By Abby Ohlheiser
Photos by Merel van Beeren

“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and the Hartmanns perish??” –Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

I was sitting in a French-style chain cafe (sorry America), finishing my croissant, talking to Merel, when we heard the opening notes of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was a restrained, beautiful choral rendition, and we listened. It was all kind of a relief: we were just blocks from Ground Zero, at around 8:30 AM on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, but the only signs we’d seen of something solemn going on were the expressions on the cops’ faces as they watched us leave the subway at Fulton Street, as they told us to keep walking in a no-gawking zone, as they told confused spectators no, not that crosswalk, you have to go around the block. This moment, listening, would be the closest we would get to the ceremony at the memorial plaza finally established on top of the former World Trade Center site. Instead, we spent the day in the blocks around the site, in the throngs of tourists, New Yorkers, missionaries, and protestors. We watched as a block’s worth of people waited to move one block forward, in front of St. Paul’s.  Merel said, “I wonder what this would look like as painted by Norman Rockwell.”

Here is what I, and the rest of the crowd, saw on the outskirts of Ground Zero during the ceremony, on the other side of the police checkpoints and “you can’t go theres” between us and the heartbreaking, mourning substance of the official ceremony:

  • In front of St. Paul’s Chapel, the Truthers were out in full force. “At least they’re quiet,” a friend observed. Moments later, someone began a chant, “9/11 was an inside job!” as they faced tourists, New Yorkers, and men and women in uniform examining white ribbons tied to the fence of the chapel. The chant reached a fever pitch. A man sitting in front of the fence played Amazing Grace on an old flute, but you could only hear it if you were right there, otherwise the Truthers drowned him out.
  • American Flags sold for a dollar. So did copies of Socialist Action. Ice cream was slightly more. I didn’t check the prices on the street painter, nor the suggested donation for the guy displaying copies of New York dailies from September 12, 2001.
  • Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp (and their security team) were hanging around outside a 7-11. Jones’s leather jacket framed a T-shirt that read: Everything I needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.
  • Dude in a wheelchair with an adorable cat snuggling in some blankets. The cat had a hat.

After the ceremony, at Park Place and West Broadway (just near Park51, the Islamic Center in progress that caused the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy last year), was a crowd of about 200, the Freedom Rally. Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer organized the rally, and alternated MC duties. In addition to continuing their protest against Park51, the rally was also seen as a counter ceremony to the official memorial ceremony. Clergy, as we’ve already mentioned here, did not participate in the official New York ceremony, and the city’s 90,000 or so First Responders did not receive invitations.  Only family members of the victims were invited, the city said.  Geller and Spencer sought to attract those two groups, and their supporters. All are welcome, they billed it. In the crowd were many who had walked on the outskirts of Ground Zero during the morning ceremony, waiting for their turn to commemorate and remember at this rally, in the way they feel is most fitting.

To get to the Freedom Rally, you had to walk through two police check points. Penned in by portable fencing, we in the crowd were surrounded by cops and security guards.

Geller and Spencer are leaders in the anti-sharia movement, a group of believers in the idea that extremist Muslims wish to take over the United States and impose Sharia law. While not synonymous with the Tea Party, there’s definitely an affinity. The movement’s been closer to the spotlight since last year’s 9/11 anniversary, when Geller led a protest against Park51, and when Terry Jones threatened to burn a Qur’an. He was at the rally, in the back. Just there to honor those killed in the attacks, he said.

Pamela Geller

Signs said, “Read the Koran: Mohammad was a Terrorist.” “We will never forget.” “No 9/11 Mega Mosque” Many with signs were eager to talk to anyone with pen and paper. One man, short and thin with glasses, saw my notebook as he passed me and turned to show me his sign. I thought about cartoon black market dealers opening up trench coats to show their inventory of watches. Like what you see? The opinion dealers kept mostly to the back. They were occasionally shushed by those there to listen, at least half of the crowd, which dwindled to about 80 as the rally approached its second hour.

Terry Jones

After the prayers, offered by religious leaders of different faiths, the speakers turned their attention to the central point of the day: America, the danger it’s in, and what to do about it. The message of the rally, spread by speakers already familiar to the crowd, alternated in focus from rallymongering declarations of ideological solidarity (peppered with spontaneous crowd-led “USA! USA!” chants) to criticisms of and messages for the media. Ilario Pantano, a North Carolina congressional candidate, called the media “frankly, complicit.” In anti-Sharia speak, “complicit” often means “complicit with Islamists.”

“The media would make us to feel like bigots,” said Rosaleen Tallon, whose brother died in the collapse of the North Tower. He was a probationary firefighter. She spoke to the crowd, impassioned, with authority. She was telling the truth, many in the crowd seemed to feel. The media don’t listen. They’re “totally intolerant of telling the truth.” The media are making it worse, was the message.

But, despite the rally’s effort to provide one true path to righteous patriotism for media and individuals alike, some in the audience, listening, attentive, respectful, were there to engage with its message a bit differently.

Chiffon Abney came to Ground Zero in the afternoon, from her home in Brooklyn.  She found the rally and decided to listen. She lost one of her classmates in the attacks. When asked how she felt about what she heard and saw so far, she paused and said, “Racism is alive and well.”  She pointed to the crowd, “How many brown people do you see in that crowd?” she said.  “Behind the fact that this is Islam, it’s that these are dark people….I think that Americans are still stuck on the color thing.”

“My concern, as someone who has been supportive of the Muslim community on Staten Island, for instance, is that I disagree with the insinuation that I’m complicit with Sharia in its most extreme form,” said Bill Johnson, who attended the rally with his friend Eileen Bardell. Johnson said he came to the rally, “In respect to the people in the audience. There’s always something I can learn.” For him, Muslims in America represent something different from the picture painted by the speakers on the stage. They represent possibility of escape from extremism. “Muslim women in Afghanistan, they come here to free themselves,” he said, “America is a land of opportunity for everyone.”

Abby Ohlheiser is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Religion and Journalism program.