Before the WBC began protesting at military funerals they weren't a household name in the US, and I knew very little about them myself. One year, I think 2001, I rode into Fargo to attend a June Pride picnic in a park.
That's when Fargo didn't yet have a Pride festival, or a parade. That came in 2004, incidentally, and I led it on my motorcycle, the sole rider, since we couldn't find any Dykes on Bikes, so organizers had to settle for me. LOL!
When I arrived in the park I noticed police cars, and a small crowd with signs on a road nearest the roofed picnic pavilion we had rented from the city. It was Fred Phelps himself, with some of his "family". The police were keeping them a good distance away from our picnic, back on the road, since our rental included the large grassy lawns surrounding this open building.
Without a city permit and not being our invited guests they were considered trespassers on city property, and party crashers, minor infractions of city law, But enough to give the police the justification to keep them away from us and confined to the road through the park.
We honestly couldn't hear what most of them were chanting, and barely read their signs with stuff like their now infamous "God Hates Fags" and that we'd all burn in Hell. A few in our group walked across the lawn to confront them, but our leaders brought them back, and instructed us all not to engage them, but stick to our picnic.
Confrontation and headlines were what the WBC wanted, our best tactic in this case being to ignore them. And frankly in this isolated, sprawling park outside of town, we and the police were their only audience. I wondered if they knew this when they made their plans back in Kansas?
They finally departed rather early, around 2 PM, while our picnic continued until 6. We learned a local Baptist church was their host in Fargo, and congregation members put them up in their homes, saving them the cost of food & lodging. I don't know if they still get such generous treatment around the US, after their inexcusable insults to our fallen military and their families.
So I sorta saw Fred Phelps in person, but only from a couple of hundred feet away. A rather unimpressive if not laughable display, and I never thought this pathetic group would win the national attention it has in recent years.