Atightly bunched crowd standing on the sidewalk along a short stretch of East 42nd Street in New York City is alternately cheering, laughing and booing in unison at a rally. It’s midday on a Thursday. Those that have jobs are likely taking the day off, as few appear to leave as time stretches into mid-afternoon. No one is dry and most are soaked, because it has been raining on and off for hours. Holding an umbrella makes it that much tougher to take selfies or cellphone videos, but everyone seems to be doing them. The group is overwhelmingly white and mostly male. And they have assembled for one reason: to publicly attack Islam.
Some people stand still listening intently while others are slowly circulating back and forth along the sidewalk inside the protest zone. The crowd includes Orthodox Jews, suburban country club dads, red hat-wearing tea party types and young, white-nationalist “Kek” cultists. A few hold protest signs saying “America First,” “Sharia Law for Dummies: Anti-Woman, Anti-Gay/American,” and “#IslamIsUnamerican.” One woman proudly displays a sign reading “Accepting Sharia Law is not Tolerance, it is Ingorance [sic].”
Some of them engage the small, vocal clutch of counter-protesters stationed 10 feet across the sidewalk. They single out counter-protestors they think are Jewish and yell “Shame!” Others flip the bird at the counter-protestors or yell at them “You’re going for a helicopter ride!”, an alt-right reference to an execution method favored by the fascist regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Ostensibly, this protest in late May was aimed at getting the City University of New York (CUNY) to rescind its commencement address invitation to Linda Sarsour, a Muslim woman who is a Palestinian rights activist and who co-chaired the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. But the real purpose was to attack Islam in general (#CancelSarsour didn’t #cancel anything; Sarsour received a standing ovation from the CUNY students after her speech went ahead as planned a week later).
Beyond the litany of anti-Muslim hate tropes, the event was a microcosm of our nation’s professional anti-Muslim network. It revealed how old faces and fears are being further legitimized and amplified by a new, more toxic political climate. This is partly a result of honest concerns about the recent spread of al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremist violence abroad and high-profile terror attacks, like San Bernardino and Orlando, here at home. But a rising nativist tide coupled with a resurgent white nationalism has exploited these concerns, creating dangerous levels of distrust and antipathy toward immigrants in general, and Muslims specifically.