Thursday morning hundreds of people filled the sidewalks around Rose Mortuary in North Knoxville. The crowd arrived after a string of social media messages asked people to form a human wall around the funeral home during services for Army veteran Shan Edward Lively.
The human wall was meant to shield family members from a possible protest by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. The church posted a flyer on its website that stated it planned to protest Lively's funeral. In fact, the church did not follow through on its threat.
* Reporter's note: Westboro Baptist Church has a long history of announcing plans to protest veterans' funerals on its website. These announcements are often false and made in an effort to garner free exposure for hate speech via local news outlets. WBIR chooses not to give these protest announcements or the church any pre-publicity. The decision to ultimately cover Thursday's events was based on the enormous community response in support of a deceased East Tennessee veteran's surviving family. *
Glenn Atrobius, a Chief Warrant Officer with the 733rd Engineer Company, drove to North Knoxville Thursday to attend the funeral of an old comrade. Last week 37-year-old U.S. Army veteran Shan Lively died at home in Knoxville unexpectedly. Lively was a medic with the 844th Engineering Battalion in Knoxville.
"I can say it was a real shock," said Atrobius. "Specialist Lively was a fantastic medic and worked with our company for a brief time in Hawaii and on some field exercises. He did his job spectacularly with us and I couldn't ask for a better
medic. I know he left behind a wife, a son, and an unborn son."
As Atrobius arrived to show support for the family of a fellow soldier, he was greeted by a groundswell of hundreds of supporters from across East Tennessee.
"I had just heard about the possible protest [by Westboro] for the first time last night. I did not expect to see this many people here. It is touching to see so much support," said Atrobius.
The likelihood of a protest by the Kansas church seemed low based on indications from the Knoxville Police Department that it had not received any requests for demonstration permits. Yet, word of the potential threat spread like wildfire through social media and elicited a large community response on short-notice.
"We let the family know we were not here to protest. We were here to actually pay respect and block out a potential protest," said Paul Berney of Knoxville. "This has kind of brought this city together. You look around and you see people of all backgrounds and across the political spectrum. You think of people being divided during a presidential election, but everyone here comes together to reject the message of hate spread under the guise of religion by that church. We all believe a family should be able to bury loved ones with peace and dignity."
Linda Thompson drove 45 minutes from her home in LaFollette to participate in Thursday's counter-protest.
"My daughter-in-law told me last night how we were going to have this human wall here in support of the family. I just wanted to come because I feel like he [Lively] was a hero," said Thompson.
Daniel Wyson, a Marine from Chattanooga, arrived early Thursday to express support for the Lively family.
"It's worth it to show up regardless of whether they [Westboro members] do or not. I think it's bringing a lot of people out and bringing the community closer together," said Wyson.
The protest threat proved to be a hoax. Westboro Baptist Church members never showed up to Lively's funeral or burial. What did make an appearance was the willingness of people to take a threat seriously by exercising the rights soldiers fight for.
"As a soldier, we fight to defend the Constitution, the First Amendment, and freedom of speech," said Atrobius. "The fact that it allows diversity in our country and a difference of opinion is why we [the United States] are as great as we are."