- Cool Clear
- Driest February
- Earl Peterman
- Michael Gehrke
- Biden Win
- Pet Striker
- Hard-Working Bs
- Tiny Homes
- Coronavirus Update
- Sanders Rally
- Covid Rumor
- AVA Oregon
- Yesterday's Catch
- Embracing Lunacy
- Katherine Johnson
- Rail Boondoggles
- Final Impala
- Sanders Solidarity
- Pig'n Whistle
- Kneeing Israel
- Book Review
- Sleepy Tuesday
GUSTY NORTH WINDS and cool temperatures are expected today, but with mostly clear skies. A warming trend is expected Monday through Thursday. The next opportunity for rain is expected to arrive Friday. (NWS)
EARL ‘PETE’ PETERMAN
Died February 6, 2020 in Boonville.
Memorial Service March 14, 11am, New Life Community Church, Ukiah.
Graveside: March 15, 4pm, Evergreen Cemetery, Boonville
On Saturday, February 22, 2020, 100 odd citizens of the Albion Nation gathered in the Mendocino Community Center to celebrate the life of one of our own, Michael Gehrke, aka ‘Pickle.’ He was a joyous anarchistic woodsman and fisherman and growers who spread good vibrations all his days. His pal, Gary Moraga, put on a photo display of his smiling presence.
The gala event had a superlative feast laid out and a huge bottle bath of Red Sea Ale (Pickle’s favorite). As Captain Fathom noted, “Pickle will live as long as the Albion Nation.”
Amen (Alan ‘Captain Fathom’ Graham, Albion)
UKIAH SHELTER PET OF THE WEEK
Striker came to the shelter as an injured stray dog; he suffered a dislocated hip and a right hock metatarsal fracture. Striker is on the road to recovery, but he's on kennel rest and will need limited activity for the next month or so. Potential adopters will need to be able to follow the limited activity requirements. Striker likes to play with toys, and he's a pretty happy and energetic guy. Once he's fully healed, an active home will be his ideal family. Striker needs basic training--ask us about canine classes in the Ukiah area. Striker is a 1 year old, neutered male who currently weights 35 pounds.
The Ukiah Animal Shelter is located at 298 Plant Road in Ukiah, and adoption hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit our website for information about our canine and feline guests and all of our services, programs and events: mendoanimalshelter.com For more information about adoptions please call 707-467-6453.
Photo via Kathy Wylie:
by Mark Scaramella
Believe nothing until it has been officially denied. — Claud Cockburn
For a recent local example of Mr. Cockburn’s adage, Ukiah City Councilwoman and Second District Supers candidate Maureen ‘Mo’ Mulheren strenuously denied that her pet $4.5 million three-mile “linear park” along the railroad tracks in Ukiah is a “trail to nowhere.” That’s true. It ends at the Ukiah sewage treatment plant, making for “a nice 5k.”
Similarly, at last Wednesday’s Measure B Oversight Committee meeting, former Sheriff Tom Allman denied that hiring a couple more staffers for the latest Measure B project manager is “a couple of cush government jobs made for friends and family.” Allman also predicted that “There will be people in the public saying, 'Oh My God, there goes our money'.” Au contraire, insisted Allman, “These will be hard working Measure B people.”
Given the nearly invisible progress associated everything associated with Measure B, we’re adding the phrase “Hard Working Measure B people” to the AVA’s Top Ten Oxymorons, right up there with “amicable divorce,” “military intelligence,” and “I’ll never forget ol’ What’shername.”
County CEO and Measure B Committee member Carmel Angelo had just announced that she had hired Ms. Alyson Bailey of Willits as the new Measure B project manager, replacing Isabel Gonzalez who lasted only a few weeks before being overwhelmed by her workload, thus the more staff solution proposal. Ms. Bailey runs (ran?) a consulting business called “Edify,” an ill-defined Willits-based outfit which “provides Marketing, Design, Public Relations, and other business necessities without the expense of employment, or burnout.” Ms. Bailey told the Committee that she had previously worked for Anna Shaw at Hospitality Center in Fort Bragg, but had since branched out into project management and consulting.
CEO Angelo said that the Measure B Project Manager certainly needs a senior data analyst and a staff assistant because the CEO simply doesn't have enough county staff to do “all this work.” As has become standard in justifying more expansion of her Executive Office coterie, the CEO went on for several minutes, spraying the captive committee with a prolonged burst of stupifying bureaucratese which she seems to think — correctly, as it turned out — will persuade the skeptical that managing Measure B is a really big job requiring more work than just a project manager and some high-priced consultants.
After pointing out that “There will be people in the public saying 'Oh My God, there goes our money’,” former Sheriff Allman said that the Committee had “tried Kemper and Nacht & Lewis,” implying that the prior and current consultants just weren’t enough. “I don’t want these jobs to be lasting forever,” added Allman. “Our mission is for brick and mortar. These jobs will last three or four years while we get our projects done.”
Three or four years sounds awfully optimistic since so little has been “done” so far.
Continuing his attempt to pre-emptively squelch a torrent of criticism from Mendo's somnolent media, Allman added: “There’s going to be accountability for these jobs because we can’t build what we don’t know what we need.”
Right. So, gimme a couple more analysts and — voila! — accountability!
“The project manager and the other [additional] employees are going to be able to adequately present it [“it” being undefined] to the committee and the public so we understand where we’re going. We don’t need a road map. We have a road map. But the specific projects that need to be accomplished, there’s not government staff to say, Go do that. And if we don’t have the right people, in 50 years from now we can look in the rearview mirror if we’re still alive and say we squandered a whole bunch of money. So we are trying to spend it appropriately, but we have to get the right people into the right jobs to answer to you and answer to us that we are doing the right thing.”
CEO Angelo added that she thinks they’ll probably need a third position later, adding that she thought “a lot of thinking goes into our hiring and contracting.”
In the end Angelo proposed that they be a tad cautious and only hire one senior data analyst and a quarter-time admin assistant for now; the Committee enthusiastically approved. But count on it: it won’t be long before Angelo proposes a couple more “hard working Measure B people.” After all, the committee was prepared to approve three new hires right off.
In other Measure B news, County Mental Health Director Dr. Jenine Miller said that the County is now committed to the state to having a Crisis Stabilization Unit up and open and running by November of 2021 at the Orchard Street property next door to Camille Schrader’s existing Redwood Community Services operation to be partially funded by the state’s $500k Mental Health seed grant. There’s apparently some chance that it would also include some Crisis Residential beds, depending on space.
This latest promise — you’d think that they’d avoid issuing hard dates anymore since their track record is so poor — is part of the overall bum’s [sic] rush to get this particular Crisis Unit operation going before the recently approved but barely begun “operational feasibility study” called for by Supervisor Ted Williams and the rest of the Board of Supervisors is complete. The state's provision of that juicy $500k dollop of funding makes this part of the Measure B project picture presumptively “operationally feasible” before anything else is done, much less studied.
Committee member Ross Liberty raised a question of what the Committee or County could be doing to improve services in the short term since about a quarter of the Measure B revenue is supposed to be used for service improvements.
In response, Allman suggested that it might be time to check out Eugene, Oregon’s crisis van program which Ukiah Police Chief Justin Wyatt urged the Committee to explore a year ago but which quickly disappeared down Measure B’s ever-expanding memory hole even though everyone thought that was a great idea. “Everything else to this point has been an academic conversation,” admitted Allman. “We have $13 million [in accumulated sales tax revenues so far]. Taxpayers want services. We should have this [the topic of additional short-term services] on every agenda.”
But following up on Chief Wyatt’s eminently sensible and immediately doable crisis van proposal soon collapsed when the Committee decided it would be better to have the nearly non-functional “Behavorial Health Advisory Board” make suggestions on upgraded services. The hard working Measure B Committee certainly could not be expected to take any action, however sensible, on their own.
Although staffing up with more and more admin people gets done with enthusiasm and pre-emptive squelching of skepticism, conveniently missing from the agenda was any mention of getting the County’s fully funded, highly praised, but minimally staffed Mobile Outreach van service back up to speed again.
The bumblingly inert Committee B also seems to have conveniently forgotten about — or more accurately intentionally ignored — the Measure B requirement that they “Conduct an independent annual audit and develop a performance management strategy which measures the effectiveness of the improved services, treatment and facilities and assesses the impact of the ‘Mental Health Treatment Act’.”
It’s going on three years now and there has never been an “annual audit,” nor any mention of developing a “performance management strategy which measures the effectiveness of the improved services, treatment and facilities [which] assesses the impact of the ‘Mental Health Treatment Act’.”
And even with a couple more “hard working Measure B people,” there’s no evidence that there ever will be.
FORMERLY HOMELESS RESIDENTS
FROM SUPERVISOR WILLIAMS:
In response to a flurry of private messages regarding the County's response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19):
California has identified 34 cases of coronavirus. Of those, 24 were involved passengers from a cruise ship or from repatriation flights from China. Our State has the first case of "community spread." Another ~8,400 residents within the State are being monitored for COVID-19, but only 200 test kits have been available.
The Center for Disease Control had a glitch with test kits. State and local health departments to begin testing next week.
The State has estimated the need for N95 masks to be 300,000. Approximately 20,000 are available. These masks are primarily manufactured in China, where demand is especially high. Equipment for treating a surge of patients in hospital facilities is another concern and the solution isn't as simple as ordering more supplies (ie ventilators).
In China, the overall case-fatality rate is 2.3%, 8% for 70-79 year olds and 14.8% for over 80 years old. People with chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other conditions have a higher rate.
Signs and symptoms of infection with the new coronavirus may appear two to fourteen days after exposure and are usually mild, but sometimes lethal. The rate and methods of spread are still being studied. Watch for fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, but given how similar this list is to the flu, keeping COVID-19 out of Mendocino County is unlikely. Washing hands and taking reasonable exposure precautions will hopefully buy time for the health system to ramp up detection and treatment plans.
Concern has been expressed about the lack of releases from our local hospital and Public Health. Go easy on them. There isn't much substance to share, beyond what is trickling down from the federal and state authorities. The potential impact to health and economy are not discounted. State government is treating COVID-19 as the greatest present health concern.
I'll share noteworthy details, but I'm not going to litter social media with releases lacking substance. In preparation for storms, PG&E power shut offs and now COVID-19, I urge the public to stock up on supplies. If we have an outbreak, it'll be better if we're not all rushing for supplies at once.
SANDERS BOSTON RALLY SATURDAY
BASELESS CONSPIRACY THEORIES CLAIM NEW CORONAVIRUS WAS BIOENGINEERED
Several online stories inaccurately claim that the new coronavirus contains HIV “insertions” and shows signs of being created in a lab. But there is no evidence that the new virus was bioengineered, and every indication it came from an animal.
Original 14 issues, fine condition. Own a treasure of rare journalism. $300 / bo.
CATCH OF THE DAY, February 29, 2020
JOHN ALAMEDA, Lakeport/Ukiah. Resisting, probation revocation.
VANESSA BARTEL, Ukiah. Controlled substance, probation revocation.
SHAWN BIAS, Fort Bragg. Under influence, probation revocation. (Frequent Flyer)
BILLY CUNNINGHAM, Ukiah. Under influence, probation revocation.
BENJAMIN KIMPTON, Ukiah. Assault with deadly weapon not a gun, under influence, resisting, probation revocation.
BRIAN MCCUTCHEON, Fort Bragg. Probation revocation.
JOSEPH MISITA, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
ROBERT NUTT, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
SHANKARI RUIZ, Willits. Controlled substance without prescription, stolen property, suspended license.
LAUREN SCHMIDT, Ukiah. Use of tear gas for other than self-defense, probation revocation.
LORRAINE SMITH, Fort Bragg. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
RAUL SOLANO-DIAZ, Talmage. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
JESUS TORRES, Sacramento/Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
KENNETH WOLFE, Fort Bragg. DUI with priors.
ON LINE COMMENT OF THE DAY
Sometimes symptoms of one malady can mimic those of another. Is that splitter of a head-ache because of that low-grade rocket fuel you got at the liquor store or because of a tumor pressing on some vital nerves?
Is the pattern of disordered thinking because of schizophrenia? Or is it just because social animals mimic their compadres?
You’ve seen it, nonsensical group-think – unexamined and unfettered by mere fact and logic – making its way onto the street and into places where people gather and talk, in the fullness of time ripening into the generally accepted and respectable, with normally and otherwise rational people doing crazy stuff. Like buying stocks. Or building gas chambers.
Confounded by the appearance of a political rival that not only wouldn’t fucking die but showed traction in the general electorate, and then stunned by the 2016 loss of what was considered by considered opinion to be an in-the-bag election, Hillary and a few others cooked up preposterous story-lines that were laughable on their face, but which nonetheless became the indisputable and obvious truth among the educated classes, requiring the massive surveillance and investigative apparatus of the federal state to swing into action. What was this but people taking leave of their senses and embracing lunacy?
And so here we go again folks, the impossible taking shape, the very fabric of reality shaking just like it dd in 2016, and just like in 2016, people that thought they were shot-callers once again finding out that the chess-pieces maybe have minds of their own.
What happens when the wealthy and powerful, smug and self-assured about their place on the economic and social pyramid, suddenly finding things looking pretty damn shaky? What would you expect when the unthinkable and unbearable become the unavoidable?
By any “reasonable” measure, Hillary should be gearing up for another slam-dunk election and preparing for her second term. But that ain’t nearly the case.
And so there are signs of neurological distress, people going nuts, showing symptoms like those of kuru, imu, mali-mali, with the shakes, the shivers, slurring, outlandish claims, disordered thought, disorientation.
But this is just a prelude to the mass insanity to come. What if Sanders wins? What if Trump wins again?
RAILS WITH TRAILS
All the noise concerning SMART has obscured the fact that the public is in real danger of losing its other railroad due to legislative action by state Sen. Mike McGuire in concert with action being taken by state officials. I’m speaking of the segment of railroad between Cloverdale and Willits. Plans at the state level envision conversion to a trail without rail. This ignores the fact that the railroad isn’t abandoned (a very strict term in railroading) but out of service pending repairs.
These repairs were contemplated when the North Coast Railroad Authority deployed over $70 million to reopen freight service as far as Windsor. Shippers from Cloverdale north are pressing the NCRA for restoration of service. There is also real potential for a tourist train on those tracks.
As shown by SMART and NCRA’s previous action (over 10 miles of rails with trails in Healdsburg, Willits, Eureka and Arcata), the two modes are compatible, and there is no need to destroy a railroad in favor of trails. The North Coast Rails With Trails Coalition is the only current advocate for preservation of the rail corridor and intends to vigorously oppose abandonment between Cloverdale and Willits.
Chairman, North Coast Rails With Trails Coalition
ms notes: Mr. Hemphill is a former chairman of the NCRA Board and staunch defender of Doug Bosco’s Northwest Pacific Railroad, operator of the non-train which Bosco claims is owed millions of dollars for unecessary track maintenance on unused rails in the McGuire-sponsored closure of the NCRA. Mr. Hemphill needn’t worry about the rail corridor becoming a trail anytime soon if at all since the whole thing is another Democratic Party Boondoggle to waste money on something that’ll never happen except in the minds of the grant grabbers who are trying to set it up while bailing out Bosco et al in the process.
AFTER SIX DECADES, THE FINAL IMPALA WILL ROLL DOWN THE LINE THURSDAY. ITS MANY ADMIRERS WILL KEEP THE SPIRIT OF THE CAR ALIVE.
by Frank Zappa
I say WPLJ, really taste good to me
WPLJ, won't you take a drink with me
Well, it's a good good wine
It really make you feel so fine
(So fine, so fine, so fine)
I went to the store when they opened up the door
I said, "Please please please gimme some more"
White Port & Lemon Juice,
White Port & Lemon Juice,
White Port & Lemon Juice,
Ooh what it do to you!
You take the bottle, you take the can
Shake it up fine, you get a good good wine.
White Port & Lemon Juice,
(Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah…)
White Port & Lemon Juice,
White Port & Lemon Juice,
Ooh what it do to you!
The W is the White,
The P is the Port,
The L is the Lemon,
The J is the Juice
White Port & Lemon Juice,
White Port & Lemon Juice,
White Port & Lemon Juice,
Ooh what it do to you!
Well I feel so good, I…
CLASS WAR, THE DNC, AND THE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES
The stakes couldn’t be higher. After four years of Trump, we are in a moment of national and global emergency as a result of staggering wealth inequality, institutional racism, political corruption, rising fascism, and ecological collapse. This election is critical, not just for the future of the United States, but the future of life on this planet.
As the street-theater group used to say: “This is class war. And we (the billionaires) are winning!” With the support of millions of people, Bernie Sanders is waging an ideological and political war against the billionaires and corporations that control our politics, our economy, and our entire society. He’s up against the fossil fuel industry, the private healthcare industry, Big Pharma, the prison industrial complex, and the military industrial complex. He’s 78 years old, and he’s carrying the weight of the world on his back. He’s fighting for us, all of us — and we're fighting for him.
This is exactly why Sanders is so threatening to the ruling elite. They keep telling us he’s unelectable, but the truth is he’s the most electable candidate we have, and the only one likely to beat Donald Trump. So on your primary election day, let’s do what the one-percent fears most. Let’s show up in droves. Let’s show up in armies. Let’s bring so many friends and family to the polls that we break the voting machines. Let’s overwhelm the system. The ruling class needs to know that we’re coming for them. And this fight doesn’t stop at the ballot box. Whatever they do to sabotage this election, this movement will spread like fire because this isn’t about an election anymore. This is truly the fight for our lives.
HOLLYWOOD, CIRCA 1948
ATHLETES TAKE A KNEE AGAINST ISRAEL’S OCCUPATION
by Dave Zirin
In August of 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his NFL season by kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of racism and state violence. He purposefully chose the space of the anthem to raise the issue of the gap between what this nation promises and what it delivers. It was a powerful, iconic act that inspired athletes from a panoply of sports to do the same. From the pros, to college, to high school, to even middle school, athletes were inspired to take a knee less to lend their solidarity to Kaepernick than to protest racist police killings where they lived.
In the tradition—and the extension—of this movement, two volleyball players from Brooklyn College went to one knee before a game against the Yeshiva. They kneeled during the playing of Israel’s National Anthem this week, which Yeshiva plays before every contest, as a protest against Israel’s racism and state violence; most pointedly against Israel’s apartheid policies of occupation that keep the two million Palestinians of Gaza in an open-air prison surrounded by checkpoints and walls. They weren’t just going to stand for Israel’s anthem, hand over hearts, and do nothing.
The two athletes, Hunnan Butt and Omar Rezika, were immediately slandered as anti-Semites because of their simple, silent gesture of dissent.
Yeshiva University president Dr. Ari Berman went on the attack, and in a shockingly irresponsible—not to mention dangerous—statement about two students, he said:
“It is unfortunate that some members of the opposing team disrespected Israel’s national anthem. We are proud to be the only university who sings both the American and Israeli national anthems before every athletic competition and major event. Nothing makes me prouder to be an American than living in a country where our religious freedom, our Zionism and our commitment to our people will never be impeded and always be prized.”
Think about the irony of this statement. Berman prizes “living in a country where our religious freedom, our Zionism and our commitment to our people will never be impeded and always be prized,” yet this educational leader is willing to demonize two teenagers for exercising our most cherished freedom: freedom of speech. Berman also doesn’t see the irony in the fact that this was the national anthem of another country in which the players kneeled, not the country in which the players were in fact living or playing.
Berman, by turning up the heat instead of seeking some kind of dialogue, opened the floodgates against these two students, who have since set their social media to private in the face of a tidal wave of attacks. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, to take just one example, described their actions as “this flagrant display of antisemitism,” and demanded Brooklyn College punish the students.
Not surprisingly the story was also picked up by hard right-wing Zionist twitter feeds, none of which I care to give free publicity to. But suffice to say, these same feeds that praise a President who makes anti-Semitic comments and whose acolytes chant “Jews Will Not Replace Us” are slandering two young people in frightening fashion because they dared stand for the voiceless of Palestine.
Several of these feeds have also spread the lie that the athletes did not shake hands with their opponents following the game, something that both Yeshiva and Brooklyn College have denied.
I reached out to Noura Erakat, the author of Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine. She said to me,
“There’s a stark distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And though there has been a deliberate effort to conflate Jewish liberation with Zionism, that is neither universally accepted and hardly historically accurate. These students took a clear stance against a national symbol of the state in a manner that echoes protests among Black athletes in the US. And just as Black protest has been maligned in order to avoid the issues of racial injustice, so too is the students’ legitimate protest being unjustly attacked.”
I also talked to Yousef Munayyer, from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. He commented,
“These young athletes demonstrated the courage of their convictions and chose to send a message of dissent with this simple act. At a time when activism for Palestinian rights is increasingly facing attempted repression, they stood tall for justice by taking a knee. They should be applauded.”
Now, the two athletes are not making any comment, perhaps fearful that being put on “jihad watch” by one web site (seriously) could affect their lives. This is not Israel. If Yeshiva wants to play the anthem that is their business. To expect athletes to stand with their hand over their hearts, only demonstrates just how many inroads Trump’s brigade of Christian soldiers (who think we are going to hell come the rapture) along with their pro-Occupation allies have made in challenging basic freedoms of speech. Many rushed to Colin Kaepernick’s side in solidarity when he took the knee. We should do the same for Hunnan and Omar.
KINKS & CONVOLUTIONS
by James Lasdun
(A book review of "Unfollow: A journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church" by Megan Phelps-Roper)
Beyond a few tabloid stories, the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t really hit the news until 2005, when its members started picketing funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War, with signs declaring god hates fags, thank god for dead soldiers, thank god for IEDs and thank god for AIDS. The combination of homophobia and anti-military sentiment was puzzling, but once you learned the group’s rationale – that American soldiers were being killed as divine punishment for America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality – you would probably have dismissed them as just another sideshow in the American political carnival, nastier than some, but of no greater interest.
The church’s tiny size, seldom above 80 members (most of them closely related), would have confirmed its political and cultural insignificance.
At any rate, I wouldn’t have considered the inner workings of the Westboro Baptists worth learning about in those days. But having read Megan Phelps-Roper’s scrupulous, anguished account of “loving and leaving” the church, I’m not so sure I was right. With bigotry and trolling center-stage in US politics, there is value in anything that can shed light on these things, or on the processes by which groups of people seal themselves into airtight alternative realities.
The church launched its anti-gay mission in 1989 after its founder, Fred Phelps, went biking through Gage Park in Topeka, Kansas, with one of his 54 grandchildren, and saw (or thought he saw) a couple of men trying to lure the boy into the bushes. Members began a letter-writing campaign that quickly escalated from complaints about the park’s management to thunderous denunciations of homosexuality. And in 1991 they embarked on what was to become their signature activity: picketing with deliberately offensive signs.
Megan, another grandchild, was conscripted along with the rest of the clan. She was only five, and couldn’t read the words on her placard, but she enjoyed singing the Gene Autry parody “Gramps” had written, urging gays and lesbians to get back in the closet “Where the filthy faggots dwell/while they’re on their way to hell,” and was mystified by the angry counter-protesters confronting them outside the park: “I didn’t understand why anyone would reject our message.”
Her own understanding of the message was limited, but Gramps wasn’t shy about instructing his flock in the finer points of fornication, and Megan was paying attention: “I could articulate the meanings of ‘scat,’ ‘rimming’ and ‘golden showers’ all before my eighth birthday.” By then the picketers had moved on to the Topeka Performing Arts Center, to make a stand against the theater’s Christmas celebrations with their own seasonal carolling: “Three bloody rectums, two shaven gerbils, and a vat of K-Y Jelly!” Their next target was a local restaurant managed by a lesbian and owned by a “Jew lawyer.” (Antisemitism, because god hates jews, was also part of the brew.) There, they took their first serious beating, with eight members ending up in hospital.
Encouraged, they began looking beyond Kansas for abominations and tragedies to mark in their special way. “Two whores in a week!” Gramps exulted after the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana a few days apart. In 1998 members travelled to Laramie, Wyoming to picket the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who had been tortured and beaten to death. It was their first funeral stunt, and its astounding cruelty (Shepard’s parents couldn’t be protected from hearing their jeering chants) got the attention of CNN. They had discovered their own Zelig principle: be horrible enough and you can insert yourself into history. Over the years, in demonstrations, blog posts (“GodSmacks”) and statements to the media, they came to haunt the fringes of public events, from the World Trade Center attacks to the 2004 tsunami, the Anders Breivik massacre, the death of Amy Winehouse and the murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
At the age of 11, Megan was eagerly propounding and defending the church’s positions. Answering the phone to a journalist calling for comment on Ellen DeGeneres’s recent coming out, she responded calmly: “She’s a filthy dyke, and she’s going to Hell for eternity.” At 13, one of her favorite pastimes was arguing Bible doctrine with strangers in the chatroom on the church’s website, GodHatesFags.com. Her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper, was the church’s chief spokesperson and indefatigable administrator, and at 14 Megan became her official assistant. The atmosphere in the Topeka compound was energetic and high-spirited; Megan thrived there. They were a well-educated crowd — Fred sent all 13 of his children to law school – and fond of one another. Contrary to what one might expect, the children were encouraged to read widely and ask questions.
Megan’s first serious questions concerned the picketing of military funerals. She was 19 by then, and perplexed by the decision. Her mother reminded her about a pipe bomb that had been set off in their driveway ten years earlier, damaging a fence, and suggested that the death of soldiers, many by IEDs, was proof of divine vengeance, as per Psalm 7: “His mischief shall return upon his own head.” To her credit, Megan found it hard to believe the US was at war entirely because of the Phelpses’ fence. Her mother also supplied her with lines from Deuteronomy and Hosea listing bereavement – specifically the loss of children – as a punishment for corruption and iniquity. That helped. But it was hearing her mother admit she had been moved to tears after hearing the father of a dead soldier speak about his son that finally persuaded Megan they were doing the right thing. It had evidently been easy to forget that their justification for taunting bereaved families wasn’t in fact hatred – or, God forbid, the addictive kick of indulging in guilt-free sociopathic aggression on a daily basis – but the loving desire to save souls. You get a sense of the church’s insidious grip on its members in the tortured logic of Megan’s account of the way empathy became the instrument for keeping her and others in the fold:
“I had begun to feel hesitant … Family and friends of the fallen were passing by a hundred feet away, and it was impossible not to see their heaviness. Breaching that grief-stricken silence so that we could bellow our defiance made me feel – unwillingly, involuntarily – like a terrible person. I would talk myself out of it, buttressing our position with Bible verses to justify the behavior – but my mother’s tears gave me permission to feel the empathy I’d been afraid to acknowledge. I was relieved to know it wasn’t wrong to do so.”