For the first time in nine years, the anniversary of the September 11 (9/11) terrorist attacks became a day of protest, as a circus-like clash of demonstrations – ostensibly over the Cordoba House mosque – filled the streets of lower Manhattan on Saturday for several hours following the somber reading of the litany of the lost.
The blocks around ground zero, on anniversaries past, have been relatively quiet and a bit ghostly as the official ceremony has been conducted, with four moments of silence marking two planes striking two towers, and then each one falling.
But construction at the World Trade Center site has advanced far enough that the ceremony has been forced blocks away, and moments after the reading of the names of the dead finished, more than 2,000 people crowded outside City Hall for a pro-Cordoba House rally.
Hours later, more than 1,500 gathered for an anti-mosque rally two blocks west, organized by conservative blogger Pamela Geller and featuring a video from former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and a relatively tame speech by anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
In between, on the streets near ground zero, anger frothed over with ugly exchanges. An elderly woman was knocked down and and was tended to by police, a Muslim man with a small child in a stroller was shouted at for several minutes by an anti-mosque protester, and an attention-seeking man ripped and burned pages of the Quran.
The anger wasn’t limited to the mosque issue. Anti-abortion activists set up shop on Church Street, where a candlelight vigil in support of the mosque was held the night before by organizers who didn’t want to hold an event on the anniversary, and set up graphic signs often shown at anti0abortion rallies.
And the pro-mosque rally outside City Hall, organized by the International Action Center, had an overwhelming anti-war texture, as some protesters wore orange jumpsuits with black hoods, and displayed pictures of the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib.
“This year is different – the site has become a scene of conflict,” Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said prior to the anniversary. “Time does blur memory and feeling a little bit and now this is raw again. There is this real rawness to the issue because it touches deep-seated fears and anger.”
At the IAC event, signs proclaimed, ‘The attack on Islam is racism,” “Tea Party bigots funded by corporate $,” and “Grief is no reason for bigotry and unjust wars!”
Speakers stood on a makeshift stage next to loudspeakers, with one comparing the anti-mosque protesters to Adolf Hitler and saying, “America’s worse than Hitler!”
“Hey hey, ho ho!” went the chant from the crowd, adding that racism “has got to go!”
Hundreds of people rode in on buses from outside the city, many of them longtime activists from upstate New York, to support the project.
Don and Marion Lathrop, both in their 70s and longtime activists, traveled from Canaan, N.Y., to hold signs at the rally, said they had friends who were part of the group “9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows,” and since that group supported the rally, they felt it was fine to take part in it on the anniversary. And they said they felt it was important to speak out against the anger over the project.
Don Lathrop added drily, “The Pussycat Lounge [a strip club] is around the corner (from ground zero) too. So much for (hallowed) ground.”
One man walked up and down the perimeter of the support rally wearing a sign that said “Toilet Paper” with a copy of the Quran hanging from it.
An hour earlier, a baseball cap-clad man who refused to give his name tore pages from a green leather-bound copy of the Quran on Church Street, where the anti-abortion protesters later set up, and screamed as a crush of cameras snapped his acts, “I’m Mapplethorping the Quran!”
The NYPD, which had a heavy presence throughout the area and kept protesters of all stripes essesntially penned in using metal barricades to avoid a scene, escorted him out of the area, but did not arrest him. He walked north, followed by reporters, then eventually walked south, past several victims’ relatives
Entire streets were blocked off to pedestrians at different points, including the section of Park Place where the proposed mosque site is. That block was shuttered to pedestrians and cars throughout the day.
Police reported no arrests, and they worked hard to maintain the peace, but it was difficult throughout the events.
At the anti-mosque rally, “Taps” was played, followed by the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several people brought signs despite being asked not to. Others literally wrapped themselves in the American flag. “USA! USA!” shouts broke out several times.
Geller barely spoke, and Wilders, who had been one of the most-watched speakers given his anti-Muslim rhetoric, gave his 15-minute speech without incident, although he did lead the crowd in chants of “No mosque here!” several times.
Wilders said New York, which he noted has Dutch roots, is about “tolerance” and could not become “New Mecca.”
Two men drifted through the crowd questioning the motives of the anti-mosque demonstrators, prompting one man to shout out an anti-gay slur while another yelled, “You’re in the wrong place!”
Pro-mosque protesters repeatedly joined the crowd, sometimes quietly and sometimes engaging in angry back-and-forths with people on the other side of the issue. An hour into the event, a group of young pro-mosque demonstrators carrying signs rushed the front of the overflow crowd, and had to be removed by cops.
At another point, a small band of apparent college students got into a scuffle with anti-mosque demonstrators near Murray Street as they blew into a horn and talked in support of the project. They were jostled by the people around them, and were ultimately plucked from behind the barricades by cops.
Mayor Bloomberg and President Barack Obama, both of whom have defended the right of the project to exist, were prime targets from the anger from the stage.