Monday, February 19, 2018
Education

Anti-Muslim group, protesters face off outside Hillsborough school district offices

TAMPA — A day of trying to keep a Muslim advocacy group out of Hillsborough County's public schools didn't go as planned.

After a prayer vigil Tuesday morning, opponents of radical Islam and about 30 supporters gathered for a news conference outside the school district's downtown headquarters.

They were met by an equally sized and equally vocal group of demonstrators who objected to their message.

Carrying signs that said "Free Speech," "No Hate Today" and "I love angry white people," they shouted down the panel of speakers who had been invited by School Board candidate Terry Kemple, a conservative Christian leader in eastern Hillsborough.

"We are here because we don't stand for religious intolerance," said Charles Allen, 26, a University of South Florida graduate student who learned about the counter-protest on Facebook.

Estefania Galvis, a 21-year-old student from Colombia, said she is offended when immigrants are stereotyped.

And she objects to Kemple's vilification of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a campaign that began after CAIR executive director Hassan Shibly visited Steinbrenner High School in Lutz last year.

Opponents of CAIR say the organization has terrorist ties. Local CAIR leaders say their mission is to promote tolerance and respect.

"CAIR has a great message," Galvis said. "They are a great organization and we need to stop labeling each other."

Michael Long, 26, who carried a sign that said, "This New York Jew stands against hate," said he was bothered by the ongoing controversy, all the more so on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"For me, it's very personal," he said. "In New York, we are a lot more tolerant."

In the crowd were supporters of Kemple's cause, including Mary Lewis and Ann Heathman, who drove to Tampa from the Villages retirement community near Ocala.

Lewis said she was concerned about stories she had read about honor killings. Heathman, a retired teacher, opposes religious proselytizing in the public schools.

"Don't indoctrinate our kids," she said. "Don't bring it in the schools."

The Hillsborough district allows teachers and principals discretion over classroom speakers.

For a while, members of the opposing groups stood nose-to-nose, shouting each other down.

They included Richard Swier, a retired 23-year Army veteran involved in United West, an organization that seeks to defend Western civilization against what it calls the cultural onslaught of Islam.

Swier tried to convince the chanting protesters his group was not hateful. "We want to stop hate as well," he said. "Hate is coming from those who want to kill us."

Kelly Benjamin, 35, got into arguments with several anti-CAIR speakers, including radio host Roger Homefield.

"I am not hateful," Homefield bellowed, pointing a finger at Benjamin's chest. "My girlfriend is black. Am I a racist? … Who are you calling hateful?"

Benjamin countered: "You seem a little hateful right now, sir."

After about 20 minutes, with school security personnel watching from the entrance, Kemple's group began planned speeches.

But they were barely audible over the jostling and arguing that continued around them.

School Board member Stacy White, the only member of the board who has supported Kemple's efforts, spoke briefly about the need to vet classroom guests.

"Carefully crafted, conscientious policy can protect our children from radicalism, propaganda and indoctrination," he said.

Those following him included Charles Jacobs, who has run several organizations including the Committee for Accuracy in Middle Eastern Reporting in America and Americans for Peace and Tolerance; and Jim Lafferty, chairman of a Virginia organization that seeks to combat sharia law.

Jacobs, who has taken a hard line on Boston-area mosques he contends are linked to global terror plots, insisted, "We're not bigots, racists and Islamophobes. We just care about who comes into the classroom."

Lafferty said, "I would rather have my children spend a weekend with a motorcycle gang than five minutes with CAIR."

Shibly was not at the news conference. Hearing about Lafferty's remarks, he said he would welcome anyone who prefers the biker gang to get to know him.

He also said the event confirms his view that "Kemple does not speak for the majority of people in Hillsborough" and that "many in the community will not tolerate such hateful rhetoric. … Shame on him for creating such a display of such hatred and division."

Kemple, who spoke last, directed his comments to those gathered to oppose him.

"It's always amazing to me that the people who talk about tolerance and freedom of speech are the most intolerant in keeping others from having their freedom of speech," he said.

The speakers had planned to repeat their remarks during the afternoon School Board meeting. But because they had also planned an evening gathering at a Seffner church and the School Board had a packed agenda, they canceled those plans.

Times staff writer Marissa Lang contributed to this report.

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