Saturday, June 10, 2017

ACT For America Protest in Waterbury

A group called ACT for America organized "March Against Sharia" protests in two dozen cities around the country. The protest in Connecticut was held in front of Waterbury's City Hall. A counter-protest was held in front of the Silas Bronson Library.

The scene at City Hall just after 10 a.m.

ACT for America

ACT for America, founded in 2007, states on their website that they mobilize "to help protect and preserve American culture and to keep this nation safe" and call themselves "the NRA of national security." They strive "to impact public policy and protect America from terrorism."

On their "Victory Timeline," ACT for America takes credit for banning refugees from terrorism from living in Craven County, North Carolina. They are against allowing Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. They claim the creation of the Special Benghazi Committee as their "most strategic victory." The bulk of their "Victory Timeline" seems to be focused on banning Muslims from the Middle East on the grounds that they are dangerous and will destroy America. Their mission does not appear to include anything about home-grown white non-Muslim terrorists.

ACT for America is run by a Christian refugee from Lebanon's Civil War, Brigitte Gabriel. She has stated that "Islamic terrorists ... are really just very devout followers of Muhammad" and that any "practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States." Gabriel seems to be deeply, and disturbingly, prejudiced against Islam and completely unable to see past her prejudice. She is obsessed with attacking Islam and Muslims. Gabriel endured the horrors of war as a child; unfortunately, her response to war has been undying hatred toward all Muslims and a crusade against Islam. She is poisoning the minds of people who know nothing about Islam except for what she preaches.

Gabriel has been pushing for close ties to the Trump administration. Michael Flynn once served on ACT's board, and Gabriel posed for a photo with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in February 2016, claiming that she had delivered a "national security briefing." She also had a meeting at the White House in March of this year, at her request. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified ACT for America as an extremist hate group. They have been pushing to criminalize Sharia laws, and even push to ban any official observance of Islamic holidays in public schools. ACT's work spreads fear, mistrust, misinformation, and hate.

March Against Sharia

According to the ACT for America website, the March Against Sharia was a march for human rights, stating that "many aspects of Sharia law run contrary to basic human rights and are completely incompatible with our laws and our democratic values." In particular, the protest focused on honor killings and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

At least one protester at the Waterbury event called it a rally against terrorism.

Facebook screenshot, 10 June 2017

At the request of the ACT organizers, militia groups provided "security" for the event, despite the fact that the Waterbury Police Department was there in large numbers and is more than capable of keeping the peace at a rally. According to a Facebook post, the militia groups involved were the Oath Keepers and Southern Brotherhood Militia.

Facebook screenshot, 10 June 2017

Oath Keepers and Southern Brotherhood Militia

Oath Keepers is a national organization which claims to have thousands of former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members. They were formed in 2009 in response to the election of Barack Obama. Although they claim to support the Constitution, they exist to oppose government actions. They believe that the government will impose martial law, take all their guns, and put resisters into concentration camps. They fear a global socialist government will take over.

The Southern Brotherhood Militia was founded in Indiana in 1928 by a veteran of the Spanish-American war and supporters of the Confederacy (hence the name "Southern Brotherhood"). They added Militia to their name during the 1990s. They have been praised by the white supremacist website Stormfront for having the fourth most racist Facebook page. A quick look at their Facebook page reveals a hatred of the federal government and support for the Confederacy.

In case you weren't convinced that the ACT members are motivated by racism and bigotry, remember: they welcomed two militant racist and anti-government groups to serve as their personal security force on the steps of City Hall.

What is Sharia?

Sharia is the religious doctrine of Islam, a code of behavior dating back to the 600s (with various changes over time). Sharia spells out various punishments for various crimes, but it is not an all-encompassing set of laws that govern all Muslims. Individual governments decide what the laws are and how they are applied. A government that is controlled by religious conservatives will adhere more closely to scriptural rules (no matter what the religion might be). Islam teaches that all local laws must be respected.

Just as there are many different ways to be a Christian and interpret the Bible, there are many different ways to be a Muslim and interpret the Qu'ran. Religion is one of the most complex things we humans engage in.

For more on Sharia, see

What about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?

Female Genital Mutilation is practiced by Christians as well as by Muslims. It is not mentioned in the Qu'ran. It is a cultural tradition that pre-dates Islam. When confronted with the practice, the prophet Muhammad did not condemn it, but he did say "if you cut, do not overdo it."

Just as there were women in China who didn't want to stop the tradition of foot binding, there are women (Christians and Muslims) who don't want to stop the tradition of FGM. It took a decisive act of government to end foot binding. FGM is harder to stop, since it's not outwardly visible.

Within the wide and diverse Muslim world, there are many different opinions on the subject. For some schools of thought, FGM is recommended on religious grounds. For others, it's not part of Islam, and is believed to have been allowed only in order to avoid the political turmoil that comes from banning a deeply rooted tradition. Still others are strongly opposed to the practice; religious leaders have issued fatwas condemning the practice in an effort to end it. Many Muslim activists are working hard to convince people to end the tradition.

It is misleading and wrong to say that FGM is part of Sharia law, just as it is misleading and wrong to say that a devout Muslim can't be a loyal citizen of the United States.

What about Honor Killings?

Those aren't in the Qu'ran either. In fact, the Qu'ran states that the only just cause for killing someone is if they committed murder or have been "spreading mischief." The Qu'ran also states that anyone who kills a believer will go to hell.

Honor killings are not part of Sharia law.

Historical Perspective

After reading through some of the "anti-Sharia" posts and listening to what some of their speakers said today, I am struck by how similar this is to how Americans responded when Irish Catholics began arriving in large numbers during the 1800s. People were convinced that Catholics would ignore U.S. laws and instead view the Pope as their only leader. The "Know Nothing" political party emerged during the 1850s in response to the influx of Irish Catholics. Know Nothings feared that Irish Catholics would murder Protestants in their sleep, that their only loyalty was to a foreign religious radical (the Pope), that they could not be trusted, even if they had been born in the United States. An editorial in the Hartford Courant, published on December 29, 1855, suggested that the U.S. should introduce a "policy that would prevent the advocates of such a tyrannical religion and its bigoted priests from entering" the country. For more on this history, see my post from last April.

March Against Sharia at City Hall

Plenty of large U.S. flags

A couple of Don't Tread on Me flags were waved. Although originally used during the Revolutionary War, the flag has most recently become associated with white supremacist groups.

Oath Keepers stood guard at the steps, blocking anyone from getting too close. They were deliberately intimidating, which undermined any effort on the part of the speakers to claim that they were all about peace and love. Peace and love unless you get too close or do something they don't like, and then they'll have their guards assault you.

One of the many Trump supporters at the ACT rally.

The t-shirt says "Stomp My Flag, I'll Stomp Your Ass."

This guy, with his Trump-as-muscular-hero shirt, left the ACT rally to film a video next to the counter-protest.

ACT participants filming a video with the counter-protest as backdrop.

Not surprisingly, some of the counter-protesters noticed and couldn't resist the urge to respond. They didn't speak, just moved closer holding up signs.
The ACT rally fizzled out about half an hour early. Stalwarts in #MAGA hats stuck around with the rally organizer for press interviews.

Police Presence

The Waterbury Police Department had a strong presence, ensuring that the day remained peaceful, protecting all participants. I can't even imagine the level of preparation they went through, knowing there would be opposing protests and anti-government militia groups. Thankfully, the whole thing went very smoothly and safely.

The police camera crew had a birds-eye view

The Counter-Protest

Local residents participated in the counter-protest in front of the library. I didn't do a headcount, but there were easily twice as many counter-protesters as ACT protesters. Some participants were Muslims. Many were non-Muslims who came to show their support for their Muslim friends and neighbors.

The counter-protest in front of the library shortly after 10 a.m.

Ben Franklin said:

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.”

Event organizers Jamilah Jackson, Andrew Oravecz, and Fahd Syed.

CHRO: Connecticut Human Rights and Opportunities at the counter-protest

Alderman Ron Napoli, Jr. expressing his support for the Muslim community

This discussion started escalating, until a police officer reminded the men to keep it calm.

Jimmie Griffin chatting with a freelance activist journalist from We Are Change Connecticut.

Waterbury activist Steve Schrag

Mongi Dhaouadi, Executive Director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations

"Muslims: Making America Great Since 1619"

The News Media

They were here in force, covering the local part of a national story.

Andrew Larson and Ajhani Ayres, reporters at the Republican-American, updating their Twitter feeds.

Jonathan Wilcox and Steve Valenti, photographers at the Republican-American. Their camera lenses are much bigger than mine.

Fox 61 news crew

NBC camera in the thick of it, no reporter in sight

Cameras everywhere

John Murray from the Waterbury Observer finally sat down after walking back and forth between the two events

Final Thoughts

Ignorance and combativeness are dangerous. No one at either rally supports FGM or honor killings, but there still was a tremendous divide between the two groups. Protests are not a forum for exchanging ideas or listening to opposing viewpoints or bridging divides.

Groups like ACT for America use people's ignorance and fear to instill prejudice. The only way to defeat them is through education.

Just as some of the people at the March Against Sharia were probably well-meaning but misinformed or ignorant, I realized there was a tendency for people participating in the counter-protest to assume the worst of them.

We instinctively fear people we don't know. It helps us survive, but it also creates strife.

One of the protesters participating in the March Against Sharia was Ziggy Berisha, a well-known figure in Waterbury. I don't think anyone from Waterbury would get upset with him at a protest. I think most people would shrug their shoulders and accept that his views differ from their own--because we know who he is.

Ziggy pausing to watch the counter-protest

As it so happened, Ziggy and a counter-protester had one of the best encounters of the morning. The stopped to talk as they walked past one another. I got a photo of them talking, but not of how they ended their conversation--with a hug and a peck on the cheek.

When we can listen to one another, we can move mountains.

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