With Rainbow Umbrellas, Silent Witness Peacekeepers Block Intolerance
In 2005, Alanna Berger, along with several members of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, were recruited to help a local group called Silent Witnesses. Their job was to silently welcome the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to the Central PA Pride Festival, holding signs of support – helping them ignore the dozens of protesters who showed up every year. But that day was the worst day of Alanna’s life. Although they were supposed to stand silently with their signs, Alanna watched as the protesters violated police directives and deliberately tried to start confrontations with festival goers. She could not stand idly by, and for five hours, she and her husband, Blaise Liffick, jumped the barricade time after time to break up arguments before they turned into physical altercations. They went home that day, hot, tired and exhausted.
They had been successful at preventing any fights, but the day took its toll – Alanna woke up night after night, sobbing as she relived that day in her nightmares. She – being straight – could not imagine what it must be like to be gay or lesbian and listen to that vitriol. She vowed it would not happen again, not in her town. So the following year, with friends from the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, the UU Congregation of York, the UU’s of Cumberland Valley and the UU’s of Gettysburg, Alanna and Blaise presented their idea. Instead of Silent Witnesses as counter protesters, the UU’s would be Silent Witness Peacekeepers. They would wear orange safety vests to clearly identify themselves, and carry giant rainbow umbrellas to shield festival participants from the protesters.
Following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Alanna and Blaise provided Silent Witness Peacekeepers with an intensive training program on how to respond non-violently to spiritual violence. That year, 26 Silent Witnesses led the first Central PA Pride Parade. Over 70 UU’s worked the event as peacekeepers. For the first time ever, there were no arrests at the Harrisburg Pride event. Harrisburg City Police insisted that the Silent Witness Peacekeepers HAD to come back the following year!
In January of 2007, Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to protest York Suburban High School’s presentation of “The Laramie Project”. Local gays and lesbians wanted to support the students, but asked that Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance be there so they would feel safe. After that, Alanna received requests to be at other Pride festivals, plays, documentaries and public forums on GLBT issues.
Since their first event in 2006, Alanna and Blaise have trained Pennsylvania UU’s in Harrisburg, York, Carlisle, Gettysburg, Lancaster, Reading, State College, Bethlehem, and Wyoming Valley, as well as UU’s in Towson, MD and Charlotte, NC. They have trained students on Pennsylvania college campuses in Millersville, Shippensburg, and Kutztown as well as Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS, and they have offered consultations to students at high school and college campuses on the East Coast from New York to Georgia. They have trained over 1,000 individuals, and provided Peacekeepers for over 70 events.
Quantitatively, their goal of zero arrests continues to stand – no one has been arrested at any event where there are Silent Witness Peacekeepers. In fact, one of the anti-gay protesters recently changed his sign to focus on Unitarian Universalists instead of the ex-gay movement! But most importantly, the impact of their work shows in other numbers – in the increasing number of letters and emails from LGBT individuals who finally feel safe enough to come to a public event, and the decreasing number of protesters who show up at events when Silent Witness Peacekeepers are there.