Anti-Muslim provocateur Pamela Geller staged a rally on Thursday afternoon outside the Midtown Manhattan offices of the City University of New York (CUNY) to protest Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour’s scheduled appearance as commencement speaker for CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy next week.
Standing under a tent in front of a banner emblazoned with #CancelSarsour hashtags and the vaguely official-looking seal of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, Geller emceed before a group of about 300 supporters who stood for more than two hours in the rain, waiting through a number of speakers in anticipation of the arrival of the pro-Trump crowd’s featured celebrity, Milo Yiannopoulos.
Holding placards featuring Sarsour’s face and the words “BDS Leader. Pro-Terror. Pro-Sharia. Anti-Semite” and “Sharia = Death,” the #CancelSarsour demonstrators held their rally in a closed-off lane on 42nd Street, with roughly 20 counter-protesters cordoned off on the sidewalk about 6 feet away, many holding signs featuring the communist Workers World Party logo and phrases like “Milo is Sexist Garbage” and “No Fascist USA.”
Sarsour gained national attention as one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration and earned previous notoriety when she was honored at the White House in 2012 for what then-President Barack Obama called her “community development, youth empowerment, community organizing, civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy.”
Sarsour portrays herself as herself an outspoken Brooklynite, feminist, and pro-Palestinian Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) activist, and her pugnacity on Twitter has led some to assume the worst about her—such as when she mused about wishing to take female genital mutilation survivor and strident critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vagina away from her because in Sarsour’s view, she doesn’t deserve to be a woman.
These tweets, plus one where Sansour called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a waste of a human being,” were most often cited by speakers and attendees of the #CancelSansour rally.
“We want to ban Linda Sarsour from speaking at CUNY. She’s a jihadist, she’s anti-Semitic, she’s anti-American, and she’s a recruiter for terrorists,” Hedy Aldina of Brooklyn told The Daily Beast.
“Linda is a vile-hate monger who promotes sharia law, which is not only un-American, it’s seditious and treasonous,” a man who called himself Michael added.
Considering the rally was headlined by Geller and Yiannopoulos—both of whom call themselves free-speech fundamentalists who rail against political correctness on college campuses—it seemed odd for their ardent supporters to be calling for the disinvitation of a controversial speaker from a college campus.
Aldina didn’t see it that way, saying Yiannopoulos—who has been disinvited from speaking at a number of college campuses—speaks the truth, while Michael said Sarsour’s speech didn't deserve to be protected because she was speaking against “the ideas and principles of the United States.”
Deane Gross of New York told The Daily Beast that she came out to oppose a “terrorist sympathizer” speaking at CUNY and said that while she has complicated feelings about Yiannopoulos, she believes that “Milo supports non-fascist methods of protest,” while Sarsour’s anti-Zionism and advocacy for a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” constitute a call for violence against Israelis and Jews.
From the stage, Geller addressed the conundrum by insisting: “This is not about free speech. I’m a free speech activist. Linda Sarsour is free to speak on college campuses and does frequently. The idea of inviting her to keynote the commencement address… those invitations are bestowed upon people to enhance a college’s reputation.” Geller added, “The norming of evil and terror and Jew-hatred… surely CUNY can do better.”
New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind—who got into a bit of hot water a few years ago for wearing blackface to a Purim party and more recently spearheaded efforts to have Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) banned from CUNY campuses—also claimed to be a supporter of free speech when he told the crowd, “No one wants to take away anyone’s freedom of speech. But when CUNY imposes Linda Sarsour on the students, that’s outrageous. Shame on CUNY!”
After a long delay when Geller ran out of speakers, Yiannopoulos finally took the stage and went into one of his trademark rants, reading from a text on his tablet.
“We all agree on a few things, don’t we?” Yiannopoulos asked. “For instance, that Linda Sarsour is a sharia-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating ticking time bomb of progressive horror.”
Emma, a young activist with the group Refuse Fascism, told The Daily Beast she didn’t see any disconnect between her support for Sarsour’s right to free expression and her compatriots’ use of whistles to try to drown out Yiannopoulos’ speech, or with efforts to pressure or intimidate schools into canceling his scheduled speaking engagements.
“I don’t see this as a question of free speech—it’s a question of fascism,” Emma said. “We’re not preventing people from hearing their ideas, we don’t have state power, we don’t own the media. We can’t act like this is just another guy, just another conservative Republican—he’s not, he’s a fascist.”
As Yiannopoulos concluded the rally, he said, “I am a free-speech fundamentalist, I believe in the marketplace of ideas,” adding, “I don’t want Linda Sansour banned, I want her exposed!”
At a contentious event where vicious invective was relentlessly hurled by pro- and anti-voices who both claimed the mantle of righteousness and free speech, it was Yiannopoulos, of all people—a man who wears his ability to offend as a badge of courage—who while spilling his own regressive drivel, unintentionally made the case that his anti-Sarsour comrades were the ones acting like snowflakes.
Instead of shutting Sarsour down, Yiannopoulos suggested, “Make her debate. Support free expression.” A fine sentiment, but it unintentionally completely undermined the stated purpose of the #CancelSansour rally. Not that it mattered.
Yiannopoulos’ fans still adored him, and his detractors couldn’t hear him over the blowing of their own whistles.