Taking on the anti-Muslim racists

Blair Ellis reports from New York City on a demonstration that stood up to the racist tide of abuse against plans for an Islamic community center.

Several hundred people challenged the right-wing's anti-Muslim hate in a counter-protest in downtown Manhattan (Alexander Super | SW)Several hundred people challenged the right-wing's anti-Muslim hate in a counter-protest in downtown Manhattan (Alexander Super | SW)

THE PROPOSAL for the construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center has become a lightning rod for the right wing's war at home on Arabs and Muslims.

But opponents of bigotry in New York City mobilized on August 22 to make sure a different message got sent: Racists aren't welcome here.

An anti-racist counterprotest, organized on just three day's notice through Facebook and an e-mail call, drew some 250 people at 10 a.m. on a rainy Sunday morning. Two blocks away, some 500 people came to a right-wing rally planned for weeks against the Islamic center, called Park51.

The rally called against the mis-labeled "Ground Zero mosque" began with a motorcycle brigade rolling in from stops at two other sites associated with the September 11 attacks--the Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pa., where a hijacked plane crashed. Along with the bikers, the right-wing protest brought out a patriotic crowd of evangelicals, Tea Partiers, some families of the victims of 9-11, Obama-hating Republicans and construction workers who are refusing to build Park51.

With weeks of planning behind them, the anti-Muslim demonstrators had permits allowing for a stage and sound system, which blasted Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" between angry speeches made to crowds waving American flags.

At the counterprotest, despite the lack of a permit allowing megaphones or microphones, mosque supporters easily challenged the energy of the anti-mosque crowd down the street. Chants echoed around the overflowing city block that the demonstration was consigned to by police. There were handmade placards sprinkled throughout the crowd--two young girls stood with their family, holding signs that read, "I Am an American-Born Muslim and a Proud Muslim."

Importantly, while the right wing has dominated the "discussion" about the Islamic center until now, on Sunday, local, national and international media surrounded the crowd and eagerly searched for anti-racist organizers to interview.

Among the anti-racists supporting the Islamic center were Al-Awda New York, the International Socialist Organization, Labor for Palestine, Movement for a Democratic Society, Peace Action Staten Island, and other groups and individuals from a variety of political and religious backgrounds.

Speakers at the rally stood on stools in the rain to make their voices heard. "Every bullet fired and every bomb dropped is building the climate of anti-Islamic bigotry," said one speaker.

Others made connections to attacks on mosques and on Islamic movements elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world. "If it's all about location," said one speaker, "then why are they opposed to mosques in California, Tennessee, Staten Island and Sheepshead Bay? And it's not just the mosques. It's Burning of the Koran Day in Florida, outlawing the burqa in France."

The quick and successful response in building the counterprotest speaks to the frustration and urgency that people feel about the racist hysteria building against Muslims--the hate spewed about the "Ground Zero mosque" is just the best-known example right now. There's more organizing work ahead, too--the anti-mosque racists have more events planned in the run-up to the anniversary of September 11.

The counterprotest was organized by a coalition formed out of a similar struggle happening over a mosque being built on Staten Island in New York City. A group of activists and concerned residents met at a rally to support the Staten Island mosque and formed the Coalition to Stop Islamophobia in America. At another meeting, representatives from several other groups came to plan the counterprotest.

The coalition will continue to meet and plan next steps to challenge Islamophobia and to build a broad defense of Muslim communities in New York City.