Two weeks ago, Community Board 1 held a full board meeting with an agenda item so contentious and controversial that the chairperson of the board had to call in an unprecedented police presence. The hearing was held to vet the issue of the Cordoba Initiative’s plans to build a community and prayer center two blocks from the World Trade Center site.
There were skirmishes in the audience as opponents and proponents of the Cordoba Initiative, which most likely will move into the old Burlington Coat Factory building in the near future, exchanged hateful words and rhetoric. As people approached the microphone during the public-input session, they were booed, screamed at and berated on both sides. However, there is no doubt that one group was louder than the other.
Through all of this C.B. 1 Chairperson Julie Menin and board member Ro Scheffe managed to keep a semblance of order. There was a lot of gavel banging and a lot of “You’re out of order.” But at the end of the night everyone was allowed to speak.
We commend the Cordoba Initiative for presenting its plans to the community board, and the board for taking up this issue. The project is “as of right” and as such did not require any public review or appearance before the community board. But at the heart of the issue was a community center, job creation and services that directly concern the Lower Manhattan community. Some board members actually did not think that the issue should even have been aired by the board. And we respect their views. But we would like to focus on the notion of community, and had C.B. 1 chosen not to debate the issue, it would have done its community a great disservice.
What was so appalling however was the pure hatred expressed toward the Cordoba Initiative, a group that has long proven itself to be the opposite of those who committed the atrocity of 9/11. In fact, Cordoba’s sole mission is to make sure such an atrocity will never happen again and to deplete the hatred and misdirected anger that was on full display during the meeting and to replace it with education and understanding of other cultures.
In response to C.B. 1’s 29-to-1 vote in support of the Cordoba Initiative’s plans, a protest was held last Sunday by a group called Stop Islamization of America. Originally, it was supposed to be held at Zuccotti Park; however, that park happens to be privately owned, and the owners, Brookfield Properties, informed the group they would not be allowed to protest there. So then the group apparently applied for a permit to protest on the streets across from the park. Ultimately, the police did allow them protest on the sidewalk across the street from the park — though the Tea Party-heavy crowd flowed into the street. According to Stop Islamization of America’s Web site, before the protest, despite the confusion on the permit issue, they were expecting upward of 5,000 people, with some carpooling from all over the country to show up and express their views on an issue they hold dear.
Some of the protesters claim as many as 5,000 demonstrators, in fact, did turn out; but others, including our own reporters and residents with bird’s-eye views of the site, pegged it at 300 people tops. The mosque protesters vow they’ll be back on 9/11 in greater numbers.
The First Amendment is pretty straightforward, but since it was written 221 years ago it has been a subject of great debate. The American Civil Liberties Union, though long branded as a vehicle for advancing liberal causes, to the contrary, defends the rights of everyone to express his or her views, even views deemed heinous.
The important point is that the freedom of expression is for everyone. The anti-mosque protesters certainly have a right to protest — but they also must respect the right of the 9/11 victims’ families to grieve and remember.