PRESS RELEASE – FOR RELEASE MONDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2001

(For more information, contact Keith Orr, 734-994-3677, 734-994-0558, or keith@autbar.com.)

ANN ARBOR, MI - When the Reverend Fred Phelps came to town, the gay community here decided not to get mad.  They decided to get rich.

Among the Ann Arbor locales the Kansas-based Phelps and his band elected to picket was the /aut/ BAR, a gay-owned restaurant, bar and community gathering place.  When co-owner Keith Orr heard that his establishment was being targeted, he wanted to respond constructively.  He and his partner, Martin Contreras, did not want to promote a counter-demonstration, feeling that Phelps gains the most attention – and hence is most effective – when he provokes anger and outrage from his opponents.  Rather, Orr decided to use his Phelps visit to the community’s advantage.

Phelps’s plans to picket the bar came to light only two days prior to his scheduled February 17, 2001 demonstration.  With little time, Orr used the Internet to organize a unique fundraising scheme.  In an email message to customers, supporters, and friends, he proposed that people pledge money to the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project (WRAP), a local gay advocacy group and community center, for every minute that Phelps picketed the bar.  In this way, Orr explained, the longer Phelps stayed to spew hate, the more money he would raise for WRAP.  He and Contreras kicked off the drive by pledging $1 per minute. 

Contreras explained why he felt it was important to organize a response to Phelps.  “When I was first coming out fifteen years ago people told me, ‘You’ve got to watch out for this so-called reverend from Kansas named Phelps.  He’s out to wage war against the gay community.’  He had been showing up at funerals of people who had died of AIDS with signs claiming that gay people would burn in hell.  At the time he was just a blip on the radar screen.  But when he protested at Matthew Shepherd’s funeral he became a national menace.”

At the same time, Orr continued, “I didn’t want to give Phelps what he wanted,” meaning a counter-demonstration. “But just ignoring him seemed wrong.”

Only two minutes after Orr sent out his email message pledges began to pour in, not only from Ann Arbor, but from as far away as New Hampshire, Texas and California.  The pledge drive gained such momentum that by the day of Phelps’s demonstration – only 48 hours after Orr and Contreras kicked off the drive – friends and supporters of Ann Arbor’s gay community had promised to contribute a total of $107 for every minute Phelps picketed the /aut/ BAR.

“When I began the pledge drive I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything big,” Orr said.  “I just wanted to give people an opportunity to turn Phelps’s message of hate into something positive for our community.”  Even so, the size and speed of the response surprised him.  “Normally a fundraising event of this magnitude takes months of planning and a lot of up-front costs.  In 48 hours we raised over $6000 without spending a dime.  I was astonished.” 

Pledges arrived in diverse amounts and from a wide range of sources.  They varied in amount from as little as 10 cents per minute to as much as 5 dollars per minute.  “The great thing about this kind of fundraiser is that no one is excluded.  People can participate at any economic level,” said Orr.  The range of contributors included neighboring business owners, a high school Gay/Straight Alliance and individual members of the Ann Arbor police force.

On February 17, the day of the protest, Phelps’s band numbered only four adults and two small children.  Instead of confronting the hate-mongerers and giving them the attention they craved, over one hundred community members and supporters gathered in the bar on a Saturday afternoon, celebrating while they counted the minutes that Phelps’s cronies stood outside raising money for Ann Arbor’s gay community.

That afternoon WRAP Board member Linda Lombardini received one notable pledge. “A father and his young son were driving past the bar and saw the protestors out front,” she explained.  “The son asked his father who they were and what they were doing there.  The father stopped the car and brought his son into the restaurant to demonstrate to him that gay people are no different from anyone else.  When he realized that we were holding a fundraiser he handed his son a ten-dollar bill to give to me.”

 “We view this as a form of economic containment,” Orr said.  “Phelps is free to spread his message, however perverse we find it, wherever he wants.  The First Amendment protects his right to do that.  But we turned what could have been a negative into a positive.  This has been an incredible community-building experience for us.

“We hope that cities and towns across the country will do this everywhere he goes.  I get a charge thinking that every time he hits the road he will help us build our communities and fund our organizations.”

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