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The parking lot outside Dearborn police headquarters was ringed by metal barriers as members of the California-based right-wing organization Unite America First, guarded by camouflage-clad men carrying semiautomatic rifles, protested Sharia law.

Across the lot, a few dozen people, led by the left-wing anti-fascist group Solidarity and Defense, spewed megaphone-amplified obscenities at the Californians and their acolytes.

Despite the rancor, nobody was hurt during the April 21 rally. No arrests were made. The showdown flew under the media's radar.

Such confrontations have become routine in Dearborn, a lighting rod for protests because of the city's sizable Arab and Muslim populations.

"Through the years, we've learned how to deal with these events," police Chief Ronald Haddad said. "Obviously, we're a magnet for social arguments.

"We've had Terry Jones come here seven times," Haddad said of the controversial Florida pastor known for burning the Quran. "We regularly get other groups who come to protest because they think we're about to impose Sharia law. It's ridiculous, but they have a First Amendment right to protest peacefully."

While violence often erupts when right-wing organizations and Antifa (anti-fascist) groups converge in other communities — such as during a June 3 Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, Oregon — similar events in Dearborn have been relatively calm.

A June 8 rally for Al Quds Day, held on the last Friday of Ramadan in support of Palestinian and Muslim rights in Jerusalem, was held in front of the Islamic Center of America mosque on Ford Road. A few dozen people carried signs bearing the messages "Jerusalem: The eternal capital of Palestine" and "Real Americans stand against Israel," while police stood nearby. The rally was uneventful.

Keeping the peace in Dearborn hasn't always been easy. Courts have ruled that during past rallies, city officials violated protesters' constitutional rights by arresting them or otherwise trying to hinder their efforts.

In 2011, Jones was arrested by Dearborn police for failing to pay a 19th District Court-mandated $1 "peace bond" before protesting outside the Islamic Center Of America. The court also ordered Jones to stay away from the mosque for three years. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the bond and ban were violations of Jones' constitutional rights.

The next year, Jones visited Dearborn twice, protesting in front of the mosque in April and outside Edsel Ford High School in October. Prior to the April 2012 rally, Jones and fellow demonstrator Wayne Sapp were ordered by police to sign an indemnification agreement before being allowed to speak. A federal judge later ruled the order unconstitutional. 

Nasser Beydoun, chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League, said each time Jones visited Dearborn, the crowds got smaller.

"In the end, it was basically him standing by himself ranting and raving," Beydoun said. "Everybody eventually learned to not give these people any attention.

"Dearborn has been handling these protests properly," Beydoun said. "The community has worked with the police, and we haven't been baited. These people can protest until they're blue in the face; if they're not causing bodily harm or a threat to the community, they have the right to free speech.

"When you try to shut them down you only give them the attention they're looking for," he said. "So the best thing to do is just ignore them."

Beydoun helped organize the city's annual Arab International Festivals, which for years were held on Warren Avenue and attracted protests. He said the festivals were discontinued in 2013 because of skyrocketing insurance costs brought on by the high-profile confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters.

In 2010, Dearborn police arrested four members of the Christian group Acts 17 Apologetics who came to the festival to debate Muslims. The organization sued the city, and Dearborn was ordered to pay a $300,000 settlement and post an apology on the city's website.

Two years later, members of the Bible Believers group showed up to the Arab festival carrying a pig's head and telling Muslims they would "burn in hell." They were pelted with bottles and rocks, and ordered to leave the festival by Wayne County sheriff's deputies.

The Bible Believers sued the city, claiming their right to assembly was violated when they were evicted from the festival. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled against the group, although the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 overturned the ruling, concluding the evangelicals' rights had been violated. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Haddad said his officers and city officials now try to make it easy for groups to protest — while imploring residents to ignore them. 

"That's one of the lessons we've learned: To engage the community and tell them to stay away when these people come to protest against Muslims or Sharia law," he said. 

Former Detroit police assistant chief Steve Dolunt, who oversaw several protests during his career, said Haddad is "doing a good job."

"You have to make it safe for the protesters and everyone else in the area, and they're doing that in Dearborn," Dolunt said. "An important thing is, respect is earned, not given. Whenever we had a protest, we would try to meet with the organizers beforehand and let them know what was expected. Usually, we had no problems."

Haddad said Dearborn Mayor John O'Reilly years ago established "permit-free zones," which allow people to protest without pulling permits. O'Reilly declined to comment.

The designated areas are outside the police station, Old City Hall, Veterans Park and the Performing Arts Center, Haddad said.

"We have tactical plans on how to secure these sites," Haddad said. "We have control of the buildings inside and out, and in case someone comes under attack, we can get them into the buildings quickly.

"When Terry Jones was on the steps of Old City Hall several years ago, I told him 'if something happens we'll get you in the building and then put you in a waiting car and off you go.'

"But he wouldn't listen," the chief said. "He walked across the street and some people chased him. We ended up arresting the people who chased him. Terry Jones would never cooperate with us, and that caused problems."

Haddad said the members of Unite America First were cooperative when they protested in front of police headquarters in April. "Unfortunately, the Antifa group was not very cooperative," he said. "They wouldn't stay in their designated area and kept saying 'F the police.'"

Dick Manasseri of Rochester Hills, who was at the April rally to support Unite America First, said Dearborn police likely prevented a riot.

"The Antifa group was pretty riled up," Manasseri said. "If it hadn't been for the police, there would've been serious challenges. The only reason there was no physical violence was a very alert police department who stood between the Antifa and the people making speeches."

Robert Day, a member of the Solidarity and Defense Antifa group, laughed when he was told Haddad said his group was uncooperative.

"That's baloney," he said. "We were chanting, that's all. The police were there to assist the anti-Muslim bigots, and provide them safe speech. They defended them and the militia out there with guns. The police just stood there and let them spew their hatred."

When asked whether members of the opposing group should be allowed to publicly discuss their views, whether or not he agreed with them, Day said: "It's not about free speech; it's about defending our communities. Their speeches were about attacking Muslims. It was ugly stuff. Those verbal attacks precede physical attacks."

No one who spoke at the Unite America First rally advocated violence, according to video of the event, although the speakers criticized Islam and Sharia law.

Haddad said gun-wielding militia members showed up and also failed to cooperate with police by getting too close to the Antifa protesters.

"These people had long rifles," Haddad said of the militia group. "If something would've broken out, what would they have done? It could have been bad."

It was unclear which militia groups attended the rally, although Haddad said they came from several states. A message sent by The Detroit News to Unite America First was not returned.

Haddad said the April protest was particularly disconcerting, coming a year after two men walked into the police station carrying semiautomatic rifles. The men were convicted of carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to prison time.

"Imagine how our officers felt (at the April rally) having those guns at their backs," Haddad said. "It's scary, and it makes things really tense for everyone to have these guys walking around open-carrying rifles like that."

Still, the chief said his officers did a good job keeping the confrontation to a minimum. 

"There's a way to de-escalate these events," he said. "We had equal places barricaded off so that if another group showed up, we were prepared...

"... in the end, even though there was a lot of noise, there were no arrests and no injuries," Haddad said. "We had this thing covered like a blanket."

ghunter@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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