By David Farley
Anti-Muslim extremist Pam Geller organized a protest against prominent Bay Ridge-based activist Linda Sarsour last Thursday. Geller was joined by pedophilia apologist Milo Yiannopoulos and unhinged assemblymember Dov Hikind in front of the CUNY Welcome Center on 42nd Street in Manhattan to condemn the School of Public Health and Health Policy, which had invited Sarsour, a co-organizer of the Women’s March and to many a modern civil-rights icon, to speak at its commencement today. Geller’s manufactured campaign has led a number of prominent activists, academics, and public figures to issue public support to CUNY, while CUNY has steadfastly defended Linda.
Geller has experience spearheading citywide hate campaigns against Muslims. In 2010, she talked up the existential threat posed by the “Ground Zero Mosque”—a cultural center and mosque that was to be built blocks away from the site of the 9/11 attacks. She launched her career as a demagogue there, but even on that “issue,” her victory was pyrrhic; her campaign proved a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban. Protesting a CUNY school’s choice of commencement speaker may seem like a precipitous fall from gracelessness, but for Geller it’s clearly a way to recapture those glory days of Islamophobia, with their color-coded terror alert system, flag pins and Freedom Fries.
The Thursday protest was a Who’s Who of the Islamophobia industry and the alt-right, both of which have found new life under the Trump administration, including former Breitbart writer and Twitter troll Yiannapolous and Brooklyn DINO/terrorist sympathizer Hikind. These “strange bedfellows,” as Hikind put it, share a hatred of feminism, progressives, Hollywood elites, academia, sharia, the media and, of course, Linda. The speeches I heard used these terms frequently, even interchangeably, in what amounted to a Mad Libs version of right-wing discourse. Meanwhile, out in the crowd, from under a sea of umbrellas and MAGA hats, came chants of “Lock her up!,” which sounded quaint so long after the election. I heard a touch of regret, as if these Trump supporters wished they still had Hilary around.
Geller started off the protest at the top of her lungs and never came down, screaming through the tinny sound system over city traffic and counter protestors, which sounded ambient by comparison. She detailed the horrors that would be unleashed should CUNY allow Linda to speak, then started a tepid chant: “Shame on CUNY.” Geller was followed by Hikind (who, happily, eschewed blackface for the occasion). The assemblymember stumbled getting to the podium, but once he found his feet and the mic, he was in his element, roaring at the crowd, waving props, reading quotes and gesticulating wildly. Like many right-wing provocateurs, Hikind hosts a radio show, and his performance on Thursday was more Lord Haw Haw than elected official. Much of what he said was either discredited nonsense or blatant misrepresentations; the rest was personal baggage. The crowd, like some dumb beast, murmured its approval.
In recent months, Hikind’s obsession with Linda has evolved into a pathology. He has held press conferences, issued statements and written op-eds, while his message has morphed from being an appeal to common sense among the left to berating the right for being insufficiently interested in his pet cause. In his mind, he’s a voice crying out into the wilderness, a hirsute Cassandra. So when Pam and Milo pulled up in their crazy train, Dov climbed aboard.
It was surprising to see Milo Yiannopoulos, who has been laying low since February, when audio surfaced of him defending pedophilia. But wherever a strong woman takes up public space, Milo is there, to shut her down. Last year, it was another prominent woman of color, Leslie Jones, whose crime was that she accepted an acting gig, and fanboys didn’t approve. His latest target is Ariana Grande. Milo is desperately trying to be the Christopher Hitchens of the Trump years—he even name-checked Hitch, in case the affected speaking style wasn’t enough—but he just comes off sounding like a mean-spirited Hugh Grant.
Milo may have also been testing the hate-filled waters of right-wing group-think because he’s launching a media venture, having convinced himself and others that people aren’t yet sick of listening to tired rants against political correctness. So in the coming months, look for more attacks on prominent women, who most likely will have no idea what the fuck he is talking about.
Dov Doth Protest Too Much
Each speaker began his or her harangue by assuring the audience what this protest was not about: it was not about preventing free speech—they repeated this many, many times—though they seemed astounded that anyone would let Linda speak or listen to what she had to say. Nor was it about feminism (though many of the speakers have firm ideas of what feminism is); nor was it about Islam (though “sharia” came up in every other sentence). For these speakers, this protest was about promoting their own distorted views of their current obsession, Linda Sarsour, who in their minds embodies everything that’s wrong with everything. Linda seems to pose for them an existential threat, so it was remarkable how little they sought to understand or engage with what it was they were railing against.
As a woman, a fierce defender of Palestinian rights, a Brooklynite and an unapologetic Muslim, Linda’s very presence offends them. They seem intent on reducing her to whichever of these identities fits whichever talking point, though she actually exists (as do so many) at the intersection of these and other identities. This may be why Linda’s focus on oppression of all kinds and support for the powerless makes her such a compelling and inspirational figure to the left and such a target for the right. The invective from these speakers reduced all that complexity to the contents of a bunch of years-old tweets.
Hikind has been fixated on one particular tweet for some time now, an image of a young Palestinian boy who is clutching a rock in each fist and staring down armed Israeli soldiers. Linda tweeted the image in October of 2014 with the caption “The definition of courage. #Palestine”. This was enough to convert Hikind to a madcap semiotician. “Nothing betrays the dark side of Sarsour more than that single image she tweeted of a Palestinian child holding rocks,” Hikind said. This tweet has been an important part of the case that he has been making against Linda, and it was an important part of his speech on Thursday. You can watch the video here online (if your stomach can take it), but let me take you through what Hikind says, and you can judge whether he could be charged with slander.
Hikind desperately needs to make the connection between this tweet and Linda being a terrorist sympathizer or his whole argument—even his whole worldview—falls apart. He begins by holding up an image of the tweet but immediately misrepresents the caption. “She thinks throwing rocks at cars is an act of courage.” That’s neither what she said nor what the image shows. “Ladies and gentleman, this is Linda Sarsour in her own words.” Linda in her own words has been Hikind’s clincher for a while, so you’d expect that he’d actually cite them. “The definition of courage is throwing rocks…” Again, not what she said. But this sets up the transition to where he wants to get, which is far from this image, those words, that tweet.
Throwing rocks at cars, throwing rocks results in the murder of innocent men women and children. And let me give you one example of how real this is. This is a child in Israel ladies and gentleman, a child in a car with her mother and siblings, as a result of stones that were thrown. This child, after suffering for two years, this child, ladies and gentlemen, died as the result of stones being thrown at a car. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a child being mourned by her mother because of stones that Linda Sarsour says is an act of courage.
This isn’t just faulty logic or questionable interpretation. It is patently false, deliberately misleading and altogether incendiary. A boy not throwing rocks at armed soldiers becomes in Hikind’s mind someone else, somewhere else, throwing rocks at a car that resulted in death. This is one of the most disturbing parts of our current political moment. It’s not just that people believe different things (if that was the case there would be hope for eventual rapprochement); it’s that people literally see different things. In Hikind’s case he even sees things that aren’t there. This is especially concerning because Hikind is either unaware or unconcerned with how similar kinds of rhetoric have in the past led to threats against Linda and her family.
Day of the Locust
I was curious as to what the audience was making of this nonsense, so I left the staging area and circulated in the crowd. As incoherent and incendiary as the message from the speakers was, the farther I got from the stage, the more outlandish and surreal things got. In addition to the MAGA hats and chants of “Lock her up!” there were plenty of splinter groups and counterprotesters swirling about and jostling each other in the rain. There were thugs wearing gas masks and elbow pads. There was a guy draped in a flag, yelling at a police officer, who calmly walked him back behind the barricade where he belonged. There were Jews for Linda and Jews against Linda; roaming bands of Antifas; a guy on an electric-powered skateboard, weaving his way through traffic, waving an American flag. Passersby snapped pictures. There was lots of press, too, but even they found it difficult to focus, so they just kept filming and grabbing random quotes. It perfectly encapsulated our political moment.
On the south side of 42nd Street, where I decamped to try to get a better view of the shitshow, there were masses of protesters and supporters alike, moved there by police or just spit out to the sidelines by the main crowd. Although the stage was the focal point, in front of which much of the crowd was penned in by barricades, this was a protest without clear margins. Out here, it was difficult to separate the knots of humanity easily into “protesters” and “counterprotesters.”
There were two groups of orthodox Jews, both of which were supporters of Linda, but they weren’t together. Each seemed confused by the presence of the other and jealously guarded their own space. A group of roaming Trump supporters in flag capes and MAGA hats approached one of the groups and started to pepper them with questions. The Trump supporters didn’t understand how these Orthodox Jews could support a Muslim, but their curiosity turned into aggression as the Jewish group refused to engage. Shouting ensued.
A plainclothesman watched from nearby. Two gangly Antifa—a guy and a girl—approached the scene and took up a position between the two groups. They held hands, like the climax of some goofy rom-com, and just waited while the scene derailed around them. This was too much for the plainclothesman, who had been hitherto content just to watch. He approached and dispersed the two star-cross’d activists, then the Trump supporters. The Jews for Linda, unmoved by the disruption, kept rocking their chant.
I found myself amid a group of vaguely militant youths wearing mostly black, one of whom had “Ordo Templi Orientis” on the back of his jacket, along with a coat of arms. The Latin translates as “Order of the Temple of the East,” a society associated somehow with occultist Aleister Crowley. (Crowley was the go-to guy for disaffected young men back before Ayn Rand made it cool to pretend to read long books.) They had congregated in front of me as a sharply dressed man with curious facial hair walked by. He was dressed differently than the youths in black, who nevertheless acted obsequiously toward him. He looked like a cross between a white Jidenna and The Least Interesting Man in the World, like the kind of guy who would wear a Romphim™ unironically. I half expected to smell Old Spice in his wake, but instead he trailed a cloud of cinnamon and shit.
I later learned the dapper man was Gavin McInnes, the Canadian writer, former editor at Vice and virulent supporter of Trump’s Muslim ban. The black-clad youths were the Proud Boys, a far-right, pro-Western fraternal order of nonmasturbators McInnes cofounded in 2016 to help him navigate a world that at the time he must have believed was going to be run by Hillary Clinton (which gives us a frightening glimpse into that particular alternate future). The Proud Boys were the flying monkeys to McInnes’ Wicked Witch of the Great White North.
As they walked through the crowd, sharing cigarettes and side-eyeing the pro-Palestinian Jews, the Proud Boys seemed to be on a mission. If you asked them what that mission was, they would not have been able to tell you, but there they were, more buddy-system than phalanx. When one was passed a shared cigarette, he would pull it hard, like it was his job; they all looked tough yet fragile, like 21st-century Bowery Boys.
When I left it was still raining. McInnes and his Proud Boys had scurried off back to the Witch’s castle. Pam, Dov and Milo were gone, whisked away to the safety of the nearby Westin Hotel. All that remained were their echoing words, the remnants of their hate and bands of people in MAGA hats. But they were drifting, unmoored. It was as if the crowd felt its own powerlessness in the absence of clownish authoritarians. So I missed the violence that erupted at the very end, because I didn’t expect it. “A small group of demonstrators chanting ‘Make America Great Again’ surrounded and roughed up 19-year-old counter-protester Heather Morris,” the Daily News reported. They attacked the young women with their fists, with sticks, with whatever was around. Whatever incitement there was from the stage (and there was much), the violence happened when the immediate rhetorical pressure of those speakers and those personalities was removed, like one of those Hollywood landmines that explodes as soon as the victim steps off it. Here was that connection between rhetoric and violence for all to see. It was delayed, but the line was clear.
I had left because I thought it was over. I didn’t recognize the impending danger that the charged rhetoric created, despite seeing the signs all around me. And this rhetoric exists not just at a hate rally on a rainy Thursday on 42nd Street. For Muslims today (as well as for others) it’s a constant, pervasive atmosphere. And it has consequences. The following day, far across the country, on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon, on the eve of Ramadan, two men were killed.
The murderer, steeped in rhetoric similar to what was on display in Manhattan on Thursday, hurled anti-immigrant insults at two women, one of whom wore the hijab, and bystanders stepped in. The assailant stabbed two of them to death and wounded another. The white terrorist was ultimately caught and the stabbing victims held up as heroes. For a little while, the two women were nowhere to be found, having fled—unsure perhaps of who was trying to kill them and who was trying to help.
Such confusion is part of the strategy of the right, which continues to be emboldened by a Trump administration that thrives on such chaos and disorder. It’s how they gain in number and make inroads into spaces such as Midtown Manhattan. On Saturday, June 10, right-wing groups have planned a “March Against Sharia” in 23 cities across the country, including New York, at Foley Square. (Sharia law does not a pose a threat to the United States, but it’s often used as a boogeyman by Islamophobes.) McInnes will be one of the featured speakers. The Proud Boys will provide security.
This is about more than Linda. This is about our neighbors.