A small but emotional rally billed as opposing Islamic Sharia law downtown Saturday sparked a counter-protest nearly twice as large, causing a phalanx of police officers to act as a barrier between the two groups to prevent any fights.
About 30 people gathered at northwest corner of Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, carrying signs that read “No killing Gays” and “Sharia abuses women.”
The group was split into two factions. One group of protesters along Wabash Avenue hoped to bring awareness to specific Sharia practices they claimed oppressed Muslim women and children. They wanted to distance themselves from what they said was a more “radical” faction –protesters gathered near the Heald Square Monument, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric was met with anger and frustration by counter-protesters.
Those who led the counter-protest, which included about 60 people, said the anti-Sharia protesters demonized Islam and created unnecessary fears about the religion. The counter-protesters gathered on the northeast side of the intersection, banging drums and crying out “Racists, racists go home!” and “When Muslims are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
When they realized the anti-Sharia protest was growing in numbers, counter-protesters crossed the intersection and moved onto their corner, so that the two groups were demonstrating face-to-face.
The anti-Sharia protest was one of demonstrations planned in more than 20 cities, including New York, Boston, Dallas and Atlanta, sponsored by the conservative group Act for America, which calls itself the “NRA of national sercurity.”
The marches were held because “many aspects of Sharia law run contrary to basic human rights and are completely incompatible with our laws and our democratic values,” according to a statement posted on the group’s website.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has called Act for America an anti-Muslim hate group and recognized that its protests were attracting anti-government and far-right extremists. Act for America cancelled its rally in Batesville, Ark., after the law center revealed that neo-Nazi Billy Roper was the main organizer. Many of the anti-Sharia protesters in Chicago said they were not members of Act for America but supported the group’s mission for the rally.
Chicago’s protests were peaceful, although at times they grew heated. A verbal dispute between protesters on opposing sides nearly turned physical when a protester lunged toward a counter-protester before being stopped by police. Verbal attacks and other confrontations caused police to form a barrier between the groups, and they eventually put metal fencing between them.
Several times, downtown pedestrians who noticed the anti-Sharia signs and outfits — some wore “Make America Great Again” caps and bandanas over their noses and mouths — stopped to confront the protesters, calling them racists and bigots.
“Get out of my city, man, this isn’t a place for you!” one pedestrian shouted at the protesters. “This is a place of diversity. This is the home of Harold Washington.”
Counter-protesters were upset by a large green flag with four letter K’s waved by an anti-Sharia demonstrator, believing the flag was a nod to the Ku Klux Klan. The flag was the flag of Kekistan, a fictional right-wing country born from Internet gaming culture.
The flag’s design mimics a German Nazi war flag, which serves to make fun of liberals and their “political correctness,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. While protesters claimed the flag was not a symbol of white supremacy, and was just meant to “troll people,” the law center links Kekistan with white nationalism.
One protester made a point of separating herself from the faction of protesters who carried the flag. The woman, who declined to give her full name, said she wanted to speak out against practices like female genital mutilation and child marriages, but said she supports Islam as a whole.
“Sharia law doesn’t belong here in America. It doesn’t align with our constitution,” said the 61-year-old from Woodstock. “You have a lot of Muslims who want to reform Islam but they’re being silenced.”
Meredith Payne, a 44-year-old who lives in West Rogers Park, said she lives among a large Muslim community that’s respected and loved by others there. That compelled her to join the counter-protest and speak out against what she said was Islamophobia. She said she was pleased that more people supported the counter-protest than the protest.
“It’s definitely a positive thing, and something we need to continue to do anytime we see hate anywhere,” she said.