Friday, March 21, 2014

For God's sake, Tell Me You're Kidding.

He shuffles incessantly through his series of grotesque green, and red protest signs, eyes darting robotically from left to right as his young son, stands obediently in the Utah sun, squinting disinterested as the wind rocks and whips the boys cardboard placard about, jerking his tiny little arms back and forth.  
I met the man on the left

"Pray for More Dead Soldiers," reads one sign, "America Is Doomed," says another, and then of course there is the most infamous, and most recognizable placard, "God Hates Fags."  These two people are from the clownish freak show known as the Westboro Baptist Church, and they are right here in Utah, protesting the funeral of a dead soldier.

It was probably 2001 or 2002, when I met the two members of this dirty little tribe.  I was covering the funeral of a fallen Utah serviceman when I came across the heavyset man and his child, pulling out their garish placards from the back of a late model GMC Pacer.  I approached him with a long list of what I thought were intelligent questions that I was certain would make him recognize  how deplorable his actions were, but I soon learned, no minds would be changed today.  He had heard it all before, the questions, the insults, the attempts at reason, and his answers, after years of verbal evolution, were already carved in stone.  "Dueteronomy" followed by a series of numbers was an answer to one question, "Luke" and more numbers is the response to another. His answers are efficient, and practiced, rattled off with stale passion.  He never looks or really engages with me.  In his mind, it seemed to me, my questions are just background noise, to the louder, hideous hiss of rage and anger clanging loudly in his ears.  

After the funeral procession passes him by, he doesn't linger to savior his handy work, rather he and his son, quickly load up the Pacer, and skid off in their clown car of blackness, I assume in an effort to catch a funeral in Idaho or Colorado.
Pastor Fred Phelps

I thought about the mechanical encounter yesterday as news of the death of WBC pastor Fred Phelps broke.  Phelps, who ironically was baptized at the First Baptist Church In Vernal, Utah in 1947, founded the hate church in 1955. You've likely heard of this group.  The tiny biblical circus, has, 40 or so disciples, mostly blood member of the Phelps family.  They travel the country protesting funerals, claiming that the US is defending the gay lifestyle, and that God, in turn, is killing solders because of it, or something like that.

Calling WBC a fringe church is frankly an insult to good old fashion fringe churches, and no one really takes them seriously, but what is remarkable about Westboro is the grotesque brilliance of it's marketing.  

Of course we all know about their stunning signs and their protests, but the church, if you can call it that, also has a sophisticated multimedia and social media strategy that would make Procter and Gamble or Coca-Cola, stand up and take notice. If the church members attended a marketing seminar in Vegas and didn't mention who they were, only proclaiming their public relations success, "We've been featured in Time Magazine, Dateline, every local television station in the country, and on Al Jazeera," PR firms would be clamoring to hire them.  
The freak show

Westboro Baptist Church even has it's own Twitter feed that is very active.  In their banner picture, they feature their protestors hoisting those iconic signs,the band of misfits may be filled with insane hate, but at least they understand their brand. If you can believe it the church has more than 18,000 followers on twitter, undoubtedly those people are simply into shock porn, excited to check out Westboro's wacked out morning messages, so the indignant can rage and rail at the churches outlandish claims, as they gulp their morning coffee, and mutter with anger, and say "how could they?"

I found it odd, that this arrogant little tribe of inbreeds, so good at NOT listening to anyone, actually follows 20 different accounts, but when I look a bit deeper, I realized @WBCSays only followed other WBC accounts, all variations of the same demented theme, one account is called @GodHatesTheMedia etc.  

Today WBC posted a video spewing about the death of Pastor Phelps, a yawner of a diatribe filled with selected, and misinterpreted bible verses, vitriol and typical media bashing.  It wasn't the message, but the quality of the video production, granted low-budget, that struck me.  The Phelps who was talking in the video, was well lit and he was equiped with a microphone, so the sound quality was good and clean.  Something you don't often see with low-end productions like these. 

Also this group of hate mongers, isn't isolated from the material world.  They recently recorded a parody, of the popular song "Royals" by Lorde,  changing the words to" " Mockers will be screeching, it ain't fair, we'll be caught up with him in the air."  If this was featured in a movie poking fun at religious extremism, it would be a brilliant bit of send up, perfect comedy, in every way. 

I've always thought that Westboro's message was too ridiculous to believe.  So ridiculous in fact I wouldn't be surprised that if one day, the members of Westboro call a press conference and announce, "surprise!  It's all a joke!" and tell the world that WBC is actually a live art piece acted out by a troupe of SOHO performance artists testing us all to see if they could infiltrate the media with an outlandish and unbelievable messages.  "We did it!" they would exclaim, "We fooled you!" and then they'd return to their lofts in New York and drink Cosmopolitans, and would explain their groundbreaking experimental art to Charlie Rose against a black background.  

It hasn't happened...yet, but I'm hoping that this silliness is all an act, and that someday I'll see that heavyset man and his son, standing at that press conference.



Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Questions, Questions, Questions.

"What's the news doing here?"  Asks a slightly curved older man, as the phlegm rattles deep in his chest and he begins to cough a wet, violent hack.  "Oh," I say, a bit rushed, "just got some questions for someone in here."  "Well," he clears his throat as he climbs off of his well-worn purple bike, "someone's always got questions for folks in here," he drags his green, fatigue colored sleeve across his nose, and gathers up his plastic grocery bags, weary of more questions about the place he calls home.

Park Place Apartment 
People are asked a lot of questions at the Park Place Apartments at 350 East 700 South in Salt Lake City.  Police, and by default, the media, find themselves here regularly.

Over my 15 year in Utah, I've steadied  myself and entered the grey brick structure perhaps, 10 times.  The first time being the most memorable, when a man woke up one morning, snatched up a decorative sword, and began swinging it at people in his apartment.  The violence spilled into the street as the man, latched onto that blade, began chasing people around the neighborhood.

Kilmainham Jail
There are countless cases similar to that one, and it has cast a ghost of sadness that permeates and haunts this place.  You can see it in the tired faces and suspicious body language of the people who live here.  They are weary.  Most are simply trying to survive, and this campus of apartments reminds me of the now shuttered, Kilmainham Jail in Dublin.  My wife Amanda and I spent a couple a weeks there last year, and we toured the place.  Kilmainham, is a notorious "gaol", where Irish freedom fighters, were jailed, and executed on a regular basis.  Prison guards, would house men and children together inside the sickly, unheated halls of the wretched jail.  The corridors where long, and the cells small.

Kilmainham Jail
The halls of the Park Place are equally as long, and illuminated by cheap, incandescent bulbs that give the place an otherworldly glow.  As I roamed the long, lonely halls, lighted in puke green, the hue reminds me of a a woman on a flight I once took to my hometown of Dallas. Our plane was forging it's way into destabilizing turbulence.  As the jet jostled and rocked, I glanced over to the nice little lady next to me.  Her face was putrid with fear and nausea.

I'm here today because a man nicknamed "Ramen Noodle," used to date a woman who lives at the Park Place. She filed for a protective order against Noodle, back in 2009.  I was hoping she might be able to shed some light on the alleged crime spree for which Noodle had been recently arrested.
Park Place Apartments

The door opens slowly, and the small woman on the other side, only allows the flimsy door to reveal a sliver of her face.  "Hi, I'm Chris Jones, from 2News," she is unimpressed as she scans my clothing from top to bottom she's likely suspicious of my tie, and perhaps searching for a badge, or maybe a gun.  She takes a drag from her cigarette, "and?" she responds, as smoke unfolds out of her small apartment.  "I'm looking for Antoinette," I say as I hear the blast of children unleashing holy-hell in an apartment around the bend of the hall. "I told you to be quiet!" bellows the deep howl of a man who has had enough.

The woman, stares into my eyes, "I don't know."  She says, again pulling from her cigarette.  "Does she live here?" I ask.  "Why?" She retorts after a few seconds, and I explain the reason for my visit. "She's not here."  She deadpans.  "Is she working?"  I ask.  "I don't know."  She responds.  "She's at work?" I press, "yeah," the door begins to squeeze closed, "Where does she work?" I say realizing I might be wasting her and my time.  "I don't know."  

Eventually I earn a modicum of her trust and she agrees to calls Antoinette, who explains she stopped seeing Noodle because he roughed her up, and because he "got into drugs and pills," she continues, "he's always in jail," and she says, anticipating my next words, "I don't want to be on TV answering questions."

Eventually I make my way down the sad hall passed an old tube TV resting on the tile outside one of the apartments, to the news truck.  Outside I meet a man pushing a rattling grocery cart filled with cans, he asks "what's the news doing here?"  to which I say, "just asking some questions," As the man shuffles off, pressing his cart forward likely tired of getting questions and little else from people like me, curtly adds, to no one in particular "they've always got questions for people here."