Texas Anti-Islamic Event Brings Out the Crazies
Paris attacks spur Islamophobes, communists and a dancing pizza
On Jan. 17, hundreds of people rallied outside a convention center in the Dallas suburb of Garland. Some protested Islam, others protested the people protesting Islam.
Many didn’t know why they protested. A few wanted to make a quick buck.
The main protest—directed against an Islamic fundraiser—came less than two weeks after the deadly attacks in Paris on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and a kosher grocery store.
But the rally in Garland came across as confused, bigoted and opportunistic.
The trouble started when the Sound Vision Foundation — a Chicago-based non-profit group — booked Garland’s Curtis Culwell Center for a fundraising conference called “Stand with the Prophet.”
Sound Vision flew in several speakers to discuss negative media depictions of Islam and Mohammed with several local community groups. This upset some residents. The Garland school district owns the convention center, and taxpayer money paid for the building.
But the convention center hosts many events — everything from high school graduations to soccer banquets and choir recitals. It wasn’t the first Islamic meeting at the center, and it won’t be the last. Dallas has a growing Muslim community, and another meeting is scheduled for April.
That was reason enough for Pamela Geller—a professional anti-Islamic blogger—to organize a free speech rally outside the conference. But Geller’s main gripe is against Muslims generally … and the media.
Her politics are best described as far right. She’s also blogged in support of French neo-fascist group Bloc Identitaire, the Belgian far right party Vlaams Belang and genocidal Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic.
The first thing I heard when I arrived was the squelch of a bullhorn. “Mohammed was a child molester,” a man’s voice reverberated through the crowd.
“This is a public school, right?” another man asked one of his friends. His friend shrugged. They waved American flags.
I moved through the crowd, trying to find a purpose, cause or leader. Someone with a sound system blasted pop music, as if to drown out the man with the bullhorn.
A little side street connected the massive parking lot to a road running alongside the convention center. On one side—the side I’d come from—were members of the rally. I counted five assault rifles.
Across the street were the protesters protesting against the rally. Two wore Che Guevara t-shirts. One tall man wore a suit and clutched a piece of tartan—he later got into a screaming match with another man about the Irish Republican Army. There were women in hijabs sporting signs with hearts and peace symbols.
A car rolled out of the larger lot, trying to turn onto the street. People from both sides rushed the car. The man in the car leaned on his horn.
Someone from the rally slid a sign with a picture of Mohammed underneath the car’s tire. The man stopped and kept honking. A woman wearing a beret and a Che shirt pushed through the crowd and tried to pull the sign out from under the tire.
The crowd pressed together. The free speech ralliers shoved people against the car. Someone threw a punch, hitting the woman wearing the beret.
People on both sides shouted and drew back. Several Garland police officers ordered everyone to back up. The crowd dispersed, each side retreating to its bit of sidewalk.
A stir went through the crowd. The free speech ralliers moved inward, surrounding someone. Geller had arrived.
She spoke in the middle of the crowd, flanked by two bodyguards who wore sunglasses and suits.
Geller spoke for five minutes, moving through rhetoric familiar to anyone who’s read one of her blog posts or watched her on television. She called out Sound Vision for holding a conference in a building funded by taxpayers.
Then she attacked the local press for writing about the event. “We’re living in an age where evil is good and good is evil,” she said. “I’m honored to stand here.”
She hates the press. The bulk of her speech was a caution against saying the wrong thing in front of reporters. “Make the cause proud,” she said. “Shouting into the wilderness is not free speech,” Geller concluded.
Next she handed the microphone to Robert Spencer—an author best known for writing The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran.
Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik—who killed 77 people—cited Spencer positively in his manifesto. Both Geller and Spencer also head the organization Stop Islamization of America, which believes in a “powerful and dangerous ‘Islamic machine’ that threatens the security and cultural fabric of the United States,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Geller and Spencer weren’t there long. They stayed just over half an hour, shaking hands and talking to people before leaving.
I walked to the other side of the street.
A young woman with dirty blonde hair and glasses stormed up and down the sidewalk. She seemed angry. She told me she was a socialist. “Look,” she pointed across the street. “It’s Brandon Darby.” Darby is an ex-anarchist turned alleged FBI informant. He’s now the managing editor of Breitbart Texas.
The woman was excited. She told me she’d called Darby an asshole once. Then she started singing The Internationale—a famous left-wing anthem. No one joined her.
The woman in the Che shirt who’d earlier taken a punch walked by me. I stopped to ask her questions. Her name is Tina Gonzalez. She’s the subcomandante of Xicana Defense—the militant wing of the Indigenous People’s Liberation Party.
“We keep security for events and causes we want to support,” she said. “We defend people against police brutality.”
Gonzalez and her comrades hovered around the edges of the protest. I watched them remind people to keep the discussion civil, usher ticket holders toward the convention center, and step in when situations got heated—just as they had when both sides surrounded the car.
Then a giant pizza slice sauntered onto the lawn. Two red-shirted employees from Papa John’s Pizza flanked him. The slice danced through the crowd while the two men handed out leaflets advertising a local chain.
“Did your manager tell you to do this?” I asked one of them.
“Uh,” he said. “I don’t know.” He didn’t want to answer questions. But the dancing pizza was happy to pose for a picture.
I was well into the protesters’ lines at this point. A white-haired overweight woman smoked a cigarette. Her sign was an imitation Islamic State flag. “Muslims, Stop Killing Us,” it read.
I noticed young men with crude, jokey signs wandering through the protesters. “Jackie Chan Against Muslims,” read one sign. “Free Speech or Free Hummus,” read another. I asked one his name.
“Mohammed,” he said. Really. He and his friends were students from the University of Texas at Dallas. They were protest jamming, attempting to disrupt the rally by subverting it from within.
“We wanted to spread positivity in a funny way,” Mohammed said.
“Go Home … to Plano!” read another of their signs. Plano is an affluent Dallas suburb. The group wandered through the crowd. None of the free speech ralliers paid much attention to them.
A woman cut through the crowd and handed me a flower. She smiled and walked away. There was a poem attached—about unity and celebrating our differences. It was a nice sentiment. The rally was a success. People with differing views gathered to scream their opinions from across a parking lot.
No one listened.
The Papa John’s pizza slice danced in front of me again. I noticed a guy with an assault rifle strapped to his back selling $15 t-shirts from a makeshift kiosk. The man with the bullhorn screamed at another passing car. One car slowed. “I thought this was the free speech country,” the driver said.
It is. The Garland rally was a perfect example of free speech in United States.
Geller is wrong about Muslims. But she’s right that free speech in America isn’t about shouting into the wilderness. It’s shouting into the wilderness while somebody tries to sell you cheap food and a t-shirt.