On Friday evening, a group of self-proclaimed “patriots” will demonstrate outside of the Islamic Community Center in north Phoenix to “protect [their] Constitutional rights to freedom of speech.”
According to the event’s Facebook page, the rally “is in response to the recent attack in Texas where 2 armed terrorist, with ties to ISIS, attempted Jihad.” The group held a similar rally on May 17, which organizers say drew a crowd of about 200.
During the protest, attendees—many of whom are part of the motorcycle group, RidersUSA—will march with signs and American flags. Event organizer Jon Ritzheimer tells New Times the protest will be peaceful, and that he plans to “pull the reins in on people who want to do stupid things like throw bacon” at the center. He will also be selling black T-shirts that read “Fuck Islam.”
Ritzheimer scheduled the rally to coincide with Friday evening prayer, and is encouraging people to bring cartoon drawings of the Prophet Muhammad to enter into a contest. (The winner will be selected during the “after-party” at a nearby bar, Wild Bills.) There will be at least “two state militia groups to provide security,” but he’s still encouraging folks to bring guns “just in case our first amendment [right] comes under the much anticipated attack.”
Also at Friday’s event will be members of the group Wave of Action, which is planning a counter-protest. “After numerous reports that racist groups were organizing and attempting to intimidate others we couldn't sit by quietly,” member Murray Bookchin wrote in an email to New Times. “They are using the guise of ‘free speech’ to intimidate people who simply want to pray to god. They have openly called for open carry [of guns] as if that's not meant to intimidate. They are selling fuck Islam shirts outside this mosque while spewing racist and intolerant rhetoric via loudspeakers. Everyone is entitled to free speech and as long as they will proclaim Islam is a devils cult we will scream this is what fascism looks like.”
Ritzheimer tells New Times that he was inspired to protest after learning that the two gunmen who opened fire outside of an event showcasing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad earlier this month in Garland, Texas were from Phoenix. (The two were subsequently shot and killed by police.) Upon hearing the news, Ritzheimer, an atheist and Marine Corps veteran, put on his black “Fuck Islam” shirt and spent seven hours waving an American flat outside of the apartment building where the two had resided.
“I received a lot of threats from Muslims. Someone told me to expect a drive-by if I stayed out there,” he says. “But people have the right to slander Islam if they want to...I’m a patriot and this is about the Constitution.”
And thus, “The Freedom of Speech Rally” was conceived.
“What speech are they trying to protect? The freedom of speech of what?” says Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center. “This has nothing to do with happened in Texas. They’re using what happened in Texas to justify bigotry and hatred.”
Shami tells New Times that when he learned about the first protest, he cancelled Sunday School at the center for the day because “we don’t expose children to bigotry." (He is not closing the center this Friday.)
After the protest, “I went to their Facebook page and I looked at the pictures," Shami says. "What a waste of time…I don’t know what it accomplished. They’re trying to scare a segment of the community, trying to intimidate. To me, they are a group of racist, bigoted, ignorant individuals.”
As in the first rally, Shami will be in contact with the local police department. He hopes not to draw too much attention to the situation. “We don’t want to give these people any platform…or create a flash point.”
Ritzheimer says he doesn’t “condone threats to Muslims,” and that “this is about teaching the religion some tolerance.”
After serving two tours in Iraq, he studied world religions in college. He says the combination of his new-found patriotism and reading the Qur’an three times, led him to realize “what we’re up against [because] Islam is a big issue” that’s threatening Americans' rights.
How is Islam threatening our American rights exactly? “Numerous head-honcho Muslims coming out with a duty to implement Sharia law,” he answers. “The stuff that they impose is insane, it’s barbaric, and it’s not good for humanity.”
For the record, he adds that he’s not racist. “I’m the furthest thing from a racist. We’re not trying to oppress a race, we’re trying to tame down an ideology.” And “our Constitution trumps any religion this country—that’s what’s awesome about America. We have the right to do this.”
Pressed to explain further why he thought the protest was the right thing to do, Ritzheimer skirted the question, responding instead that “this whole thing is stressing me out. I’m not enjoying this…I could care less about a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad…but this is purely to maintain our freedoms.”
The group will assemble at a Denny’s Restaurant down the street at 5 p.m. on Friday, and will begin the protest at 6:15 p.m. outside the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, 7516 North Black Canyon Highway.
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“Until we see good coming out of this religion, I’m going to keep fighting it. If they were doing good, I would have no ammunition against them,” Ritzheimer says. “I know I’m an extremist. Some people have tried comparing me to Martin Luther King, but that’s just not me. I’ve never claimed to be Martin Luther King.”
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