Getting Uncomfortable: Understanding Islam Event Turns Into Understanding Ourselves

What happened when MAGA supporters invaded a local Understanding Islam event

by Reagan Jackson

The third event of the Delridge Neighborhood and Development Association’s (DNDA) Let’s Talk Race series took place Saturday, April 28 at the High Point Community Center in West Seattle. Though the focus was supposed to be on understanding Islam, participants got an experiential pop quiz on tolerance and what it really means to be confronted with people who have different beliefs.  

There were over 60 people, majority white, in attendance. There were a mix of ages and ethnicities, religious identities visible and invisible and newcomer and returners who had attended the first two events in the series, Race and Migration and The Creation of Whiteness. Three newcomers stood out from the rest.

As I entered, people sat gathered at folding tables engaged in an icebreaker using pipe cleaners and playdoh to discuss their names. Though people were engaged in the activity you could feel the tension in the room. Only 30 minutes into the event and the police had already come and gone leaving Anthony Parish, a local anti-Muslim protestor seated quietly in the midst of the other attendees.

Even without anyone telling me who he was, it was easy to pick Parish out from the crowd. Half his face was obscured with a bushy beard and he wore a blue baseball hat with a bible verse on it. He looked young, late 20s or early 30s, but with the eyes of someone older, someone who had seen too much. If I were to typecast him in a movie it would be in the role of angry veteran or a serial killer.

Parish arrived at the event wearing a shirt that read Proud to be an Infidel, Islam is a lie and quoting bible verses and excerpts from a text called Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Law. After police intervention, Parish agreed to turn his shirt inside out and to abide by the community agreements, which called for respectful conduct. Event organizers were instructed to call again if he continued to be disruptive, but given that it was a public event on public property, options were limited.

Parish was not the only disturbance. A married couple, Lorenzo and Cybill Ortega entered the room costumed as immigration agents in matching blue jackets. Lorenzo’s jacket bore a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) patch on the sleeve and a hat that said ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). At first, I mistook them for white people, but as I got closer I realized these were real life conservatives of color, a Latino man, and an Asian woman. Living in Seattle I rarely encounter out conservatives, and those I have met have been white. Their appearance was so theatrical it set me at ease. These people weren’t armed with anything more than a deep desire to irritate some liberals and a video camera.

Lets talk race pic
“Let’s Talk Race” attendees. (Photo: Tanisha Frazier of Moments Captured Photography)

When Lorenzo Ortega began to film it reminded me of a boxing lesson I had once. My instructor taught me that there are three primary responses to fear: fight, freeze or flee.  No threats were issued. No one was shot, no punches thrown, but physical safety isn’t the only metric of harm done. We all know what can happen, what has happened from the vandals who defaced the mosque in Redmond to Dylann Roof shooting up that church in Charleston. So whether the threat was real or not, there was a strong fear response. I witnessed participants freeze up. Some got up and switched seats. Others became confrontational. Event facilitators Jaminah Shannon and Zaria Ali continued on with the curriculum trying to pull the group back together, but even those who participated did so with one eye on the drama unfolding.

“I wasn’t really prepared… like oh this is going to happen. But I feel like this is something that happens on the daily so it’s not a new thing,” said 17-year-old Ali. As a Pakistani American Muslim who wears the hijab, she has grown used to unwanted attention from coworkers and classmates seeking to connect with her about her religion or to provide their opinion of it. “And I think as long as they’re being respectful I know how to deal with them because I can be respectful as well.”

Ali and Shannon chose to deal with it by maintaining focus on their goals to share the basic principals of Islam. The police also took a hands-off approach.

“It’s my understanding that the individual complied with our request to stop disruptive behavior and once he complied we’re out of the game. Right?” said Sargent Hylton, one of the officers who responded to the call. “Once he says okay I will do what you ask we’re done. We write a report and we’re done.”

But what about hate speech, I asked? “That’s different though. There are rules, especially with the Bias rule here in Seattle, you can go on the Seattle Municipal Code and there’s various ones but with the hate speech, it has to be accompanied, that person has to be in fear for the danger of their life,” explained Officer Cavinta.

“I think that going into it you have to know it’s a public event, we’re talking about how to understand Islam and I think one of the best ways that people can understand Islam is by being in the space with Muslims and folks who are learning and who aren’t Muslim and are a variety of different backgrounds faiths,” said Shannon, the adult facilitator of the event. 

“And I think for us, we have to be able to connect with people, you know there’s a spectrum for understanding and growth and we have to be able to connect and build across that spectrum and I feel like we did that by having that energy and the way everyone showed up so differently but also similarly in a lot of ways. That’s the real moral,” said Shannon.

For Ali, this was her first time facilitating a large event. When asked why she chose this specific event Ali answered: “I figured I’m Muslim and I can speak to this and something I’m very passionate about is accurate representation… making sure that my people are being portrayed correctly. And if I’m so passionate about it then who else to go out and do that than me and I just really wanted to provide a narrative and a voice for Muslims in my community when I know there aren’t really that many in the social justice world.”

When asked why he chose to attend, Parish answered: “Just to educate the audience based on some things that I knew wasn’t going to be touched on. Like for example, the first pillar ya’ll heard about was Shahada, which is to testify that there is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his messenger. However what’s not going to be spoken of is if you’re in a false state and you leave Islam then you deserve to be killed immediately.”

Parish equates Islam with terrorism and has not only gone to great lengths to research the subject, but is a regular protester at these types of events. Having dealt with the police before,  he arrived a day early to the community center to let them know he planned on attending.  “I was almost denied access from being here and I even said hey I’ll call 911 and have the police come and sit in with me if people are scared of my presence,” said Parish.

“So yeah I’m pretty regularly shunned at these events. And nothing happened. It’s just like I’m just trying to come in and sit in and ask uncomfortable questions that are from Islamic sources, but they’re honest questions.”

Cybill Ortega, who identified herself as a conservative Christian, said she came to learn.  “I just want to stay open-minded. We, My husband and I, we’re married and just wanted to learn more about the Muslim religion, you know Islam. We saw it on facebook and thought okay it’s good to go and see what this is about.”

When I asked Lorenzo Ortega why he chose to wear an ICE hat, he laughed. “What came to mind is why are we putting ourselves in certain corners and fighting each other. It’s okay for us to come to each other’s events and learn from each other,” he said. “If my appearance offends you that’s not something that should get me hauled out and taken and questioned by the police.”

Parish chimed in. “But it makes me feel like man this isn’t diverse at all, like Lorenzo was saying liberals preach diversity, but they want to get everyone out that doesn’t believe like they do.”

All three made some reasonable points until Lorenzo Ortega compared himself to a black person at a 1950s lunch counter. As civil rights protestors rolled in their graves, I hit my internal tolerance limit. This privileged theatrical display of free speech meant to pull focus, to incite fear and anger cannot reasonably be compared to people braving systemic oppression and police brutality to assert their humanity. While they were aware of the impact of their presence they seemed to take no responsibility for it.  

“I get spit on. I get attacked,” Ortega said describing his experiences attending other ‘liberal’ events. “Other like minded people get their houses vandalized, gets their tires slashed on a regular basis because we have a different opinion, so we come here to close that gap of scariness oh I’m scared we try to close the gap by learning each other, but nobody wants to learn each other’s side, so that’s another reason we come to these things, to learn each other’s side, to know thy enemy, to at least be able to tolerate seeing each other is very important to what we’re about.”

This is the thing we say we want. Diversity. One of the goals of this series of community conversations is to create community across differences, but often the differences we are most comfortable navigating are only skin deep. What happens when your core values are diametrically opposed? Can we still find community? Do we even want to?

This event left me with more questions than answers. Did Parish and the Ortegas have a right to attend the event? Absolutely. Were they being honest about their intentions to learn from others? I don’t know. I think if I wanted to learn about Republicans or alt-right Christians I probably wouldn’t go to the Republican National Convention wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and an Obama hat or a shirt that says Fuck Jesus, My God is Better. Not if I wanted to talk to people and learn from them.

“What the people who dressed up as ICE did, I feel like this wasn’t the space for that,” said Ali.   “But I do think people coming with their own preconceptions should be welcomed because this is a space for those preconceptions to be torn down or readjusted. And I think people coming in this case either for Islam and advocating for Islam to be spread or people who believe Islam isn’t the truth and shouldn’t be respected or I guess who are just against it or coming just to attend should be welcome because where better to get that knowledge than here.”

That being said were self-proclaimed liberals any more ready to talk to conservatives than they were to talk to us? Were they any more entrenched in their ideas of right and wrong than anyone else? I think Shannon and Ali’s decision to continue on with their workshop plan was admirable given the complications, but I also thought this was a missed opportunity to address what’s happening in our community.

Civil discourse is dead. The time for friendly debates where we could disagree then go have dinner together is over. So where do we go from here? No, Parish and the Ortegas did not come to the event with a violent agenda and yet many of our communities have been so deeply impacted by violence just the way in which they chose to enter the space was traumatizing. When trauma happens, we all turn to our safe space, but what happens when that is radically different for each person?

Many of the white participants seemed relieved when the police showed up. I personally was more uncomfortable with the group of mostly white officers who showed up than I was with Parish or the Ortegas. They came with guns and body cameras blinking from their vests.

After completing my interview, I went to make myself a plate of food, but was intercepted by a white woman who had seen me facilitate the last event. She complimented my work then asked me how I could talk to those people. I shrugged. As a journalist, I’ve had the privilege of talking to lots of different people. And as a fourth generation black feminist who grew up in Madison Wisconsin, I’ve certainly learned how to find common ground with people who are nothing like me.

Then she asked me the real question. How could I feel safe? The truth is that I don’t expect to feel safe anymore. Shortly after the last presidential election I went to my local fruit stand and got called the N word by a Trump supporter. This came after my Spiritual Community was vandalized twice. There has never been any guarantee of safety, but part of privilege is getting to hold onto the illusion that we are safe and free and that these are inalienable rights. As we looked at each other, even though we were at the same event and theoretically on the same side of the political spectrum, the feeling of us and them rose up between me and her.  

“I felt really humbled and honored to be in the space,” said Shannon at the end of the day. “I felt very connected and I felt like energetically everyone did a really good job of modeling how just being open-minded, having an open heart and showing up in the space with integrity and I feel like that really manifested throughout the entire workshop.”

But I was left wondering are we as open-minded as we pretend to be? What does integrity really look like when trying to build community? How far outside of our comfort zones are we really willing to venture? Can we suspend our fear responses long enough to engage genuinely? And what is our end goal? Is there any hope of understanding each other when we can barely be in a room together?

The next opportunity to practice the difficult art of learning to be together will take place on May 12 from 1-6pm at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. The topic is American Housing and Economics.

Featured image by Tanisha Frazier of Moments Captured Photography

4 thoughts on “Getting Uncomfortable: Understanding Islam Event Turns Into Understanding Ourselves”

  1. Kudos to the organizers for continuing in such a deliberately hostile environment. Thank you for writing so eloquently about such a complex issue. This piece raises so many thoughts for me, I’m not sure where to begin. I think your questions are good ones, but I don’t believe for one moment that the couple that came in wearing ICE logos were being honest about their intent. They were deliberately playing on inter-generational and cultural trauma and were there to incite fear. That’s violence. At least Parish was more transparent.

    I think expecting people to suspend their fear responses in that type of circumstance is an unreasonable expectation. That’s not just all getting along and being in the same room together with the intention to learn and build community, that’s baiting people, and it’s totally out of integrity. I hope those people got a taste of how generously they were treated and left with a little more humility than they arrived with. I’m also glad that the white people in the room got a small taste of what that kind of fear feels like. I think it’s good for us to experience that.

    Thank you for painting such a vivid picture for those of us who, for whatever reasons, cannot be there.

  2. “However what’s not going to be spoken of is if you’re in a false state and you leave Islam then you deserve to be killed immediately.”

    This guy really needs to go re-read Deuteronomy chapter 13.

  3. Hello, I was at the event (Sitting to the left of the white guy in the photo above) I wonder did the couple or Parish stay for dinner? I had to leave so I didn’t get to see.

    I think the organizers did a REALLY good job responding to Parish.