Yesterday Terry Jones held another rally in Dearborn, Michigan, outside the Arab International Festival, to raise awareness for the encroachment of Islam in America. Abby Ohlheiser was there.
This was the plan: Terry Jones would speak at City Hall then march with his supporters up to the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn, MI, a city with one of the largest Arab populations in the country. The walk is 13 blocks. He got half a block before police put him in a car. Six protesters from the affirmative action group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) were arrested. The rest stood in his path, yelling, getting as close as they could without touching. Jones wore a bullet proof vest under his white t-shirt, as did his friend and fellow speaker pastor Wayne Sapp.
Last time Jones was in Dearborn, he was pelted with shoes and water bottles, something repeatedly referenced today. But he keeps coming back. Regardless of the angle, there’s something going on here, some importance perceived by, at least, Jones, that his message be heard in this place at this time. He’s going to return again, he said, even after the mob. And likewise, his presence makes Dearborn a site for others–his detractors, his supporters with side causes of their own–to get attention for their messages.
Before the rally began, Jones asked his supporters to join him for a pep talk. “If you’re taking a stand with us we’d like you up to the fence real quick,” he said. Jones told the small gathered crowd, maybe 30 people, about the size of the counter protest (and the media presence, who were pushed against the edge of the press pen trying to hear), “What’s very important is that we will not in any way retaliate…in every sense they will see god’s love and patience.” No one on Jones’s side was arrested or injured, but adrenaline was pumping through many of his supporters. His speech is more polished this visit–he’s learned a lot about public speaking and media interaction–but he’s still folksy. He says “Muslim” with an o sound, “Moslem.” And he still has the distinctively Jones facial hair he had back when he threatened to burn a Qur’an and everyone listened.
The Qur’an was on the podium yesterday, too. Jones lifted it up once or twice like punctuation as he read his fivefold plan for America: protect freedom of speech (and demand that all UN countries do too), stop all Muslim immigration, monitor all mosques, ban Muslims from decision-making positions in US embassies in Islamic countries, and ban Shariah nationwide. Jones wanted to get through with the plan, deliberately, carefully, and seemed to ignore the crowds across the street chanting “Go Home!” and “Dearborn has made it clear. Racist bigots aren’t welcome here.” The protesters encouraged passing vehicles to honk, to drown out Jones. Some did, lingering in the street before the police made them move, women in hijab staring out of passenger windows at the sparse gathering. At one point a cement truck and a tow truck joined in, briefly drowning out one of the later speakers, Rabbi Shifren.
Shifren reveled in the crowd’s anger, almost immediately calling the protesters “Low-level scum” and “communist rabble.” Something was yelled back, Shifren repeated, “Yes! Fuck the Jews. That’s right, they said it,” and went on to say that earlier, crowd members had told him to go to Auschwitz. Almost the entire content of his speech was insults, a repeat of insults thrown at him, a return of the lobs with some of his own. “These rappers and gangbangers, these low-level ne’er do wells,” he said. These are lede-grabbing quotes, if not for the protests later.
Sapp seemed to revel in the crowd’s anger too, yelling back “I’m taken” to an obscene suggestion. Unlike Jones, he repeatedly referenced burning the Qur’an (“I could get a lighter and burn the Qur’an right now, that is not a hate crime,” for example) and waved it around the stage. When Jones’s church finally did burn a Qur’an this spring despite his promise “not today, not ever,” it was Sapp who did it. It caused deadly riots in Afghanistan.
Different styles, but all three seemed disappointed with the crowd. And not all supporters were true believers, true Jonesites, though most agreed with the basic idea. Chris Pritts, a Dearborn native who sympathizes with many of Jones’s goals, said the speeches were only OK. “I don’t think there’s anything bad that he’s doing… his message might be a little caustic but it’s full of some basic truths.”
Eric Jones, who referred to himself as a “concerned Christian, held a sign flanked by the Israeli and US flags. “I’m piggybacking on [Jones's] cause… I go to get the media attention,” he said. His cause is to include defense of Israel within the greater idea of America as a protector of freedom. As he spoke five or six reporters flocked and he told them he thought Obama will impose martial law before the next election.
Jones skipped the Arab International Festival, the way blocked, the police preventing his attendance, but there was something to take his place, though it attracted much less media attention than Jones’s show. As I walked down the street, chatting with a couple of filmmakers from The United West , a group of Christians with signs walked down the sidewalk. One of the signs said: “Muhammad is: A Liar, False Prophet, Murderer, Child Molester, Pervert. (See history for details).” As the Christians walked and chanted, flanked by police, a growing crowd – hundreds, it seemed – walked on the street yelling back. “Here we go,” said one of the United West filmmakers as we all ran to catch up.
The Christian group–I hadn’t yet identified them because no one was allowed anywhere near them, mounted policemen ran at the crowd to make space, and groups of kids screaming and throwing bottles at the group made everything tense–yelled through a megaphone “Jesus Christ is God. Muhammed is a lie.” (According to Atlas Shrugs, the group was led by Ruben Israel.) Later, a woman, old, in a long flowered dress with five green bags in her hands, asked, “Are you a Christian?” and offered me one of her bags of materials. She quietly moved through the crowd with a partner, younger, carrying the same collection of bags. Others stood on the sidewalk, handing out DVDs about Jesus to those who passed, talking to those who would talk.
One thing I learned yesterday: there’s a lot of anger at the ready. Why is a complicated thing to say.
Abby Ohlheiser is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Religion and Journalism program.