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'Return of Kings' protest will go forward in Tampa despite meetup cancellation

Published Feb. 5, 2016

TAMPA — The worldwide "tribal gathering" of a controversial antifeminist group has been cancelled, but a protest of the group and its values will go on.

Tampa tattoo artist Jon Larson was horrified this week when he heard Tampa's Curtis Hixon Park was listed as one of the 165 international locations for the "International Return of Kings Meetup Day" to be held at 8 p.m. Saturday. The event was organized by Daryush "Roosh V" Valizadeh, a blogger whose views critics have called misogynistic or even prorape.

Critics around the world were decrying the event — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the group and its "vile rhetoric had no place in the world, let alone Tampa" — and were planning protests when Valizadeh announced that he was canceling the meetup. According to his website, he called it off because he could "no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend."

By then, Larson had already created a Facebook page urging protestors to gather at Curtis Hixon Park for a peaceful demonstration against Valizadeh's ideals.

"That is a community park, and the hardworking men and women of our city paid for it with their tax dollars," Larson, 31, told the Timesbefore the cancellation. "I think it feels like a slap in the face and we're not going to take that slap and hide in fear."

Within hours, Larson had updated the Facebook page: "Let's follow through and celebrate US! Our voices were loud enough to change some things. Be proud of yourself and one another."

"If we weren't to follow through, it would almost depreciate the position we took against it and for women's rights and gay and transgender rights," Larson said Thursday. "Even though they're not going to show up we need to show there are many, many more of us than there are of them.

The gathering is slated for 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the park, 600 N Ashley Drive. At least two other similar events popped up on Facebook.

On Valizadeh's websites, including returnofkings.com, he derides feminism and espouses "neomasculinity," claiming that society went astray by diverging from the patriarchal system that "catered to the innate abilities of the sexes."

Return of Kings, he writes, "aims to usher the return of the masculine man in a world where masculinity is being increasingly punished and shamed in favor of creating an androgynous and politically-correct society that allows women to assert superiority and control over men."

According to his online bio, Valizadeh is a 36-year-old Maryland native with a degree in microbiology from the University of Maryland. In a YouTube video, he says his father is a Shiite Muslim from Iran and that his beliefs are a "light version of Islam" and stem from being raised by "a conservative, honorable, respectful Muslim man."

On his sites, Valizadeh sells his books with titles such as Bang: The Pick Up Bible and Bang Iceland: How to Sleep With Icelandic Women in Iceland, which one Icelandic feminist group described as a "rape guide," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC put his blog on a list of 12 "misogyny" sites "dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, very typically American women, in general."

Valizadeh initially vowed to fight the backlash, saying he was working to make private as many of the meetups as possible.

"Even if I were to cancel now, the mob would be empowered and attack even harder," he tweeted Wednesday. "We're on Columbus' ship and we must make landfall."

Hours later, he canceled.

Some of his readers criticized the decision and many accused the media of spreading misinformation. At least one recommended Valizadeh "have a process in place to screen men and only after they are vetted do they learn of meetups, strategy etc." Another called the move "smart."

"By rescheduling he gets a whole new cycle to troll the establishment and show them for the intolerant, anti free-speech, violent group that they are," the commentor, Vrtrahan, wrote.

Whatever his motivations, Valizadeh was clearly relishing the attention, mocking his critics and noting that his name was trending as a more popular Google search term than "Jeb Bush."

Whitney Phillips, an associate professor of literary studies and writing at Mercer University, said that's what is so uncomfortable about drawing attention to groups that espouse unsavory beliefs.

"These topics are important. Calling attention to these folks is important," Phillips said. "But at the same time, where do you draw the line?"

With the help of social media, groups can attract followers and spread their messages much more easily. Even if the groups themselves have never acted violently, promoting potentially violent actions could inspire someone to act.

"It can attract people who really do believe it," Phillips said.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, monitors extremists groups in the United States.

Meetups or not, she said, the rhetoric remains influential.

"You have free speech to say these things," Beirich said. "But there are serious consequences for real people."

Larson, the Tampa protest organizer, says the reaction, not Valizadeh's intentions, is what matters.

"The best thing to come out of this was to see the amount of opposition to it," he said.

Times staffer Katie Mettler contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.