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Dave Roepke, Published February 11 2011

Fargo police plan for possible protest

Fargo police suspect the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay ministry based in Kansas, might not even follow through on a plan to protest a Feb. 20 play at Fargo South High School.

The chances are likely lower than 25 percent, Lt. Joel Vettel said Thursday.

But police are prepping for the protest regardless, with plans in place to have extra officers on duty Feb. 20, which is a Sunday. The amount of additional cops will depend on how much attention the event draws, Vettel said.

“In the past, it has been a relatively small number,” he said of the extra police needed at previous Fargo protests by the church in 2003 and 2006.

The church claims on its website that it will protest South High’s production of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming whose killing prompted a national focus on hate-crime legislation. Local productions of “The Laramie Project” are one of Westboro’s most common recent targets.

Vettel said the Westboro protesters, if they show, will be limited to picketing on the sidewalk adjacent to the high school building. Police would expect about a dozen protesters, he said.

Fargo police have more worries about how locals might react to the protest than the protesters.

“Really, our concern is how others will perceive them and react to their message,” Vettel said.

A Facebook page devoted to organizing a counter-protest billed as “peaceful” quickly sprang up after the Westboro plans were publicized. By 6 p.m. Thursday, more than 1,200 Facebook users had said they plan to attend the counter-protest.

Vettel said there will be a dividing area between the Westboro protest and the people picketing them.

“We’ll try to separate them by space,” he said.

The Feb. 20 show at 7:30 p.m. is one of three planned for the weekend, with a 7:30 p.m. show on Feb. 18 and a 2 p.m. matinee on Feb. 19.

The church has also said it plans to picket a production of “The Laramie Project” Sunday in Hastings, Minn.

Fargo police may send an officer there to observe if it appears necessary, though Vettel said, “That would be an extreme case.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535