Mizzou Football.”
Alix Carruth woke up at 10 a.m. She was, admittedly, a little tired.
“Wow, this is really happening.”
Carruth, a sophomore, created the Facebook event “One Wall, One Mizzou” on Sunday, Feb. 9, soon after Sam came out as gay in reports published by ESPN and The New York Times.
The sophomore said she spent the week organizing the event, figuring out logistics like where to stand.
Carruth said that Thursday the counterprotest began to feel real.
“Wow, this is really happening,” she remembers thinking. “We’re really telling people what to do, where to stand.”
And, she said, there was a bizarre feeling associated with Saturday.
“I was walking down (the street), and some girl was like, ‘That’s her. That’s her,’ ” Carruth said. “I think it’s weird at this point, how many people know my face; I have no idea who they are.”
However, Carruth said that she didn’t want the attention to be directed at her. Nor was the attention supposed to be directed at Michael Sam. The point of the event, Carruth said, was to have the university stand as community.
“We wanted to stand against Westboro, but the reasoning for that is 100 percent this school, this community,” Carruth said. “We want to stand with Michael Sam because he’s one of our own.”
Blasting from a stereo came the guitar riff of “Get Back” by The Beatles. The lyrics, though, were different.
"We had to do it in a way that grabbed you.”
“Sammy was a man who thought he was a woman.”
Then, the refrain: “Get back/Get back/Into the closet where you belong.”
“Don’t you love that parody?” Margie Phelps asked.
Phelps came up with the song for the day’s protest. Creativity, she said, is a talent the Lord blessed her and her fellow church members with.
The creative process is quick for Westboro. The group announced Sunday, Feb. 9, that they were headed to Columbia. In less than a week, they made custom signs with the MU and NFL logos.
“We don’t dally,” Phelps said. “We’re a publishing machine. We’re timely, and we’re topical. When Sammy became the epicenter of proud sodomy, we had to get on that topic. And we had to do it in a way that grabbed you.”
Phelps said Westboro designs and produces the signs they use during their pickets themselves. They print in-house. The reworked “Get Back” was recorded in Phelps home; her sister sang the vocals.
“She’s got some mad pipes, as they say,” Phelps said.
The songs Westboro makes proliferate throughout social media, allowing the message to remain after the individual pickets end.
“We Vine them and we tweet them,” Phelps said. “We use your social media. Social media was created for us.”
Mitchell Bird, Rey Irwin and David Mann are best friends.
Bird attends MU. Irwin goes to Kansas State. Mann is a student at Knox College in Illinois.
Bird said they’d been planning to get together for a few weeks. Michael Sam’s announcement and the subsequent protest made this weekend seem like a good time to come to Columbia.
So to Columbia Irwin and Mann came. Irwin wore a rainbow tie and suspenders. He loaned a separate rainbow bow tie to Bird.
They stood outside, on Stadium Boulevard facing Hearnes Center supporting Michael Sam.
“We thought we’d make this memorable,” Bird said.
Joelle Jefferis wanted a “traditional American college campus and experience.”
She’s a junior exchange student from the University of Manchester in England.
Last semester she went to two Missouri football games. She didn’t know who Michael Sam was until he announced he was gay.
“I just liked football,” Jefferis said.
Standing outside, she spoke about how cold it was — speaking in terms of Celsius.
Jefferis figured there would be people who didn’t agree with Michael Sam’s sexual orientation.
“I expected all the backlash,” Jefferis said, “because midwest and southern America doesn’t have a great reputation against homosexuals.”
But she was impressed by the positive reaction of the Columbia community.
She planned to stay as long as the counterprotest went on, or until it became too unbearably cold.
She added a layer to deal with the warmth. On top of her red coat she wore a yellow shirt that read “Stand With Sam.” The shirts were being passed out by a man dressed as a yeti — one, Jefferis said, “who grunted at me.”
Claire Garden does this a lot.
The old lady, bundled in a coat and scarf, wears buttons. One reads: “Occupy CoMo. Stand up and be heard.” Another button is against pipelines.
Sitting in a collapsible chair — cane resting on the side — Garden was participating in just another protest.
Garden is part of Occupy Columbia, a group that she said has three consistent members. They go to City Hall every Saturday, except for this one. Garden came to the Sam counterprotest. The other two members of Occupy Columbia couldn’t make it.
Garden has lived in Columbia for 18 years. Prior to Saturday, she said she had participated in another protest countering Westboro, when the group picketed a soldier’s funeral.
Columbia’s reaction to Sam’s announcement was encouraging to Garden. She liked the acceptance of the elderly group she sees during breakfasts at Hy-Vee.
“Even they’re pretty moderate (about the Michael Sam news), and we know that they were dyed-in-wool republicans,” Garden said. “So that was kind of good that they weren’t spouting hatred either.”
She added: “I think Columbia is pretty neat.”
Two men and one woman held the banner. It advertised the Missouri Student Veterans Association.
“25 (degrees), gusting winds — it’s whatever.”
The day’s cause, according to senior Jojo Blanton — a member of the Missouri National Guard — was bigger than just Michael Sam.
“Within our organization there are obviously gay veterans,” Blanton said. “We wanted to support those guys along with everybody else.”
Blanton’s mentality on gay members of the military is pretty simple: “You serve your country, you serve your country.”
Blanton thinks Westboro is an ignorant group, and he said that’s why he showed up on Saturday.
He was anticipating better weather for the day, and as a result, a better turnout. But he dealt with it.
“25 (degrees), gusting winds — it’s whatever,” Blanton said.
Luke Phelps-Roper holds a red sign. On it is the NFL shield and the words “Butt Bum Bandit,” “Ass Pirate,” “Fairy” and “Sodomite.”
Luke is 11 years-old.
"They say, ‘At least I’m not a Phelps."
He says he’s been doing this for a while. He typically goes out of town for pickets a couple of times a month. He started attending the pickets when he was 2 years old.
“I (would) hold one of those tiny (signs),” Luke said.
Every weekend Luke spends picketing with his parents, brother and Westboro is time that he doesn’t spend with the children he goes to school with.
At school, Luke said, many of his peers put him down. His brother, Isaiah, 24, said the same thing happened when he was in school.
“When someone’s arguing, when I’m trying to tell them the teacher said this or something, they say, ‘At least I’m not a Phelps,’ ” Luke said.
Freshman Julia Towler stood at the corner wearing her Mizzou volleyball jacket with two of her teammates at her side.
Towler and fellow freshmen volleyball players Loxley Keala and Emily Thater are proud of the athletic department.
It was difficult for them to compare Michael Sam’s moment with the university’s problems regarding former swimmer Sasha Menu Courey’s alleged rape, they said. But they were proud of their fellow student-athletes for respecting Sam’s privacy and the way the athletic department handled the presence of a gay football player.
“I think it just shows how much we care about each other,” Thater said. “It doesn’t matter what team we’re on. We want everybody to have that discretion about their lives. Michael Sam, he’s famous, he’s so good, and (his sexuality) is nobody’s business.”
The women said they received an email from Athletic Director Mike Alden that showed his support for Michael Sam, as well as encouraging other student-athletes to do the same. With that, they decided to attend Saturday’s counterprotest.
“Everyone loves each other, as cliched as it sounds,” Keala said. “Everybody’s one big family.”
Recently, Sam has been at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. He’s back in Columbia, and, the women said, the mood in the athletic department is great.
“He’s so happy,” Keala said. “His life is great. Everyone knows about him, and he’s going to the NFL draft, and he’s going to do really, really well.
“He deserves it.”
Derrion Thomas wore a red hoodie with no lettering.
On the left drawstring was a pin that read: “#STANDWITHSAM,” with a rainbow background.
Though the pins, made by Missouri Student Association, were new, the Sam’s sexuality was old news to Thomas.
A former defensive lineman for Missouri who graduated in 2012, Thomas learned Sam was gay three years ago.
“I knew him after I first met him, not too long after,” Thomas said.
It wasn’t a big announcement. Thomas just learned over time.
“Most days you’re around each other eight, 12 hours a day, and then you hang out with each other afterwards,” Thomas said. “When you’re around somebody, you get to know them, kind of understand their lives. You kind of came to understand it. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, Derrion, I’m gay.’ ”
Thomas’ friend and former roommate, Dezmond Davis, was informed by Sam in more abrupt but still casual manner.
“He just came out and told me,” Davis said.
Thomas said views did differ in the locker room, but Sam being gay was a nonissue.
“It’s not like anyone was like, ‘I’m not going anywhere near Mike’s locker because he’s gay,’ ” Thomas said. “Or people like, ‘I’m not showering with Mike because of his preference.’ ”
Davis said he saw Sam at the Columbia nightclub 10 Below on Friday. People showed support for Sam, and Sam appeared comfortable.
“Nothing seemed weird,” Davis said. “This seems weird: a protest.”