As helicopters circled overhead and police officers stood guard, the seven-plus-hour "Rally for Free Speech" protest outside of the north Phoenix Islamic Community Center on Friday remained relatively uneventful. No arrests were made, no guns were fired, and though a few fights almost broke out along the edges of the event — causing crowds and helmeted police officers to dash to the scene — no one was hurt.
Police blocked off Orangewood Avenue between Black Canyon Highway and 27th Avenue, forcing crowds to remain on the sidewalks. For the most part, those attending the rally stood on the north side of the street, and counter-protesters stood on the south side. Both screamed profanities and carried signs or other various props — American flags and guns in one group; paper images of organizer Jon Ritzheimer’s face and Saltines in the other. (The Saltines presumably a reference to the derogatory term “cracker.”)
Any talk of Constitutional rights on the north side was quickly drowned out by anti-Islam slurs led largely by Brother Dean Saxton, the infamous “slut-shaming preacher” known for standing in public places with a bullhorn and preaching anti-Muslim and anti-women messages. The south side responded with chants about bigotry and ignorance.
According to Ritzheimer—the self-proclaimed “guy who started this all"—yesterday’s protest was largely what he expected. Ritzheimer organized a pre-rally for his side in a parking lot about a mile away, and folks starting showing up around 3 p.m. The crowd there peaked at about 50, and the combined media and police presence appeared to outnumber the protesters. Someone brought poster paper and markers, which were placed in the bed of a pickup truck for those who wanted to enter the “Muhammad cartoon-drawing contest.”
Ritzheimer told New Times earlier this week that he was inspired to take action and organize this event after learning that the two gunmen who opened fire at a Muhammad cartoon-drawing contest in Garland, Texas earlier this month were from Phoenix. News of Ritzheimer’s contest garnered a lot of media attention in the last few days, but only a few individuals actually participated.
Ritzheimer and crew arrived at the mosque around 6:45 p.m., by which point the protest and counter-protest were well under way. About 10 minutes earlier, the police erected traffic barriers and used yellow police tape to rope-off the street, which meant screaming individuals from opposite sides of the street were no longer allowed to come within an arm’s length of one another.
Talal Yousufzai, a 20-year-old Phoenix resident and lifelong attendee of the mosque, told New Times that he and others “came to defend our mosque,” and that he was shocked by the virulent hatred hurled at him and all Muslims.
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“This opened up my eyes that there is still a lot of racism in this country, and a lot of ignorance," he said. "This is the first time I’ve seen racism at this extreme.”
Yousufzai and two older men from the north side of the street entered into a heated shouting match at the far end of the police tape barricade. “Hate, hate, hate—that’s all you guys do,” Yousufzai yelled.
“It’s not about religion,” one of the men responded, pointing his finger in Yousufzai’s face. “It’s about what you are teaching those two guys, what education went on in that mosque [that caused those two men to go Texas and open fire.]”
Yousufzai invited the men to come to the mosque and to see for themselves that what they preach is peaceful.
“Islam is a religion of peace,” he kept repeating.
The verbal fight lasted only a few minutes before police responded by extending the crowd barrier.
“They think everyone here supports ISIS,” Yousufzai told New Times. “They say things like ‘all you guys are terrorists, [and are] blaming the actions of ISIS on all Muslims. You can’t base the whole religion off that.” He added that he doesn't think the two gunmen became radicalized at the mosque.
Chris, who asked to be identified by his first name only, said he didn’t believe what he and others on the north side were doing could be classified as provocation.
“This is America, and we can go wherever we want to," he said. "We should be allowed to express our disapproval of certain aspects of Islam.”
When asked whether it made sense to protest in front of a mosque that has publicly condemned what happened in Texas, Chris told New Times that he felt it did: “Even though these weren’t specifically the people involved, they’re a representation of what they are to me.”
About a dozen children stood on the north side of street, smiling and waving small American flags.
New Times spoke with three young boys, ages 12-14, who took turns repeating what they heard those around them yelling, before retreating into a fit of giggles.
“We’re here because Muslims kill kids if they draw,” one of the boys said. Pressed to explain further, he said that “some guy” at the protest told them that if “kids draw cartoons of Jesus, [the Muslims] will kill them.”
Phoenix Police Sergeant Trent Crump said he was proud of the department’s officers for how well they managed the crowds. He explained that the department had worked closely with the FBI to gather intelligence and monitor social media, and that the 50-plus uniformed officers patrolling the area represent only a small fraction of the total number of people involved in this effort. Crump declined to reveal specifics about the number of uniformed or plain-clothes officers working on the scene or at the command center, or how much the policing effort cost the city, except to say “it’s expensive [and] takes resources away from other areas.”
Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner was at the protest and is expected to make a formal comment in the next few days.
Hundreds remained on the street well after dark. As the crowds began to dwindle around 9 p.m., some police officers pleaded with remaining individuals to go home. Enough people had left by 9:45 that the police were able to begin disassembling the barriers and cleaning up the street.
As far as Ritzheimer is concerned, the entirety of the day “just helps prove that our First Amendment rights are under attack.”
“Because I have to move my family [into hiding] over death threats,” he said.
He was reluctant to respond to many more questions, but when asked if he had anything to say to Anderson Cooper, who had interviewed him the previous night on CNN, Ritzheimer held up his middle finger—“yeah, fuck you!”
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