Over 2,000 people have signaled an intent to join a human shield in an attempt to block a Westboro Baptist Church protest of the funerals of two Topeka, Kan., police officers killed in the line of duty.
Two grassroots-based movements, organized via Facebook, are planning to surround the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka on Saturday to block planned protests by the controversial group, which is based in Topeka. The funerals are for Topeka police officers David Gogian and Jeff Atherly, who were killed in a shootout in front of a Dillon's supermarket last Sunday evening. The planned shield comes as Westboro faces a national backlash and similar events have occurred in response to the group's plans to protest the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut.
"This isn't a counter-protest, it isn't a fight against Westboro," Jude Quinn, the organizer of one of the events, told The Huffington Post. "It is a rally for the police officers. You can use the same law Westboro Baptist Church uses against them."
Quinn and fellow Topeka resident Caitlin Yoho started the events through Facebook event pages earlier this week, and the plans have now gone viral in Kansas and the surrounding area. While the pair started their events separately on the social network, they have since spoken and plan to form one large shield. Both events have over 10,000 outstanding invitations on Facebook.
Quinn is an organizer with SilverbacksKS, a community service group, and Yoho said Take Back Topeka has also been helping to spread word of the events.
"The numbers will be shocking," Quinn said of how many people he anticipates.
The shield participants do not plan to picket or engage with Westboro, a controversial group that has gained notoriety for picketing military funerals in order to promote an anti-gay and anti-abortion rights agenda. The shield organizers said the plan is to protect the families of the two officers from the Westboro picket, while also making it difficult for Westboro to picket in close proximity to the Expocentre. Westboro member Jonathan Phelps tweeted earlier this week that the murders of Gogian and Atherly were in response to police "abuse" of Westboro. Westboro member Margie Phelps has blamed singer Carrie Underwood's support of gay marriage for the Newtown shootings.
Westboro spokesman Steve Drain told the Topeka Capitol-Journal that the group plans to "get to as many of these high-profile funerals as we can."
"We are telling the people of the world you ought not be mourning the loss of those children or those cops. What you ought to be mourning is our sins," Drain said.
Drain did not confirm a funeral protest to the Capitol-Journal, but said the group is "daily picketing the situation."
Topeka residents have gotten used to frequent Westboro pickets around the city. In response to the group's planned pickets in Newtown, Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D), who represents Westboro, apologized to the people of Newtown on behalf of Topeka residents. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) called the Newtown plans "horrible." Earlier this year, former Kansas state Rep. Sean Gatewood (D-Topeka) challenged Westboro to picket his house instead of picketing a military funeral.
The Topeka planning comes as the group Anonymous hacked Westboro's website and Twitter accounts earlier this week. Anonymous has also tweeted looking for information on Westboro's plans for the Topeka police funerals. Over 200,000 have signed a White House petition to have Westboro classified as a hate group.
Yoho said that she believes the current Westboro picket plans have galvanized Kansas' capital city.
"We've kind of been desensitized to this; they picket here daily unless they are out of town," Yoho told HuffPost. "People tend to not pay attention. It is hard to ignore when they do something as disgusting as picket a funeral. This is to show people that we are out here and don't agree with this. We will show our support of the city and the nation."
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