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In 2000, Yvonne Wilson was attending Harrisburg's PrideFest with her partner and friends. As they approached the festival, a woman who noticed Yvonne's rainbow decal started screaming at them, telling them that they were doomed to Hell. After parking her car, Yvonne noticed groups of street preachers surrounding the festival grounds, many of them with signs telling festival-goers that they were all damned. After consulting with a nearby police officer, Yvonne made her own sign that said "I'm Christian and Gay", and went to stand next to the street preachers in silent counter-protest, never confronting the preachers directly. After standing and holding the sign for hours, Donald Anklam came up to Yvonne and asked if he could hold her sign while she rested. This was the genesis of what has become the Silent Witnesses.

In the years that followed, Yvonne recruited others to also hold signs of support for PrideFest participants. She, along with Rosemary Mirocco, trained dozens of silent witnesses to stand along the festival fence line with their backs to the protesters. As long as the preachers stood in one place, this tactic of silent counter-protest worked well.

In 2004, members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church came to Harrisburg to protest the showing of the documentary Jim In Bold. The Human Relations Commission considered this a potential hate crime, so law enforcement was ramped up to include city police, capital police, state police, bomb-sniffing dogs, swat teams on building roofs, and circling helicopters. Some 80 silent witnesses were organized for the event, including 15 or so headed by Alanna Berger from the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. The Phelps group stood a block away from the State Museum where the film was shown. The silent witnesses formed a ring around the museum, holding signs of support for those attending. After about 45 minutes, the Phelps group packed up and went home. It was a great day!

A few months later, the Phelps group was back again, picketing at area churches, including the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. Alanna once again organized the trained witnesses of the church, who stood between the protesters and church members leaving services. After about 20 minutes, the protesters were gone another successful day of witnessing!

The following summer, Alanna again organized about a dozen members of the church to be witnesses, this time at the annual Harrisburg PrideFest. The witnesses were instructed by the police to stand behind special barricades. They were told that the protesters would also be positioned behind other barricades but they didn't stay there. However, it wasn't long before the protesters were roaming the streets around the festival, harassing everyone who attempted to enter. This drove some people away and angered others. It was a very hot day, and tempers were becoming frayed. There were far fewer witnesses than there were street preachers. To make matters worse, the festival-goers couldn't tell the witnesses from the protesters, because they all held similar-looking signs and were basically dressed the same. It became clear to both Alanna and her husband Blaise Liffick that if something didn't change, there would eventually be violence. The tactic of simply counter-protesting was no longer enough of a solution.

About mid-way through the day, after watching the street preachers harass people for several hours, Alanna noticed a family heading for the festival entrance, with a street preacher following closely. The man was about 6'4", and he and his wife had their three little girls with them. The protester was yelling things not only at the parents, but at the kids, such as "Your parents are taking you into Hell!" All of a sudden, the man became quite angry, and it was clear that he was getting ready to hit the preacher. Alanna yelled for her husband, who threw down his sign, jumped the barricade, and put himself between the man and the street preacher. The man, of course, had no idea who Blaise was, or that he wasn't with the protester, so he nearly hit Blaise instead! Luckily, Blaise was able to quickly explain the situation to the man, got him go calm down, and proceed on into the festival without further incident.

From that point on, members of Alanna's team began escorting festival participants past the protesters. After working for nearly five hours in the brutal heat, the day finally ended, but Alanna woke up nearly every night for two weeks crying because of the spiritual poison spread by the street preachers.

After that difficult experience, she vowed that it wouldn't happen that way again. The next spring, when it was time again to begin preparing for the next PrideFest, Alanna, Rosemary, and Blaise brainstormed ideas of new tactics that they could use to better protect those coming to the festival. They hit upon the use of safety vests and rainbow umbrellas to help identify the witnesses to both the police and festival-goers. They developed a new detailed, comprehensive training program so that witnesses would be well prepared to deal with protesters in non-violent and non-confrontational ways. They trained over 70 volunteers to escort people in and out of the festival. And for the first time since the festival began over a decade ago, there were no arrests of either protesters or festival-goers. This was the beginning of Silent Witness PA as a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the GLBT community have safe and peaceful events. Silent Witnesses became Peacekeepers instead of counter-protesters.

In 2007, there were 130 Silent Witnesses at work at the Harrisburg PrideFest and Parade. The Witnesses also provided peacekeepers for the Reading and Allentown Pride Celebrations, as well as for other area GLBT events. In 2008, their work expanded to include a Lancaster Pride festival, along with fundraisers and entertainment events for the GLBT community. Alanna and Blaise have also begun training students at state universities, because the street preachers have also begun protesting at their schools. To date, Silent Witness PA has trained over 1000 volunteers, mostly in central PA, but as far away as North Carolina, Kansas, and Michigan.

Silent Witness PA has received emails from all over the country asking us to train local chapters. There is, unfortunately, an obvious need for such groups to form. In the coming years, we will endeavor to help as many GLBT events as possible. In the months to come, we will be working to develop the funding to help everyone who needs our help.