Sacred day for many is marred by protests


BY John Bayles and Aline Reynolds

Last Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. The day began, as did the eight previous anniversaries, with a solemn and respectful memorial event during which the names of those who perished on the tragic day were read over a loud speaker. Only the families of those who died were allowed inside Zucotti Park for the ceremony.

However, while the regular memorial was taking place, numerous groups were preparing to protest, both in support and in opposition to the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” slated to be built at the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory building two blocks away on Park Place.

There was the “Tea Party Patriot” protest scheduled for 10 a.m.; there was the Emergency Mobilization Against Racism rally at City Hall Park set for 1 p.m.; and there was Pamela Geller’s protest against Park51, a protest that had been in the making and publicized for months, most notably via the group Stop the Islamization of America which Geller founded.

When all was said and done, was marred by these rallies, and the intended focus on honoring the heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their neighbors and country was blurred.

It was evident that various groups promoting their own political agendas hijacked this year’s anniversary. A crystal clear example of this was a religious rally that included a screaming, kneeling, praying preacher surrounded by a congregation holding signs depicting aborted fetuses, as if the pro-life and pro-choice debate was somehow connected to the real meaning of the day.

Geller’s S.I.O.A. protest

Hundreds of angry demonstrators crowded West Broadway, corralled by barricades, facing Ground Zero on Saturday afternoon to protest Park51, the proposed Islamic Cultural Center slated to go up two blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Many wore patriotic pins and carried American flags, and frequently broke out in “U.S.A.” chants. They held signs that read “Never Forget 9/11” and “No Bloomosque, No Obamosque, No Victory Mosque.”

Stop Islamization of America and the Freedom Defense Initiative hosted the protest. Both groups are New York-based and were founded by arch-conservative blogger and activist Pamela Geller, who in early June began organizing anti-Park51 demonstrations in Lower Manhattan to contest the plan to build what she calls a “13-story mega-mosque.”

Geller told the crowd, “Only you can stop this triumphal mosque on this cherished site on conquered land. We’re standing in the shadow of the world’s largest multicultural center.”

“Yes – that was a multicultural center of peace, tolerance and love,” Geller continued, referring to the World Trade Center site.

Among the others who took the stage at Saturday’s protest were conservative radio talk show host Mike Gallagher, Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, North Carolina Congressional candidate Ilario Pantano, former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, and 9/11 family members.

Gallagher declared that the planned Islamic center showed an “appalling lack of sensitivity and respect.” The crowd chanted, “No mosque here!” in response.

Gallagher and the others urged Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative, to consider moving the center elsewhere in the city.

“One single gesture of good faith on their part, by respecting the family members’ wishes would do so much more good than one single building at a particular location could ever hope to accomplish,” Gallagher said.

Responding to the Park51 supporters’ charge of intolerance, the speakers insisted that those behind the Park51 project are the intolerant ones. Rosa P. Leonetti, a conservative community activist who lost her brother-in-law in the attacks, said, “Tolerance is not reserved and is not exclusive to just one religion or one ideology.”

Leonetti also faulted U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for admonishing Florida Pastor Terry Jones when he threatened to burn the Koran. The crowd cheered wildly in approval.

Individual demonstrators spoke out emotionally against Park51.

Many have labeled the Park51 protestors “bigots” for opposing the project.

“I’m not racist,” said protestor Marion Ledger, responding to the accusation. “I just don’t think the mosque should be a few blocks away from Ground Zero.”

One of the protestors at Geller’s rally was Keith Bemis, a construction manager from Lawrence, Massachusetts and a volunteer recovery worker for nine days after 9/11. Every year, Bemis journeys to Lower Manhattan to stand at West Street, in front of the American Express Building, to honor the memory of those who died on 9/11.

Bemis opposes Park51 and said the Islamic center will only further divide Americans, as it is already doing.

“Seventy percent of New Yorkers don’t want it here. If this is about building bridges, which it’s not, [the Imam] would move it. Period,” said Bemis. “You don’t build bridges by inciting thousands and thousands of people.”

Bemis continued, “I’ve had a few good conversations with my Muslim friends today. We had a good dialogue. Do you think that’s going to be more or less likely after this center is built? I think it’ll be a lot less likely. Whether their opinion is justified or not, the fact remains that a large amount of people are outraged over this.”

City Hall Park

Unlike the protest that was happening four blocks away, several hundred people gathered on the outskirts of City Hall Park in the afternoon on Saturday. The group, Emergency Mobilization Against Racism and Anti-Islamic Bigotry was directly organized to counter the S.I.O.A. protest. However, it was publicized only weeks before the anniversary, as opposed to months. The group had no website and no celebrity organizer.

Lining the sidewalk of Broadway in front of the park was a virtual cornucopia of young and old from all over the country, and in some cases, the world.

The media coordinator for the rally, Tony Murphy, had this to say:

“The basic message is unity, solidarity, and saying no to racism. We can’t afford to be divided while we’re facing foreclosures and layoffs and school closings.”

Murphy continued, “There are really echoes of the 30s in Germany – where would you have wanted to say you stood? The Tea Party is not a grassroots campaign, [it’s] funded by oil billionaires, the Koch brothers. They’ve got a lot of money behind them and they’ve turned September 11 into a day of attacking Muslims. But their real agenda is to keep people from fighting back – they’re trying to divert people’s anger about layoffs and suffering and hardship to a scapegoat. We absolutely need to keep the momentum of this campaign.”

“This isn’t about terrorism,” Murphy said. “We should take all these demonstrations and protest at Goldman Sachs. Do you want a victory monument? It’s Goldman Sachs. That’s who we need to focus on.”

Craig St. Peter, from Westchester County, took a train to Lower Manhattan on Saturday to pay his respects to two friends he lost during the terrorist attacks nine years ago.

“It’s pretty gripping – I have not been here since 2001,” St. Peter said. “It’s almost like my friends have died in vain. It’s almost like everybody kind of forgot about the day. I felt pretty upset about that.”

When asked about his position on Park51, St. Peter replied, “I’d rather keep that to myself. Today is supposed to be all about my lost friends.”

And then there were two students, from Sarah Lawrence College. Natalie Stevenson, 17, and Ari Jones, 18, traveled by bus to Lower Manhattan on Saturday with 26 other students, all members of the organization Students at Sarah Lawrence for Social Justice.

“The idea of injustice, we can’t just stand by and let it happen,” said Jones.

“I just think the Tea Party movement is ridiculous and goes against everything America stands for,” said Stevenson. “People born this year will only have known an [African-American] president…it’s our duty to be here.”