The debate over the construction of the Islamic community center near Ground Zero spurred dueling protests on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 last Saturday.
More than 100 groups who identified themselves as proponents of the Park51 project allied and held a “Rally Against Anti-Islamic Bigotry and Racism.” The rally was organized by The International Action Center and took place outside of City Hall Park.
Pamela Geller, author of the conservative blog Atlas Shrugs, was the organizer of the “Freedom Rally” at Park Place and West Broadway. Geller put together the rally in tandem with Stop Islamization of America [SIOA] and the Freedom Defense Initiative [FDI].
The two demonstrations were kept separate by the NYPD. Dogs and troopers along with officers on horseback and motorcycles patrolled the street while others kept the sidewalks clear.
NYPD stood on every corner, sometimes in groups of ten officers at once. Church Street was closed all afternoon in an effort to keep the two groups separate. According to an NYPD officer on Church Street, the barriers where set up to keep the two groups from going at one another and to limit violence.
Prominent speakers at the ‘Freedom Rally’ included former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Dutch Freedom Fighter Geert Wilders, and NY Senate candidate Gary Bernstein. Wilders has previously called Islam “incompatible” with democracy.
Professor Jeremiah Hickey teaches a class called the Rhetoric of Social Movements at St. John’s. He told his students about the protest and encouraged them to attend.
“There is no better place than New York City, a cultural hub, to see theory of social movements put into practice,” he said. Nipun Mahajan, a junior at St. John’s and a student in Professor Hickey’s class, attended the protest as an observer.
“This debate is the trial by fire for Islam in the United States,” Mahajan said. “Islam is not necessarily a part of the American tradition like Judaism is and Christianity obviously is; it’s always been on the fringe. Now, Islam is becoming part of the discourse.”
According to Mahajan, the debate is not about the technicality of ‘mosque’ versus ‘community center.’
“Trying to win on technicalities misses the point of the debate,” he said. “The issues are sensitivity and fear towards Islam, and that’s what the pro-mosque supporters should be trying to change.”
Mimiko Watanave, a sophomore at Hunter College, was one of many young faces marching with the proponents past City Hall. “I came today because one of my classmates was handing out flyers encouraging people to come,” she said. “I’m impressed; I didn’t think there would be so many people here.”
Aidan Kennon, a junior at Fordham University, stood in the middle of the crowd. He held up a sign that said ‘Islam belongs, bigotry does not.’
“Those people who have been politically spoon-fed can’t be allowed to proceed unopposed,” he said. “The better half of America and NYC needs to be represented; we can’t let the world see us as bigots and an intolerant race of people.”
On the opposition side, a group of high school students dressed in matching blue blazers passed out flyers entitled ‘remember’.
Their math teacher, Peter Miler brought the boys to the protest from St. Lewis D’Montfort in Pennsylvania.
“We want people to remember what 9/11 was really about,” he said. “These protestor’s have turned it into an event that is motivated by the wrong idea, this should be a day of remembrance, not of anger and hatred.”
Karolina Knepaite, a junior at Leonia High School in New Jersey, voiced similar reasons for coming to the protest. Knepaite recently emigrated from Lithuania with her family.
“I’m new the United States, but it’s strange, it seems to me that the meaning of this day has been overlooked,” she said.
Two freshmen college students vocalized similar feelings from the proponent’s side.
Eric Ohrt from Pace University and Timothy Brewer from Manhattan College held signs dedicated to the memory of the victims of 9/11.
“This should be a day of remembering and unity, not of politics and heated arguments,” Ohr said.
Brewer’s sign contained only the words, ‘I have a sign.’
“This is a freak show,” Brewer said. “No one should be protesting today.”
Mahajan agreed that 9/11 was a bad day to organize a protest around Ground Zero, stating instead that the protesters on both sides should be more focused on changing public opinion.
When asked how a person goes about changing public opinion, Mahajan shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s the true question; if I knew, I wouldn’t be studying rhetoric.”