Photo by Troy Farah
Dubbed the "Freedom Of Speech Rally Round II," a large anti-Islam protest in Arizona drew a crowd of 500 or so on Friday evening outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix (ICCP). Organized by Jon Ritzheimer, a Marine Corps veteran, the protest was a response to the Curtis Culwell Center attack in Garland, Texas on May 3, where two gunmen opened fire at a Muhammad drawing contest.The Freedom of Speech Rally exploded on social media around 24 hours before the protest as organizers, including a motorcycle clan called RidersUSA, encouraged folks to also exercise their Second Amendment rights, i.e. to come fully armed.
Tensions ran high as police blocked off roads in the neighborhood, forcing protestors to park several blocks away. A few helicopters circled the area, and several high-tech security cameras were installed on street lamps the night before. The protest — especially the part about folks bringing guns — made several local businesses and a charter school uneasy, so they closed early for the day.Related: Amid Death Threats and Attacks on Muslims, Garland Remains Divided in Wake of 'Draw Muhammad' Shootings
Wearing blue shirts, playing music, and holding signs that advocated for love and world peace, volunteers and members of ICCP organized a solidarity wall to protect people attending prayers at the mosque. Valley Anarchist Circle and Wave of Action PHX, another local anarchist chapter, organized a counter-protest in what they called an "Emergency Antifa Call To Action." Antifa is a common abbreviation for anti-fascism.By 6pm, the protest was well under way, with a large police and FBI presence and enraged demonstrators from both sides standing nose-to-nose. Chants of "U-S-A" and "Islam is evil" clashed with shouts of "pussies" and "cowards" from the anarchist side. After one demonstrator angrily got in the face of a police officer, cops in riot gear separated the two sides with police tape and barricades.An hour beforehand, a Muhammad drawing contest was held at Washington Park, just a few miles from the mosque. Several dozen people arrived, many on motorcycles, many with American flags, many well armed. Standing on the back of a white pickup truck, Ritzheimer addressed the crowd wearing a shirt that read "Fuck Islam."
Related: Two Gunmen Killed in Texas 'Draw Muhammad' Contest Attack Identified
"Anyone who wants to utilize their First Amendment rights and draw a picture of Muhammad, you can do so knowing there's plenty of armed Americans that support your freedom of speech," Ritzheimer said. Only two people took up the offer. Ritzheimer announced that both "cartoonists" had won the contest, and gave each $100 in proceeds he made from selling his "Fuck Islam" shirts."I want the American people to have the freedom to draw a cartoon if they want without having to be threatened or have their lives threatened," Ritzheimer told the crowd. He claimed that his address was posted online, and that he and his family were forced into hiding after receiving death threats."I shouldn't have to go into hiding in my own country for a cartoon or a shirt. Nobody should," he said."I don't care if I offend anyone," said Paul Griffin, a man in a large straw hat and "Fuck Islam" shirt. "This is America. If you don't like it, tough shit."
Griffen also claimed that hate speech does not exist. "You're allowed to be offended," he said. "You don't have to like it and I don't have to care."Two weeks ago, on May 17, Ritzheimer organized a similar event. The first "Freedom of Speech Rally," held on a Sunday morning, didn't receive nearly the same amount of attendees or attention. But this rally was far more disruptive.
'I don't care if I offend anyone. This is America. If you don't like it, tough shit.'
Among many flag-waving, gun-toting demonstrators was Brother Dean Saxton, who VICE interviewed last year about his "slut-shaming" practices. He was tearing pages from a copy of the Quran and spitting on them.Not everyone in attendance was spewing hate. Harris Khawaja, a Muslim and full-time med student at Midwestern University, was giving water bottles to demonstrators on either side. He said he attends this mosque every Friday for prayer and this day was no different, although this time he did sneak around back.Related: Exclusive Interview with 'Charlie Hebdo' Cartoonist Luz
"I didn't want anything to spark, I came here to take care of the peace [on] both sides," Khawaja told VICE News. "They can misrepresent my religion all they want, as long as I'm being peaceful, my community is being peaceful, as long we're doing what we're supposed to do, it doesn't really bother me what they're saying to me. Growing up in Arizona you get barbs for being Muslim, for being any sort of color."Khawaja added, "The drawings, those were hurtful, man … [but] at the end of the day it's just a piece of paper with some scribbles on it."Jim Mullins, a pastor at Redemption Church in Tempe, helped organize the blue shirt-wearing solidarity wall. He told VICE News that after 9/11 he was just like the anti-Islam crowd at the rally."I was like the folks over there," Mullins said. "I had hostility towards Muslims and I had some friends that challenged me on it. They said that I was inconsistent with who Jesus is… I started on a journey to discover what it really looks like to love my neighbor, love my Muslim neighbor in a post-9/11 world."
Related: Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Texas Attack on 'Draw Muhammad' Event
Mullins said he found "a common humanity" with Muslims, and that some of them became his closest friends. He even said his Muslim friends had saved "my wife's life and my life in various settings.""One of the main reasons why we set up here on this sidewalk right now is to create a physical barrier between the mosque and our Muslim friends and potential violence and hostility," Mullins added. "So that if they suffer, we suffer with them. To stand in between the potential pain and danger they are in in the same way that Jesus stood in between it for us."By 9pm, the protest had dwindled down to almost no one, and no violence had broken out.Follow Troy Farah on Twitter: @filth_filler