New York City’s WitchsFestUSA attracts protesters

Heather Greene —  July 13, 2016 — 53 Comments

NEW YORK — WitchsFestUSA, an annual Pagan festival held in the heart of New York City, was attended this year by Christian protesters. The noisy group, who stood all day on the corner of Astor Place, held up large signs calling for repentance and angrily yelling at the passing crowd. Despite the protesters’ presence, the Pagan festival kept to its program and ended on a high note.

[Photo Credit: Emma Story / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Emma Story / Flickr]

Now in its fifth year, WitchsFestUSA describes itself as an outdoor, Pagan street faire. Its mission is to “bring the community of witches or pagans together in general and enjoy who we are as such, while at the same time raising funds for The NYC Wiccan Family Temple acquire our own space of worship.”

The festival was founded and is annually hosted by elder High Priestesses Starr RavenHawk and Luna Rojas. RavenHawk founded and now runs Wiccan Family Temple and the Academy of Pagan Studies, both located in New York City. In 2013, RavenHawk was featured in a Time Magazine about Witchcraft and its modern day practice. Rojas is also a high priestess and member of the Wiccan Family Temple. Additionally, Rojas is the founder of the New York City Pagan Council, a pagan civil rights organization.

RavenHawk and Rojas have been running WitchsFestUSA since 2011. The festival takes place in New York City’s Greenwich Village on Astor Place between Broadway & Lafayette Streets. The one-day Pagan event hosts a variety of workshops, rituals, performances, and vendors, all set up on Manhattan streets like a typical city street faire. This year’s guest presenters were many, including: Rev. Don Lewis, Lilith Dorsey, Christopher Penczak, Courtney Weber Hoover, Lady Rhea, Rhonda Choudry, Qumran Taj, and Lexa Rosean.

Starr Ravenhawk WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber Hoover]

Starr RavenHawk WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber Hoover]

The group of protesters, who numbered between 10 and 20 at any given time, arrived early and stayed all day. They set up on one corner of Astor Place, near the festival’s teaching tents. The group held up signs and yelled at the growing festival crowd. According to RavenHawk, this was the same group of people who protested Pagan Pride in 2015.

Witch and author Christopher Penczak told The Wild Hunt that the protesters appeared to be “some evangelical variety” of Christian, but he could not identify any specific denomination or church affiliation.

“I have never encountered such a belligerent group,” said Hannah, a member of the Temple of Witchcraft and a regular attendee at Pagan and other similar conventions. “One [protester] screamed in my face that I need to repent.” She said that, in her experience, most convention protesters are typically more passive. “These guys were seriously full of aggression and hate.”

While the group kept to its physical location on the street corner, its members were reportedly extremely loud and often shouted over the teachers trying to teach, which appeared to be their goal. In a blog post, author and priestess Courtney Weber Hoover wrote, “We delayed the beginning of our workshops as their ‘Repent, you guys! You’re all going to hell!’ rallies were too loud!”

Lexa Rosen, who was scheduled to teach in the tent directly beside the protesters, attempted to start a chant and a spiral dance to hush them,” as relayed by Wiccan High Priestess Dawn Marie. She said, “In the end we moved her tent over so she could do some of her workshop.”

As Penczak began to teach his workshop, he quickly realized that he couldn’t “speak without yelling to be heard.” He said, “Though naive, I thought: ‘has anyone asked them to be quieter in a polite way?’ Have we tried to just talk to them?’ So I tried.”

While other attendees had engaged with the protesters in theological debate, Penczak “had a more practical request in mind.” He simply wanted to ask them to lower their volume. As his story goes, he approached the woman leading the chants, who said, “Can’t you see I’m busy. I got a job to do. I’ve got no time to talk to you.” Penczak then “tried to explain that [he] also had a job to do and she was making it impossible.” She ignored him.

Penczak said, “I tried to talk to what I thought was her associate right next to her but the gentleman turned around, and his sign said ‘Will work for cigarettes,’ and he explained he wasn’t with her.” He said that he then returned to his “teach-yell” workshop.

Weber Hoover said the same: “I led my Tarot class with a chorus of shouts about Jesus and redemption off to my left.”

Weber Hoover teachers WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

Weber Hoover teachers WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

Priestess and author Lilith Dorsey experienced the same. She shared this story with us:

I was all set to give my Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism workshop when I realized I was about 10 feet away from a loud group of Christian protesters. My godson who had come with me asked if I was going to try to reason with them. My initial response was that I used to sing on Broadway and it would be possible to talk louder than them even at this close distance. So my understanding class gathered close and I proceeded to project a well-received and well-attended lecture despite the circumstances.

Dorsey added, “After my class was over I think there was a moment where I flashed some devil horns and stuck out my tongue.”

In talking about this unfortunate situation, Dorsey made it a point to express her “respect for Christians who practice what they preach.” This sentiment was echoed in Weber Hoover’s blog post. She wrote, “I won’t call [the protesters] Christians. I know too many wonderful Christians to lump them in with this crowd.”

However, Dorsey said that, in this particular situation, she felt “disturbed and disrespected.” She added, “I have sat on interfaith councils with Christians and people of all faiths. Fortunately I have never had to directly deal with such vitriol until now. It was extra disheartening to see many people of color protesting, which in light of recent events and the #blacklivesmatter movement makes me want to ask them don’t you have better things to shout at.”

Winifred Costello, a Traditional Witch and the proprietor of AwenTree, was visiting from her home in Western Massachusetts. She said, “I felt upset for the presenters, organizers and attendees that worked hard to put on the event. The protesters were yelling so intensely and with such anger, that I did could not hear the workshop presenter speaking and I did not feel comfortable sticking around.”

Dawn Marie echoed that sentiment, saying, “[The protesters] were really angry and aggressive, and I started to worry that it would get out of hand because of the recent shootings.” She had to shield herself, adding that she felt “rattled” and “inconvenienced.”

The New York City Police Department was on hand and watching the protest. RavenHawk noted that four officers remained near the protesters at all times to protect the attendees. Dana Marie said that “[The officers] were respectful and kept us protected while keeping an eye on the protesters and telling them to stop getting so loud.”

WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

Attendees at WitchsFest 2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

However, not everyone felt safe. As mentioned earlier, Costello left the festival because of the intensity of the protest. She said, “Due to recent events in the nation, I felt far more sensitive to, and disturbed by, the strong vibe of intolerance radiating from this group in particular. It is not that I haven’t encountered religious protesters before but given the reality of how intolerance is literally leading to folks being killed, I just had no stomach for the energy these protesters had. If they want to spread their beliefs I think there are more productive, kinder and tolerant methods than the actions they choose.”

She continued on to say, “The biggest take-away from this experience was that we need to keep advocating for positive, safe change, for acceptance of diversity in our country. The time of angry intolerance and fear-driven actions needs to shift towards a time of inclusion, acceptance and peaceful interactions.”

While many attendees simply ignored the protesters, others, like Penczak, did engage with them in some way. RavenHawk told The Wild Hunt, “I tried at first to reason with them that, this is our civil rights to be here and practice our religion, just like they do. To which they answered that it was their right as well to do their job and save us despite ourselves.”

On her blog, Weber Hoover describes her own action, in which she hugs two of the protesters and repeatedly says, “I love you.” Her chanting first elicited the same statement back. However, as she continued and got louder, the two protesters became fearful that she was casting a spell.

WitchsFestUSA 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber]

WitchsFestUSA 2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber]

Weber Hoover said, “[A leader] held his hand up and started shouting an incantation, as though to strike the Devil out of me.”  She added, “I don’t know that my choice this time was the answer, but it was the right answer for me at that moment.”

Other actions included the drawing of pentacles, spirals and other magical images in chalk and salt on the ground at the protesters feet. Dawn Marie said “One gentleman had started smudging and charging the circle he had drawn as well as the other symbols around him. The whole thing was a barrier of peace.”

Dawn Marie was impressed with the attendees’ reactions to the situation. She added, “They didn’t blow the smoke at the protesters or disrespect the protesters as much as pray to the Gods for protection on the festival.”

In retrospect, RavenHawk said that the situation was “very offensive” and “traumatizing.” She said, now, “I literally cannot seem to want to hear anyone speak to me or near me about Jesus. I am so turned off by it right now, and never noticed or paid attention to it before.”

Despite that experience, attendees universally reported that RavenHawk handled the situation with grace and was “cool and calm” despite the unwanted guests and the continual disruptions.They said that she did her best, communicating with officers and being available to attendees, vendors and presenters.

By the end of the day, nothing that was done by the organizers or festival participants provoked the group to leave their corner. However, at the same time, nothing the protesters did ended the festival. Although presenter voices needed to be louder and some teaching events had to be relocated, WitchsFestUSA 2016 was considered successful, ending with a rousing closing ritual.

Final-ritual (1)

“Making lemonade” at WitchsFest2016 [Photo Credit: C. Weber Hoover]

Dorsey said, “Overall it was only a minor distraction at an amazing event, run by some of the most competent and powerful people I know. ”

RavenHawk expressed her personal gratitude to everyone involved. In a public post, she wrote, “We sang songs of love and the Goddess, clapping our hands to our own beat… later on many drew sigils of pentagrams on the street before them.. witches took lemons and made lemonade. Refreshing.”

WitchsFest2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

WitchsFest2016 [Photo Credit: Ron Frary]

The sixth annual WitchsFestUSA is already in the planning stages and will be held July 15, 2017 at the same location.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Fascinating that they didn’t know the difference between atheism and Paganism. Not much for doing their homework, apparently.

    I’m proud of those Pagan leaders and teachers who kept their cool and found ways to keep focused on the event itself. Well done–oh, well done.

    • Pennybird

      Many have no clue about any religion other than their own. Many see anything not Christian (or their specific version of it) as devil worship as well. While I don’t argue with the right to protest, it should at the very least be respectful and come with a modicum of understanding what they are protesting.

    • Cat, I once had an encounter with a Baptist preacher who didn’t know what to do with a Pagan, so he was using his “playbook” for atheists. It really confused him that we agreed on about 90% of his points.

      • Blake Kirk

        Reminds me a bit of the three Evangelical seminarians who came to Atlanta Pagan Pride one year to “bring the Good News,” to us unwashed heathens. They decided to come over and talk to a bunch of us sitting off to the side, most of whom were senior initiates in their various traditions and the least experienced of whom had been pagan for 15+ years. They were a bit disconcerted to be told that most of us had been Christian and why we weren’t any more. And they turned out not to have had a very effective grounding in basic elements of Christian theology like the concept of original sin, and how it makes the atoning sacrifice of Jesus necessary.

        It’s pretty bad when the pagans have a better background in Christian theology than somebody’s seminarians.

        • Macha NightMare

          I have found that to be the case nearly always.

      • Tanya Bridgewater

        I’ve had the same experience with atheists who try to use their Christian playbook on me and find I agree with most of their points as well.

    • For this variety of Christians protesting WitchsFest, anything outside the Jesus-box is The Devil™, and thus requires no investigation: “Well, we’ve got one variety of The Devil™ here, and another variety of The Devil™ here, but why get lost in the details? It’s all The Devil!™”

    • Blake Kirk

      That would require thought, and possibly effort on the part of the protestors.

    • Lisa

      Of course they didn’t know the difference, ignorance never does.

  • If you’re not “in their face” defending your religion, some people get worried and confused. They’re ready for Holy War, why aren’t you?

    Courtesy can work wonders. I’m glad so many pagans know that.

  • Hermione Volino

    Glad that cool was kept. I also understand why Costello felt that she wasn’t safe. If I lived in New York I would of been there.

  • Blake Kirk

    Given that it’s New York, one would really only be surprised had there not been some protestors.

    • Pennybird

      I was a New Yorker for a little while years ago, and I still think of it as being a much more live-and-let-live kind of place. This incident actually surprises me.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Kudos to the Witches and Pagan for keeping their cool in the face of intense provocation. This does not come easily to everyone, especially without preparation, which should be part of the planning for 2017. The police should be consulted as to which corner the protests will be located, and sessions that could be inconvenienced by the noise clustered at the other end.I have sat on interfaith councils with Christians and people of all faithsFor anyone who recalls the argument, one reason for interfaith work.Finally, a shout-out to Donald Trump. He has run around the country for months evoking a sense of having been usurped in one way or another. I am morally certain his influence helped elicit this aggressiveness and vehemence.

    • Shain Edge

      I’m not sure it is fair to blame Trump. He is getting effectively the same sorts of protesters on rallies that support him. Heck, his supporters in his rallies sometimes end up getting assaulted. This in NY was sedate compared to those.

      • kenofken

        Trump’s thugs don’t have a monopoly, but there has been no other candidate in recent times who has so pandered to them, incited them and made them a core feature of a political movement rather than a bug. Trump is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin, who underwrites a large “youth movement” including many street brawlers who help enforce his cult of personality and ultra-nationalism at the street level. Pagans in this country, as in Russia, are going to have a very tough go of things if that man gets elected. Like all authoritarian populists, Trump draws his power from rage and discontent. He will need to stoke and channel that rage continuously if he achieves power in order to divert attention from his ineptitude for real governance. The time tested way to do that is to give the angry masses a free pass on anyone who they consider “Them”. Muslims and brown skinned immigrants, the LGBT community and others will have it far worse than Pagans, but trust me, we will make the list.

  • Elizabeth Berry

    So glad everything worked out!! The Goddess is good!

  • I respect that Penczak and others tried to reason with them, but specifically regarding Penczak’s attempts, they were there to be loud. Being loud and drowning out the teachers was their purpose. Of course they weren’t going to respect any requests to lower their voices.

    Same goes for the rest; I admire the people who tried to interact with them reasonably, but I don’t understand the point of asking them to do anything that is obviously counter to their purpose in being there. It’s not that I’m advocating for yelling back, more for just ignoring them as best one can. It’s just that they were never going to respect these attempts. Doing so ran counter to their entire purpose in being there, and the fact that they began to interpret statements of LOVE as a violent spell just shows they were never going to listen to reason, or love. They were there to be disrespectful, to disrupt, and they were primed to see anything turned their way as violent and evil.

    I guess I’m getting cynical in my “old age.”

    • Souris

      Can’t reason with people that possess none.

    • CharlieAdamsInKY

      No, you’re pretty well bang on, I’d say.

  • warriorgoddess

    I have had issues with a neighbor (I call her Bible Betty) which have included her trespassing to leave bibles in my mailbox and on my porch. She has shouted at me when I walk outside. Until recently she would come onto my property and shout at me through my office window. I feel bad for her to a point and I also think that she is hiding her true issue behind her bible so that she can claim religious persecution if I say anything to her.

    • Tauri1

      If she’s coming onto your property without your permission, she’s trespassing. You can probably get a restraining order against her, but first document (by video perhaps?) all the incidents where she trespasses on your property. That’s your “ammuntion.”

      • warriorgoddess

        She has an order of trespass now. We have had meetings with the mayor and the police about her nonsense.

  • Bruce Mullins

    What this gathering needed was a wall of angels and a drum tribe on both ends…

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I think that I would remove them as I did a group of local drunks once years ago, because I needed quiet to
    get some sleep.The best way to get rid of negative people is the cleanse the area where they are located.

    I cast a circle around myself in my head to protect me, and then cast a circle around the area they choose and proceeded to do an cleansing vision ceremony on it. Not only did they leave, but they never setup their drunken going on the area again the rest of the time I was there. Self defense is always allowed. Negative people are not comfortable in a cleansed area.

    • Tauri1

      Got rid of two of my redneck neighbors that way! One sold her 4-acre property and moved away, the other ended up getting evicted from the property.

  • John W. Morehead

    As an evangelical Christian I offer my apologies for such behavior from some in my tribe. Thankfully there are others interacting with Pagans far more positively.

    • Sylv Taylor

      Don’t apologize to us, instead try to stop your fellow Christians from doing this. I don’t want to hear about ‘good’ Christians when I don’t see them being their brothers’ keepers.

      • emily

        I doubt any tolerant Christian could have reasoned with them or convinced them to stop and give the Pagan community some respect. If he tried, they’d just call him a false Christian and rebuke him as well. This kind of vitriol can’t be reasoned with most of the time. Playing brother’s keeper to a bunch of bigots isn’t Mr. Morehead’s responsibility and he shouldn’t be apologizing for this group because he hasn’t done anything to apologize for, imho. I have a family of CoC members and most of their church doesn’t much care that I’m a Pagan and have, on occasion, gone against their own tribe to defend me from a couple of bad apples in the bunch. I don’t accept apologies from a decent person for an indecent person’s actions because I don’t blame the good ones for the bad. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

        • Souris

          I’m tired of the every-religion-besides-Christianity-should-police-their-own-members-and-if-I-see-anyone-who-is-a-non-Christian-acting-out-it-reflects-on-ALL-OF-YOU argument. I don’t want to hear about how those naughty Christians “aren’t *REAL* Scottsmen” or how ridiculous and impossible the demand actually is. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

        • You are right Emily. These people will turn on their own in the blink of an eye and go as far as making their lives utterly miserable. They are a detestable kind of ugly and resemble the very “devil” they claim to be fighting.

      • John W. Morehead

        I’ve been doing this for a while through the Multifaith Matters grant project and the a Evangelical chapter of the Foundation for a religious Diplomacy. So I work to transform my tribe in deed and word.

        • Pennybird

          Thank you and good luck with your efforts.

      • Polytheist

        Anyone willing to spend all day protesting will not listen to reason.

  • Wolfsbane

    I was there. They were very annoying. Had I known they were coming I would have brought a slingshot and some 3/4″ ball bearing for some oww patella singing lessons. I talked to a local store manager I’m friends with in the area. I know he called 911 and complained because they were blocking his business entrance. Guess the NYPD weren’t willing to crack heads to protect corporate America’s profits. What’s this world coming to?

    I have to blame the people who set up the event for a lot of the problem. They had all the workshop tents at one end of the street. They made it extremely easy for these anal-clowns to disrupt them. Had the put the workshop tents in the middle or inter-spaced with the merchant tents it would have been easier to deal with them. Even better would have been if they had set up the bands at the four corners of the street. Then they could have them turn the amplifiers around and given these anal-clowns some serious blow-back. They should have put some forethought into this.

    But I’ve gone the NYC Pagan Pride day for years and I’ve never seen this sort of incident that I can recall, so this was a bit of a surprise. Pagan Pride is usually held in a park, so that might be the difference.

  • Macha NightMare

    We ran into a similar Xtian counter-presence at Modesto Pagan Pride about 10 years ago,

  • Krystal Rains

    So glad you were able to continue your festival, despite the rude interuptions.

    My only direct experience with this kind of protest at a Pagan event was 2 years ago at a Pagan Pride in the Antelope Valley, an area just northeast of Los Angeles. We actually had a truly Christian group with a booth at the festival and ‘they’ were offended by the protesters and spoke to them, but they continued. At some point on a VERY hot afternoon, it was about 95F, one of the vendors/participants went over and offered the protesters bottles of water. Don’t know exactly what transpired, but that got them to leave. I now keep an extra case of bottled water available at events, just in case I need it to deal with this kind of situation. I share the idea with others in the hoped that they can use it as well.

    • Pennybird

      A lesson for us all: kindness is more effective than shouting.

  • Allison Chase

    These Christian assholes can shove their damn bible where the sun don’t shine!

  • Mr Showbiz

    It amazes me that these so called Christians fail to realise that Paganism is older than Christianity and that our religion was around before theirs. I guess they don’t let truth get in the way of their faith then.

    • Souris

      They don’t even bother to learn the tenets of their *own* faith.

    • If they realized that the very tap root of Christianity is Pagan, their heads would explode.

  • Damiana

    This sounds pretty bad for attendees of the workshops, the teachers and the organizers. Its too bad that the cops didn’t do more. I hope there’s a way to avoid this next year with some logistical cleverness, cops that prevent this type of harassment and intimidation and perhaps a platoon of Vikings for extra security.

    • Pennybird

      I’m curious as to where the line between protest and harassment is drawn. I would assume it has to be before physical intimidation. Could someone at the event have asked the police to haul them off and charge them with harassment? They were disturbing the peace after all.

      Does anyone with legal knowledge know the answer?

      • kenofken

        For the most part, if protesters remain on public property without violence and without physically obstructing pedestrians or traffic, they’re protected by the First Amendment. They can also be loud and annoying as f**** as long as they’re not using electronic amplifiers, in which case permits and decibel limits can be enforced, so long as the rules apply equally to everyone and everyone’s message. it’s even legal for them to approach people and tell they they’re going to Hell, offer them Bibles or whatever, so long as they don’t physically block their progress, verbally or physically threaten them etc. To a great extent, protests are just a fact of life and that’s probably to the good, as the freedom cuts both ways.

        That said, there probably are some good strategies for minimizing the interference. Strategic location could help. A rank or two of “guardian” might lock arms or hold up a big banner to screen out the annoyance, provided they don’t block a public way themselves. Technology might offer solutions. If presenters streamed their talks though bluetooth equipped noise cancelling headphones or video with speech to text apps, the protest noise would become irrelevant.

    • kenofken

      I’ve got it! There is one counter-protest weapon which represents maximum escalation of force, the Karate Kid Crane Kick against which no defense is possible. That weapon is…..MIMES!! 🙂 Is there anything more visually engaging and terrifying as silent, acrobatic, French clowns? I think not. Have them mime re-enact the Passion of the Christ. There would be no yelling, and there would be no coming back the next year. I’m pretty sure old Cthulhu himself would be sneaking some time with a trauma counselor after witnessing that scene! 🙂

  • Kateri Blackwing

    I love to tell them Hail to the Lord and Lady if they get in my face I won’t hesitate to clock them one

  • I am glad there was no physical violence on the part of the evangelical protesters, and I’m sorry for those who have now had the experience of seeing first hand how ugly these people can be. Unfortunately, those in my region of the south live among these type of people and we deal with them constantly, with the exception of those living in metro areas. Those with this evangelical mind set are taught that it is good to die for their lord, and in that, there are some individuals who suffer from mental illness who have been known to become physically violent. It’s always advisable to keep an eye on these folks and to be ready to run, duck, or defend yourself should one go off the deep end. People like this can not be reasoned with because for a Pagan, Witch, or anyone practicing anything other than their brand of Christianity, these people consider it as old scratch himself trying to tempt them into giving up their salvation. Perhaps next year, some who are well seasoned in their Craft should utilize what they know to turn down the volume of rabid evangelicals, if not mute the solid stream of hatred.

    • Wolfsbane

      They were severely out numbered. Even up against Pagans, they would have gotten their äššēş beaten like we were their daddy had they started to get violent.

  • Nojuan Especial

    This makes me so angry. I wish that I could say I don’t hate these sorts of people, but I do. I really really hate them. I hate them, I hate everything they stand for and I hate that they’re allowed to reproduce and poison innocent children with the blackness that fills them. Christianity really is a shit religion, look at the trash that comes out of it.

    • Wolfsbane

      Christianity isn’t a real religion. It’s nothing but ritualized mockery
      of Judaism. Just an anti-Semitic hate cult with delusions of grandeur.

  • Morgan

    Well, just in case anyone was inclined to believe the BS that it’s the Christians who are persecuted, I’d say this article makes clear exactly WHO are the REAL persecuted ones! Next year, I’d suggest the Witches talk to some Pagan and/or gay motorcycle clubs to see if they’d be interested in providing a little protection for the attendees. These pseudo-“Christian” people are no better than the Westboro thugs, and most bike clubs have ZERO tolerance for them, especially the Patriot Guard Riders.