Volume 23, Number 5 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 11 - 17, 2010
Downtown Express photos by Kenzie Delaine
Myriad messages were everywhere at the protest Sunday. Opponents held signs as tourists passed by and chanted “Not here, not now, not ever!”
Protest draws crowd, group says only the beginning
By Ishita Singh
Signs that read “Stop welcoming Islamic terrorists,” “Ground Zero is a burial site,” and “No mega mosque on sacred grounds” spilled from the sidewalks of Church and Liberty Streets into Zuccotti Park on Sunday afternoon. Demonstrators protested the construction of a community center and mosque to be built blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.
The Financial District committee for Community Board 1 unanimously approved the Cordoba Initiative’s plans to create the center during a meeting last month and the entire board followed suit by approving the resolution at a full board meeting on May 25.
But protest organizer Pamela Geller said the committee ignored many neighborhood residents who opposed the proposed mosque. She said the goal of this weekend’s protest was to give the public an opportunity to voice their opinions. The protest came on the heels of the full board meeting at which over 70 speakers, many in opposition to the plan, were allowed to speak during a public input session. That meeting was also populated by anti-Cordoba posters and signs much like the ones at Sunday’s protest.
“We wanted to show the public’s outcry to what the American people consider an insult, the building of a mega mosque on a sacred war memorial,” Geller, a New York City resident, said. “Build it anywhere but there.”
Supporters of Geller’s group, Stop Islamization of America, sang “God Bless America,” chanted “U.S.A.” and waved American flags on the windy afternoon. Like Geller, many of the assembled protesters disagreed with the proposed mosque’s proximity to the still-wrecked World Trade Center site. Catherine Tenek of Manorville, Long Island, said that she was not anti-Islam or against mosques in general, but was insulted by the plans. “I’m here because I’m against the building of a mosque on sacred Ground Zero land. In America, you can build a mosque anywhere, so why here?”
Michael Kogan, also from Long Island, agreed. “I’m totally against the mosque here. There’s no place for religion here,” he said. Kogan and his friend carried a banner that said “Mosque at Ground Zero Monument to Terror.”
Army retiree Tom Sinclair drove from Alexandria, Va., to attend the protest. He was afraid that the construction of a mosque in the neighborhood might incite another terrorist attack. “When I heard about this, I had to be here. I could not allow this to go unnoticed,” Sinclair said. “I have 14 grandkids here in the city. I can’t let them be victims.”
Geller, SIOA co-founder Robert Spencer and family members of 9/11 victims were among those who delivered speeches. The crowd remained largely peaceful throughout the event, cheering raucously when one speaker after another declared, “We cannot let this go on,” and “this is an insult,” and “not here, not now, not ever!”
Reports on attendance vary: Geller estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 people showed up, while other estimates put the number closer to 300. Police officers at the scene declined to comment on the size of the crowd.
The Cordoba Initiative bought the Burlington Coat Factory at 45 Park Place in 2009. The building has remained shuttered since 9/11, when falling plane debris damaged its main facade. The Initiative plans to tear down the existing building and construct a 13-story community center, which would include a swimming pool, numerous classrooms and a 500-seat theater. The controversial prayer center would be on the first floor of the center.
Families of the victims of 9/11 had previously voiced some displeasure towards the mosque, said Daisy Khan, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, in an earlier interview. Khan said that she was reaching out to these families to involve them in the center’s planning process. Some of the protestors on Sunday carried pictures of 9/11 victims with them and called the proposed mosque “intolerable” and “insensitive.”
Opponents directed frustration not only at the Cordoba Initiative whose decision to build the community center is an as-of-right project, but also at President Obama.
Khan previously described the center as a place that would meet the needs of the broader community in the Lower Manhattan area. Some proponents of the plan likened the center to the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. Though the Y is affiliated with a Jewish organization, it is largely considered a secular center for community members of all faiths. Geller took issue with that comparison. “Community centers like the 92nd [Street] Y do not have churches and synagogues in them. If that was really their objective, why put a mosque in it? Or why not have a mosque, church and a synagogue there,” she asked. The Cordoba Initiative did not answer repeated requests for an interview.
Geller and many of her supporters said that because the building was directly harmed by the attacks, it should be declared a war memorial and therefore remain untouched. She said that SIOA plans to hold more protests against the proposed mosque, and encouraged members to appeal to their Congressional representatives.
“This was just the opening to the battle,” Geller said. “We’re going to fight to stop this mega mosque at Ground Zero.”