Each summer pagans and witches and others who identify with the Earth-based faith, Wicca, gather at WitchsFest USA, a celebration of belief and an opportunity to network and have fun with like-minded people.
Billed as “A Pagan Faire—A Festival Event for all from the heart of New York City through the Magicks of the World Wide Web”—the event has become an annual weekend marketplace and performance space in NYC’s bustling West Village tourist center, Astor Place. One can browse the various booths and purchase homemade organic vegan soaps, Highwinds Herbs, Moon Goddess Candles, Lavender Bee Balm and Witchy Washy Bath powder, as well as donate to various charities and foodbanks.
In recent years attendance has grown due to increasing acceptance of the occult in the U.S. Other faires—Pagan Pride and Between The Worlds—though not as big as WitchsFest have likewise grown in popularity.
Growing as well are protests and disruptions from fringe groups that disapprove of the Wiccans. Street preachers with bullhorns have disrupted such gatherings and where they were at first confined by law enforcement to the outskirts of the events, they’ve now become emboldened to the point of intimidating attendees and booth operators, causing many to leave and events to be canceled. What was once merely a nuisance has become a threat.
WitchsFest USA organizer, Rev. Starr RavenHawk, an elder and founder of New York City’s Wiccan Family Temple, said, “There were about 30 this year,” pointing out that in previous years the disrupters numbered barely half a dozen and the police would relocate them to the far side of Astor Place where they would continue without the use of speakers, which require a permit.
This time, however, when the protesters refused to leave the police did nothing. The police told her that the disrupters said no one was being bothered. They stayed at the festival with their loudspeakers, sometimes entering events and shouting them down. Several booth operators left early saying they felt unsafe.
According to RavenHawk, the NYPD called the amplified intimidation “freedom of speech.” It was unknown whether they had permits.
RavenHawk said that they had been advised to hold the event somewhere less public such as a park or a hotel. “We shouldn’t have to move,” she said. “We fought for this location for eight years.” That’s how long it took for the local community board to designate “WitchsFest USA” an “annual” event. Until then she was required to reapply every year.
One attendee, Soror Da Glorium Deo, said, “When the police had the opportunity to downgrade things by possibly escorting the troublemakers off the area, they chose not to de-escalate.”
“RavenHawk creates this marvelous event every year in the heart of New York City as a public celebration where everyone is welcome as long as they maintain an atmosphere of respect towards others,” said Elhoim Leafar, a workshop leader and regular attendee, adding “It is not correct, moral or ethical to harass any individual in public or in private based on their individual or family beliefs.”
“(The officers) treated us as if we were invading the (disrupters’) space, as if they had more rights than we do,” RavenHawk said. “(They) were loud, and they were carrying on. Of course, it was disruptive.”
Meanwhile, other earth-based festivals, even when held indoors, have also been subject to disruption.
Starr RavenHawk is determined not to turn the other cheek this time. She has called New York’s Street Activity Permits Office, the Community Board, and the 9th Precinct (NYPD). “I want a paper trail,” she said. “I want to know exactly what my rights are.”
She also contacted Lady Liberty League, a pagan civil rights organization based in Wisconsin, for legal advice and support.
“The United States is founded on religious freedom for all,” said Lady Liberty League cofounder the Rev. Selena Fox in a statement to RNS. “Safe gathering and the right to practice our faith is as much our right as it is anyone else’s.”
As to the groups, the bullhorns, the disruptions and intimidation, Rev. RavenHawk says they “aren’t just protesting,” adding “They are collectively at war with us. They made that clear.”
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