BY AMANDA ULMAN
LARAMIE, Wyoming - A team of Militant supporters visited Laramie, Wyoming, October 31 to learn more about the local response to the lynching of Matthew Shepard. Shepard, a University of Wyoming (UW) student who was gay, was beaten on October 6 and left tied to a fence post in near-freezing weather. He died in the hospital on October 12. Weeks after the incident, signs, banners, and ribbons displayed on the UW campus, in business windows, and other locations in Laramie were still prominent, showing widespread public opposition to the lynching.
At the homecoming parade on October 10, the last contingent was a group of students protesting the attack on Shepard. According to David Rivera, president of the United Multicultural Council, one of the organizations that sponsored many of the protests around Shepard's murder, the parade grew from about 100 people to between 500 and 600, as people joined in to protest. Cheerleaders and athletic teams wore yellow ribbons and stickers at games to show their opposition to the lynching. Other events and protests included a three-day long teach-in sponsored by faculty; "Community Healing for Laramie," sponsored by a few campus and community organizations; and a performance by The Rainbow Chorus from Denver, Colorado, dedicated to the memory of Shepard. Twenty-nine campus organizations sponsored an open forum October 20. According to Jenn Palmer, 23, a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and TransGendered Association, greetings have been sent from students all over the country and from as far as Australia and England. Students from Kansas State University sent an 8 by 10 foot banner with over 300 signatures saying, "Our thoughts are with you." Palmer said, "We've gotten two nasty messages, but a lot of support. It is something that everyone knows about."
The team of Militant supporters set up a literature table in downtown Laramie. Posters on the table read "Defend abortion rights," and "Defend civil rights for gays and lesbians." The polarization that Palmer referred to was reflected in the response of passersby. Some expressed support for the signs on the table and the Militant, which featured articles on protests around the lynching. One woman said, "I'm glad to see someone out here raising these things." A few passersby expressed disagreement, and one group of young people sped off from a traffic light shouting, "Kill the gays."
Student activists expressed differing views on legislation against so-called hate crimes. This debate can be seen in the pages of Branding Iron, the campus newspaper.
Also under debate is what would constitute justice in the prosecution of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men charged with murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery in Shepard's death. Many students who were angered at Shepard's killing also voiced opposition to the death penalty, which is used in Wyoming. Eric Lewis, 19, said, "if they [McKinney and Henderson] get the death penalty it will give more support for the KKK and groups like that to be violent." Preliminary hearings for the two are scheduled for November 19 and 20.
Amanda Ulman is a member of the Young Socialists and of United Auto Workers Local 450 in Des Moines, Iowa.
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