Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Troll in Central Park

Today is September 11, a date which needs no introduction. Likely you've been hit with a week-long array of coverage related to the terrorist attacks of 2001.

I struggle to think of any single event in recent history that was so simultaneously heinous and polarizing. Many New Yorkers showed their best and brightest colors that day, heroically digging through the charred rubble of Ground Zero, paying little mind to the enormous struggle they themselves would face upon later trying to get treatment for their own injuries suffered in the first response.

Others exploited the massacre for their own personal and lucrative gain (Rudy Guiliani, for example, carved himself out a healthy post-mayor career on the speaking circuit playing up his "America's Mayor" credentials). Still others have used the attack as justification for their xenophobia, unleashing a new wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that our country still struggles to combat on a daily basis.

Of this latter group, none is more craven and universally despised than the Westboro Baptist Church. Even those as opposed to homosexuality and secularism as the Topeka, Kansas group cannot justify celebrating the deaths of American civilians and soldiers alike as some kind of proof of the Christian god's judgment for our apparent wickedness.

It is with this in mind that I re-submit to a new audience an encounter I had with group leader Margie Phelps last March, which was also my first visit ever to New York. Enjoy!


The following story, to the best of my recollection, is completely factual.
Last week I went to a journalism convention in New York City. By far, the highlight of the convention was a Q & A panel featuring Margie Phelps, chief member and attorney of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.
There were somewhere between 200-300 people crammed into this ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The convention had been offering workshops all weekend, but this was the main attraction, as everyone packed themselves into a standing-room only crowd to witness what was going to be a raucous affair.
Recently, Phelps won a U.S. Supreme Court Case that ruled 8-1 in favor of their right to picket the funerals of killed U.S. military personnel. She was invited to speak at this convention under the pretense that she would be sharing her thoughts on what it was like to argue for her 1st Amendment rights under the Supreme Court; the very same 1st amendment rights that every journalist invokes for entirely different reasons.

But obviously, everybody wanted to see what would happen when she started preaching America’s imminent doom for watching MTV and having anal sex. I myself was sure things were going to get out of hand immediately, and the police officer standing in the back of the room only furthered my theory.
She started out answering the questions of Gene Policinski, himself a 1st amendment expert who deserves a ton of credit for not immediately hammering her with antagonizing questions. But I quickly learned that they were also going to let people from the crowd ask her questions, and I knew that I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in front of me.
I quickly started thinking of something to ask, and the light bulb went off in my head when Phelps started talking about I had recently watched the outstanding YouTube video of Anonymous hacking the site right in front of Shirley Phelps’ eyes (if you haven’t seen it, it’s awesome), and ever since I had been dying to know the status of WBC’s feud with Anonymous.
With Blackberry in hand, I checked to see if the website was still offline, as it has been since mid-February. Indeed it was, as I kept getting the 404 connection time-out. Not that I ever recommend viewing their hateful e-garbage, but see for yourself if you don’t believe me. As of about 10 minutes before this post, the site was down – just as it was during the convention.
After about half an hour of questions from Policinski, those who had questions for Phelps were encouraged to move from their seats to two lines at either end of the room to have their questions screened (Odd that questions from the crowd had to be “censored” while Phelps presumably had carte blanche to say whatever she damn well pleased, but there you go).
I got up from my spot and hit the line on the left. Several questions were already asked before I got the thumbs-up to ask her about the status of the Anon-WBC digital grudge match. Most of the students were trying to outfox her on either Constitutional law or Bible scripture, and they were pretty well outmatched. Say what you will about Margie Phelps and her batshit craziness, but she knows those two subjects better than I, probably you and most people could ever hope to know.
And for her part, she did a pretty good job of working the crowd. I want to say she has a fair bit of charisma, but I was also dismayed at how many people were laughing at a number of terrible jokes she was telling – gems like ending a rant against homosexuals with “For Rizzle!” and briefly mentioning that “You can find me and my whole family on Twitter!” Somehow this was a riot for a bunch of the crowd, I guess in the same way that it’s supposed to be funny when Betty White tells Facebook jokes.
After what felt like forever, my turn came.
Admittedly, I was pretty nervous. I usually don’t try to deliberately provoke confrontation in my normal day-to-day, and yet here I was about to bring up a sore subject to a definite lunatic. I alternated between second-guessing why the hell I was doing this with remembering I would probably never get another chance to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. They gave me the microphone, and I went for it.
“You briefly touched on your Internet presence,” I began, silently hoping my nerves weren’t showing. “Specifically, Which is interesting, considering the site is offline thanks to the efforts of Anonymous-”
Phelps cut me off immediately. “No it isn’t!” she shrilled. “The site is most certainly not offline, little boy!”
I was shocked to hear a flat-out denial, but I pressed.
“Well, I just checked, and it is…”
The crowd burst into applause upon hearing my reply, and Phelps did NOT look happy. Even I couldn’t help but smile that I had just made her look like a lying fool in front of several hundred people (many of whom had smartphones and laptops of their own, and could quickly confirm I was telling the truth), but all I really wanted to know was how she felt about the website being hacked. I tried to continue my question, but she cut me off again.
“Anonymous is a titmouse! All they were able to do is stick their big toe into our website, and they failed! They even admitted that our defenses were ‘leet!’ Do you know that that means! It means TOO STRONG! Take heed, little boy, we aren’t going anywhere!”
Before I knew it, I had forced Margie Phelps to reveal her true colors. Gone was the bad Betty White impression, and in its place came a schoolyard bully disguised as an elderly homophobe.
Sadly, Phelps could only respond in a way I’ve witnessed countless times from angry children defeated by truth and reason. Her blood had boiled the moment I caught her in a completely unnecessary lie, and the only defense left to her was to dismiss my perfectly reasonable question with more lies and dismissive attacks on my physical stature (for the record, I’m pretty short – Margie Phelps had called a couple female questioners “little girl,” but I was the only male who had the honor of being called “little boy.” Not sure if it was a shot at my height, I’ll let you decide).
After that, the attitude in the room had totally changed. A couple other students asked questions, and her responses were shorter and testier. People were finally starting to boo at this point, and abruptly the session after hearing there wouldn’t be any more questions, and Policinski thanking everyone for coming and again reminding us that the convention didn’t endorse Phelps or WBC. A bunch of students tried to question her on the way out, but she got out of there as fast as she could.
The whole experience was really surreal, so I decided to post it on the website Reddit as an AMA. I know I’m an idiot for thinking her brain makes sense, but I really can’t believe she would lie about something so stupid… and I really can’t believe how quickly I got her to go from confident to furious, or how I finally got the crowd to turn on her.

That, friends, is how you troll a troll. I like to think that somewhere, Anonymous was smiling... if not in that very room along with me.

1 comment:

  1. "There is no more deeply moving a religious experience than cheating on a cheater" ~ Brett Maverick.

    Well played. :) Thanks for the story!



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