Hundreds turned out for a planned anti-Islam rally outside a mosque in Phoenix Friday that attracted those who oppose the religion as well as people who support the rights and freedoms of Muslims. While heated debate was present, the gathering -- organized by Jon Ritzheimer, a man whose open disdain for Islam inspired him to organize the demonstration and encourage participants to come armed -- was peaceful.
A large contingent of law enforcement officers who separated the sides with police tape was present and actively monitoring the crowd.
The rally was initially expected to end at 7 p.m. but people on both sides of the issue remained at the location until about 9:45 p.m.
Passions remained hot even after the sun had set and the air had cooled.
Yelled slogans and insults punctuated the night air as the figures of law enforcement officers in riot gear -- silhouetted by flashes of red and blue police lights -- marked the line between the sides.
Someone had brought a bullhorn on the anti-Islam side. Someone with strong opinions about who was going to Hell and why. Someone who proclaimed that Islam is a religion of lies to a chorus of counterprotesters shouting "coward" and "freedom."
Ritzheimer has attracted both local and national attention for his rhetoric. Earlier Friday, he posted the following on his Facebook page, apparently after receiving threats because of the rally and "draw Muhammad" contest he organized:
"This is the America that you who are against me want. You condone threats made to me and my family over a stupid cartoon. I have made no threats. I am simply bringing to light that our freedom of speech is under attack and this proves my case. I don't think anyone should have to go into hiding for doing anything peaceful. This is not an Anti Islam Rally. This is a Pro Freedom of Speech Rally so don't let the media twist it. I admit that what I am doing is stupid but so is stomping on the American flag and I support their rights and freedom to do so. That's what's supposed to make our country great. I will be at the Rally for a short time only because my address has been posted and my family has been threatened. That should sadden any true American. I hope our law makers can earn their paychecks and come up with better legislation that reinforces our first amendment. Again, I am hoping peace can be maintained between all the parties planning to attend tomorrow. President Obama said "The future must not belong to those who insult Islam." I am asking him to change his statement to The future must belong to those who have the FREEDOM to insult Islam if they want." For those of you who are in support of this Rally, I thank you and I hope none of you have to endure what I am going through over this stupid rally."
The rally was handed another setback earlier in the day after the bar where a planned after-party and the judging of the controversial "draw Muhammad" contest was to take place closed its doors for the night.
The sign on Wild Bill's Saloon in Phoenix reads: "Out of respect for our community, our customers, and our employees - Wild Bill's Saloon will be closed this evening. Thank you for your patronage. We will see everybody back here tomorrow."
The Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged worshipers not to attend services at the north Phoenix mosque where the rally took place.
That advice came during a news conference held by CAIR leaders Friday.
"Because of the fact that people are expressing violent rhetoric and saying, 'Bring your weapons,' this is not a good forum for people to show up," said Imraan Siddiqui, president of CAIR Arizona.
The mosque did not make any changes to its service schedule and was encouraging worshipers not to engage any protesters who show up.
The FBI and Phoenix police said they were prepared to keep the peace.
Authorities attached security cameras to the outside of the mosque and on nearby utility poles to monitor the event.
The original plan had called for bikers to gather at a north Phoenix Denny's at Interstate 17 and Dunlap Avenue. When managers of that restaurant found out about the bikers' plan, they decided to close the restaurant for three hours to guarantee the safety of their customers and employees.
The biker group changed its plan and announced on its website a new plan: to instead meet at Washington Park at 23rd Avenue and Ocotillo Road at 5 p.m. Friday. From there, the bikers planned to head to the mosque for their rally.
Ritzheimer wanted protesters to ride in on motorcycles, bring their firearms and make a statement as Muslims head to Friday prayer.
He also planed a "draw Muhammad" cartoon contest. A similar contest recently held in Garland, Texas, was targeted by two armed men wearing body armor. The pair, who were firing assault rifles, were killed by a police officer before they could enter the event.
In January, the Paris office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had published depictions of Muhammad, was attacked by gunmen who killed 12 people.
Ritzheimer, who served in the Marines, has marched the sidewalks outside of the Islamic center near 27th and Orangewood Avenues wearing a T-shirt with a curse word followed by the word "Islam".
His decision is dividing some in the community.
The mosque planned to hold prayers and religious leaders asked the faithful not to engage any protesters.
A counter rally that took place at the same time by another group is being called a "love rally" to show the world that Arizonans respect the right of people to practice their religion in peace.
Phoenix police and the FBI set up cameras and plan a large presence.
Officers say they're were not worried about crowds. Their biggest concern was what outside presence may want to come in and cause trouble in what neighbors were concerned will be an already volatile situation.