Volume 20, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 8 - 14, 2010
|Robert Conlon Moore distributing anti-Park 51 flyers on the corner of Church Street and Park Place.
||Joshua Wiles, 24, selling pro-Park51 t-shirts
||Gary Phanuf demonstrating in front of Park51
Personalities emerge in front of Park51 site
BY Aline Reynolds
For the past few weeks, individual supporters and protestors alike have stood outside Park51 and City Hall for hours on end in hopes of garnering support for their cause. Here are a few profiles of these die-hard activists.
Robert Conlon Moore – activist and Park51 opponent
Fifty-year-old Robert Conlon Moore of Flushing, Queens, has distributed hundreds of flyers opposing the construction of Park51. For two weeks, Moore has stood outside City Hall and at the corner of Church Street and Park Place, handing out his flyers. He has faxed copies to state and federal officials. Moore calls himself a “worker for a better future.” Currently unemployed, he invests the little spare cash he has into printing the flyers.
Moore’s initial flyer emphasized the insensitivity of building a mosque so close to the World Trade Center, where he witnessed some of the thousands who died jumping from high floors.
The flyer says, “The intentions of the Muslim community to build so close to the World Trade Center may be from the finest of hearts, but for me being a Catholic, if a Catholic priest had planted a bomb that caused the same result, and the Catholic church asked to build a church at the site, I would also say it should not be allowed.”
As the Park51 debate began to heat up, Moore added to his flyer a compromise plan that he thinks could settle the mosque controversy: the construction of a multicultural religious center, representing all of the world’s major religions, to be built at Ground Zero in place of new office towers. Also on the site would be a memorial structure with the engraved names of the 2,982 who perished on 9/11. “For me this would truly create a beautiful shrine for all the victims of the attack,” he told Downtown Express last Friday.
“The idea is to bring us all together under one banner,” he continued. “Rather than allow tragedy be a divider, let it bring us all together, if only under the belief that we’ll all find peace.”
The distinct churches, synagogues and prayer spaces now scattered around the financial district, he said, are not sufficient to send an ecumenical message, and the creation of Park51 would only cause further rifts in the community. “You have to have them all in one memorial garden, with one purpose of embracing each other in friendship and as a member of a multinational community.”
On the flyer, Moore gives his phone number and asks his readers to call Governor Paterson, Tim Dolan and Michelle Obama to express their support of this project. He says he faxed the flyer to the First Lady but has yet to receive a response.
Moore is also active in other causes. In anticipation of the midterm elections, he is requesting an open or “oral” ballot vote, the system America used up until the late 19th century to tally votes, to replace today’s secret ballot system. In his flyer, Moore questions the integrity of the secret ballots, citing recent examples of vote tampering.
“The number one benefit from an open-ballot vote will be to know for certain that the party or people you vote for will be counted,” he said. I believe it is a right to have a secret ballot, but for me it is more important to make voting as fraud-proof as possible, and know that my vote is counted,” his flyer reads.
Moore is also protesting the M.T.A. fare hike, arguing for varying monthly rates based on one’s salary bracket.
Joshua Wiles – T-shirt maker and Park 51 supporter
Joshua Wiles, 26, stands outside the old Burlington Coat Factory selling black-and-white, hand-made t-shirts with “Peace through Understanding” on the front and “Support Park51” on the back in big, white letters for $5 a piece. He has made 50 or 60 t-shirts so far in the living room of his one-bedroom rental in Bedford-Stuyvesant, charging passersby just enough to cover production costs. He has sold about half of them so far.
“Plenty of people come out with their patriotism and flags, saying, ‘we don’t want you here,’” he said. “The general consensus in the media is that everybody feels that way. I’m here to say that I don’t, and friends of mine don’t either.”
Wiles added, “They have a perfect right to build this mosque, if they come up with the funding. If they’re intimidated and have to move, that’s a loss for those who want to freely exercise their rights in this country.”
As do most Park51 supporters, Wiles pointed out that you can’t even see the Park51 site from Ground Zero. “This is a non-issue, to be honest,” he said. “If politicians left it alone, it wouldn’t have been a blip on the radar for anyone.”
Along with the fellow Park51 proponents that have purchased his shirts come the opponents, who hiss at Wiles. “When you’re on the street, you have a lot of people come by and just scream, ‘f--k you,’ or honk at us or give us the finger,” he said.
Wiles joined the counterdemonstration of the mosque on August 22 to voice his support for Park51.
His goal in demonstrating outside the building is to motivate those who have remained silent on the issue to speak up. “I hope that having a young face saying, ‘I’m an American and I don’t believe in this,’ will make a difference,” he said.
What Wilss values most is our constitutional rights as Americans. “I believe in humans – people should be as free as possible, especially in the way we form this nation,” he said. “We should stick to that and not corrupt it.”
A self-proclaimed pacifist, Wiles has single-handedly demonstrated for other causes.
“We have all kinds of options, we don’t have to go around killing people,” he said.
In Massachusetts, where he grew up, Wiles participated in a debate about 9/11 as a high school senior, arguing for a peaceful foreign policy strategy, and protested in the war in Afghanistan. He also distributed a sign-up sheet in protest of the Iraqi war during his college years at Montserrat College in Beverly, Massachusetts and advocated for gay marriage.
Wiles will continue to stand outside 45 Park Place before and after the workday, selling his shirts and chanting about religious freedom.
“It’s been really fun,” he said of the experience thus far. “It’s much worth the effort.”
Gary Phanuf - activist at heart, hates hate – Park51 supporter
Gary Phanuf, 54, spends a few hours a day at the Park51 site during breaks from work carrying signs with saying such as, “Mosque, yes, hate, no.”
He only sees a few demonstrators at a time at the site. “I’m surprised there isn’t a more organized daily presence” at Park51, he said.
But those that are there can make a difference. “We want to appeal to the working people in Downtown New York to take a stand… If they don’t, we’re going to lose, and we deserve to lose.”
Phanuf works as a street vendor on Canal Street, selling replicas of the W.T.C., the Statue of Liberty, and other trinkets. “Everybody suffered in New York on 9/11,” he said, including Muslim-Americans.
Phanuf is also an activist in Staten Island, where he lives. He recently a stood outside St. Margaret Mary Church in Midland Beach for six Sundays in a row, advocating for its transfer in ownership to a Muslim organization that planned build a mosque there. The church ultimately decided against putting the property up for sale, after a series of rallies by both sides.
“There was violence and threats of violence,” Phanuf said. “I had my business suit burned.”
In the 1990s, he was an outspoken demonstrator against hate crimes that plagued the borough.
“Staten Island has a sad history,” he said.
He has also demonstrated there against recent acts of violence toward minorities, “Our slogan is ‘jobs not jails for the youth of Port Richmond’ he said, addressing the need for youths, the perpetrators of the crimes, to find employment to stay busy and out of trouble.
Phanuf is notorious for brashly speaking his mind. He was escorted by police out of the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on July 13 for loudly interjecting when speakers spoke out against Park51. He held up a sign that day with the message, “Stop scapegoating all Muslims for 9/11.”