Police separated two groups of demonstrators who gathered in front of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix Friday evening. On one side stood people, some armed, who had arrived for a planned rally against Islam that also includes a contest to draw caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. On the other side were members of a “Love Rally” aimed at promoting tolerance and solidarity with the Muslim community.
Phoenix law enforcement officials geared up in advance to provide security for the anti-Islam rally, dubbed a “Freedom of Speech Rally” by its organizer, Jon Ritzheimer, a Marine veteran who encouraged participants to bring guns to the event. The rally was scheduled to coincide with evening prayer service at the community center.
In the early evening, both protest camps remained largely peaceful. However, officers formed a line and set up barricades and police tape to separate the rivaling protest camps as chants and sporadic shouting matches grew louder.
At one point, the anti-Islam demonstrators began yelling “You love Hitler!” at the counter-protest group. In another instance, one man reportedly tore up a Quran while shouting into a megaphone.
Ritzheimer, who regularly wears a shirt emblazoned with the words “F--- Islam,” told Phoenix’s 12 News that he would only be there for a short period of time because his family had received threats over the rally.
More than 1,300 people RSVP’d on Ritzheimer’s Facebook event page to say they would attend, but around 7 p.m. MST. Friday, nearly an hour after the rally’s scheduled start time, only around 300 people were there, according to local reports. A similar number of people showed up on the “Love Rally” side, donning posters reading “Just Love” and “F--- ISIS, Not Islam.”
Ritzheimer organized the event in response to a shooting outside a Texas art show earlier this month. Two men identified as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi fired at police outside an arena that was showcasing an exhibit and contest to draw the Prophet Mohammad, offering a $10,000 prize for the best drawing. Both men had previously attended the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. They were shot dead in the confrontation with police in Texas.
Ritzheimer said he thought the idea of a cartoon contest, and the rally at large was "stupid and ridiculous," CNN reported. "But it's what needs to take place in order to expose the true colors of Islam," he said.
Shortly after news of the rally began to spread, another Marine veteran, Leonard Clark, took to Facebook to organize the “Love Rally.”
“Our non-violent Love Rally will show that people should not be persecuted for their religious beliefs in Arizona and the United States of America,” he wrote on the “Love Rally” event description.