Protesters shouting "Stop the Nazis now!" clashed verbally Friday with a Kansas group often identified as a hate group that came to Great Neck to protest against Jews, gays and other people it condemns.
But the placard-waving demonstration by the Westboro Baptist Church fizzled in part because two local high schools they were targeting let their students out early - meaning hundreds of students never saw the demonstrators.
Nassau County police, who along with local police had a heavy presence at the half-dozen protest sites at schools and synagogues, said there were no arrests or incidents, other than a slowdown in passing traffic. About 30 protesters gathered at the day's first event at Chabad of Great Neck synagogue, and about 100 assembled outside Great Neck North High School at about 2:30 p.m. after the Westboro group - five adults and two children - arrived.
School principal Bernard Kaplan said students were dismissed about an hour early to avoid contact with the Westboro group. He said the school held a Unity Day on Thursday and used the episode to explore topics such as racism and hate speech. "Our response has been to answer ignorance with education, meanness with compassion, hate with love, and intolerance with tolerance," said a statement by the Great Neck North High School community.
North Shore Hebrew Academy High School students also left early to avoid the group.
The Westboro demonstrators carried signs declaring "God Hates Jews," "America is Doomed," "God is Your Enemy," and others using a derogatory term for homosexuals. They also sang songs and shouted at protesters and passing motorists.
Irving Cohen, 84, who said he was a World War II veteran wounded in Nuremberg, Germany, said he could not remain quiet or avoid the scene at Chabad, despite urgings by public officials to stay away so as not to give the group attention.
"I thought we had finished off the Nazis," said Cohen of Douglaston. "I feel it's my duty to protest what they stand for."
One of the Westboro leaders, Shirley Phelps-Roper, denied the group is a hate group. "We're a love group. We're an obey-God group," she said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent national civil rights law organization, lists Westboro as a hate group.