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Campus and Local Community Gather to Celebrate Diversity

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (March 10, 2009) - They came with words of hate but inspired celebrations of diversity, tolerance, acceptance and love.Six members of the Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Plattsburgh Friday, March 6, to protest the Plattsburgh High School's Gay Straight Alliance club and the SUNY Plattsburgh theater department's performance of "The Laramie Project," a play that focuses on the aftermath of the slaying of a young gay college student in Laramie, Wyo. The group, which has been tagged as a hate group by the Southern Law Poverty Center, the Anti-Defamation League and others, claims God hates homosexuals, blacks, Jews, the Irish, Catholics, Americans and more.

To view a photo gallery of the Unity Rally and march, click here.

That evening, as they set up their picket signs at the intersection of Rugar and Broad streets to protest the play, an estimated 1,000 people packed the ballrooms of the Angell College Center for the Campus/Community Rally for Love and Hope. Planned in anticipation of the picketers, the rally was part of "Walk on By" week, which was filled with events to raise awareness and promote understanding on issues of diversity. Events included a forum on inflammatory rhetoric; a panel on religion and homosexuality; a module from the Greek Ally Project on religion and homophobia; and the screening of several films including the award-winning "Milk," a biographical motion picture about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office.

At Friday's unity rally, some attendees wore homemade T-shirts bearing messages of peace and love. Others wore "Stop Hate" stickers and bracelets. Many wore smiles.

Brandon Grom, a SUNY Plattsburgh junior, event organizer, and member of the Student Association, kicked off the celebration by hailing the arrival of what he called a "new era."

"A new era is among us - an era in which we find that all women, men, homosexual, heterosexual, fat, thin, black, white, red, yellow, able and disabled are equal and should be treated with respect. Your presence here today is a sign of great love, love that is open and tolerant of everyone," Grom said.

"It is our duty to live each day treating others with dignity - even those whose opinions we do not share," he added later in his speech.

SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling later took the podium, announcing that he'd never seen such a crowd packed into the ballrooms. Then, he went on to read the words of a famous sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King on the need to love our enemies.

"Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe," he read. "If I hit you, and you hit me, and I hit you back, and you hit me back and go on, you see, this goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense. And that person is the strong person. The strong person is the person who can call off the chain of hate the chain of evil. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe, that strong and power element of love."

New York State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey also spoke at the rally.

"I can't think of anything worse than to spread hatred in the name of God, because I want to tell you that my God, the higher being that I believe in, does indeed love all people," she said.

Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Bernie Bassett followed her words by offering a challenge to the crowd.

"This may sound totally crazy, but this is easy," he said of the gathering. "There is a movement; there is a happening; there's leadership; there's focus; there's channeled energy. But the future is not as easy.

"When it is one-on-one, when you are confronted with all the kinds of people we are here but all the kinds of people out there, as you've defined, and there is not a friend or an organization or a buddy to help you do and say the right thing, will you? That's what's really important. Is it driven deep enough inside of you that truly your prejudice is gone when it's one-on-one and you're alone with your thoughts?" he asked.

"You know what's right," he added. "Practice it. Preach it every day, one-on-one."

The line up for the evening also included music by Minor Adjustments, the college's a capella group; a tribute to Steven Fanning, the student who passed away in a recent off-campus fire; and a host of other speakers and well wishers.

The following day featured another major event, a "March to Reclaim the Streets," where more than 100 students and community members walked from Hawkins Hall to City Hall.

To view a photo gallery of the Unity Rally and march, click here.

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