Football fans who came to Fair Park for the Houston-Penn State match-up at the Cotton Bowl couldn't help but see the sideshow: As promised, the Westboro Baptist Church showed up at the TicketCity Bowl to remind sports fans that God hates them, Joe Paterno, the Pope, gays, Obama ... pretty much everyone. But Fred Phelps' clan, which has added a "God Sent the Drought" sign to its ever-expanding inventory, wasn't alone: They were met by around 40 counter-protesters, some from Occupy Dallas splinter group OccupyNow. The counter-protesters greeted the WBC's infamous "God Hates Fags" signs with a few of their own. There was also some light heckling and a little same-sex heavy petting.
"We're out here to protest hate in all its forms," said 21-year-old Kooper Caraway of OccupyNow.
"And we're here to draw attention to hate-mongering," said Whytney Blythe, 22, also of OccupyNow, "Which is part of what's perpetuating the issues we're facing today. Living in a fear-based system is unhealthy for everyone. And it's also important to be at the protests against Westboro to show support for the victims that they might target."
The WBC, always ones to keep their hatred current, even have a brand-new poster: a picture of the Guy Fawkes mask many Occupy and Anonymous protesters wear, with a target drawn over it. It reads: "God's Target."
"These Occupy people, the 99 percent, God hates them," 27-year-old Cary Fritz of Westboro Baptist told Unfair Park. "Anonymous even tried to hack our website," he added, sounding a little aggrieved.
The WBC members stood in a barricaded area, while the counter-protesters stood about 10 feet away, also barricaded in, at least at first. A guy wearing a bushy fake beard and mirrored shades -- he would only give his name as "A.B." -- carried a huge sign that read "Occupy the WBC." At one point he began shouting at the Westboro group through a megaphone.
"Shirley!" he said to Shirley Phelps-Roper, WBC's spokesperson. "We're a little upset that all the cute girls are facing away from us. Can you get your daughters to turn around?"
As he spoke, the Beastie Boys' "Hey Ladies" started to blast from the speakers near his feet. "This goes out to the Westboro girls!" he announced. The Westboro girls ignored him. Occupy The WBC, a Houston-based group not affiliated with Occupy Dallas or OccupyNow, plans to follow the WBC around the country staging counter-protests with loud music, gay make-outs and "recitations of graphic homoerotic novels" at every stop, A.B. told us.
"I'm not gonna say I hate them," said Felicia Wilson, a Richardson resident who was standing nearby dressed in a pink beehive wig, copious Mardi Gras jewelry and sweatpants that read "Boom Boom" on the rump. She waved a sign that read "Fred Phelps Left His Panties At My House." A pair of skull-and-cross bones-patterned panties were stapled to the sign. "Because they're promoting hate. But I hate the way they are."
"It's sickening," added her 19-year-old son Ashton.
"God made everybody," Felicia added. "Gay, straight, polka-dotted, striped, God made ya."
Watching the dueling protests from a few feet away were several officers from the Dallas Police Department's Criminal Intelligence Unit. Detective Jeff Burge walked over to the counter-protesters to remind them to stay in their fenced-off area.
"If you guys come out, they're gonna come out," he said, gesturing over at the WBC. "And then there'll be an issue."
Sporting a purple "God Hates Fags" sweatshirt, Shirley Phelps-Roper estimated the WBC has staged some 48,000 protests in the last 21 years and said they make it down to Dallas about half a dozen times a year. We asked: Why exactly were they picketing the TicketCity Bowl?
"Hon, where should we be if not here?" Phelps-Roper said. She informed us that God sent "raping coaches" as a punishment to the United States, then, for reasons that weren't clear to us, delved into a long tangent about a woman in Houston who ate her baby. "We picketed that too," she said. The counter-protesters, she added, "are just trying to distract you."
"Tell me about God," Hailey Evans of OccupyNow said sweetly to an older WBC member, the man in mirrored shades holding that sign that read "Pope Joe Pa" and featured a drawing of one stick figure standing behind his bent-over stick-figure buddy.
"The God that created you is the same one who's gonna send you to Hell," the man barked back. Evans turned to a friend standing beside her. In unison, they shrugged, then burst into a loud rendition of AC/DC's "Highway To Hell." They linked arms and walked off, giggling. Nearby, two more female members of OccupyNow stood directly in front of the WBC and started kissing, something the church members tried to ignore with varying degrees of success.
"Shirley, it's good to see you!" A.B. shouted from a few feet away. "You look terrible!" Almost despite herself, Phelps-Roper smiled. A man waved a sign at her that read, "We're All Children of God -- Even Small-Minded Bigots."
"I think I've seen you before," one OccupyNow member said conversationally through the megaphone, pointing at a WBC-er. "Weren't you at that strip club? Don't act like you don't know." OccupyNow started up a chant of "Shame! Shame! Shame!", which soon turned into numerous other slogans, among them "Thank God for gay porn!" and "Whose butt? My butt!," which was accompanied with exuberant dry-humping.
"We're showcasing how absurd they are," OccupyNow's Whytney Blythe told us. "They're almost like satire."
Finally, it came time for the WBC to leave. One member charged out of the barricaded-in area to complain that she couldn't get out of the barricaded-in area. "The protesters, they converged on me," she complained to DPD Det. Vincent Lee. "This never used to happen."
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Lee approached the counter-protesters, who were by now ringing the WBC's fenced-in area. "I'm going to ask you to stand back and let them be escorted to their cars," he said.
"Can we escort them?" an OccupyNow member piped up helpfully.
With the officers standing by, the WBC rushed single-file out of the fence and towards the parking lot. OccupyNow followed them, chanting "Fascists go home!" and "Show me what an asshole looks like! This is what an asshole looks like!" They waved and cheered as the WBC piled into a dark blue van and two minivans and peeled out of the parking lot, fast.
Don't forget: They return to Cowboys Stadium January 6 for the Cotton Bowl Classic. Because God clearly hates the Dallas Cowboys.