This proud old seaport, whose sons and daughters have fought in every American war, was grieving for Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Piper. The 43-year-old Green Beret died after his Humvee hit a roadside bomb June 3 in Afghanistan.
When word got out that demonstrators from Kansas planned to disrupt Piper’s funeral Monday, residents vowed not to let them interfere with the tribute to their hometown hero.
“I was worried that it would fester anger,” said Louise Moore, 39, fighting back tears and waving a small American flag. “Instead it got everyone together.”
The 14 demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., picketed Monday on a corner near the Old North Church, a Congregational parish founded in 1635, soon after Marblehead was settled. The followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps, who blame American tolerance of homosexuality for the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, have targeted Massachusetts for protests because it is the only state where same-sex marriage is legal.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a lawyer for the Kansas church, said Monday that the funeral demonstration was nothing personal against Piper, who was not gay.
“We are protesting the sins of this nation,” Phelps-Roper said. “That doesn’t exclude him.”
The group also has demonstrated at high school and middle school graduations across Massachusetts, contending that school curricula promote homosexuality.
On the corner of a narrow street lined with Colonial-era buildings, the Kansas contingent tried shouting its anti-homosexual message at mourners who overflowed from the church. But every time demonstrators spoke out, the 14-man Boston Police Department bagpipe band broke into thunderous sound.
“I thought that was cool,” said Day Newburg, 34, who stood outside the church with her husband, mother-in-law and 2-year-old daughter. “Those bagpipers drowned them right out.”
The Kansas group, which had been issued a two-hour protest permit, was escorted out of town by police minutes before the horse-drawn caisson carrying Piper’s flag-draped coffin arrived at the church.
“When we heard about the protesters, we became very angry,” said Bill Audette, a retired police officer and organizer of a central Massachusetts group called Blackstone Valley Nam Vets. Audette, 55, said even though he did not know Piper, he considered it his duty to attend the funeral.
Standing among a group of veterans, Audette said that each U.S. military death in Iraq hit hard.
“When we organized 20 years ago,” he said, “we always said there would never be another Vietnam. Enough is enough. This is another war just like Vietnam, where you may be winning the battles but you are not winning the war. We just want them to come home, all of them.”
He said the Kansas group owed its freedom to protest to soldiers like Piper.
“If they want to protest, they have every right under the Constitution,” Audette said. “That is what this boy died for -- the 1st Amendment.”
But, he added: “Don’t do it here. This is not the place for it.”
Trooper 1st Class Timothy Donahue of the Connecticut State Police played on the Marblehead High School football team with Piper.
“The protesters can’t take away from the fact that this is a celebration of Chris’ life -- what he did and how he lived,” said Donahue, 43. “The roots of this town predate our own country. Men from Marblehead have fought in every war. And that was what Chris was all about.”
Piper’s family, veterans from every U.S. military conflict since World War II and the 1,000 or so people who lined Washington Street outside the church formed a procession to Waterside Cemetery. On the milelong route, several thousand others stood on sidewalks, waved flags and held hands over their hearts. Many wept.
Marblehead is a community of 20,000 people, “and truly, in a small town like this, it is like losing a family member,” said Massachusetts State Trooper John Morris, another of Piper’s high school teammates. Morris coaches 12-year-old Christopher Piper Jr. in youth football.
Morris marched behind the boy, who wore his father’s military medals on a black knit shirt.
“Chris was proud to be overseas. He loved it. He believed in this country, and he loved what he was doing,” Morris said. As the bagpipes played “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” Morris’ eyes welled up.
“Chris would have loved this,” Morris said. “There would be tears in his eyes if he were here to see this.”