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GOP moves event after fear of protests

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/3/2019 10:09:33 PM
Modified: 10/3/2019 10:09:23 PM

GRANTHAM — The Sullivan County Republican Committee on Thursday moved a fundraiser featuring a speaker with controversial views on Islam to Claremont after Grantham police and the owners of the initial venue worried that possible protests could create a public safety concern.

The Eastman Community Association on Wednesday evening sent an email to members telling them that it had canceled the Friday night GOP fundraiser with Robert Spencer, an author and director of the Jihad Watch blog that had been planned for an event space next to its restaurant at the Center at Eastman.

“We respect Mr. Spencer’s right to share his views and the rights of those who were planning to come to protest his remarks,” the Eastman email said. “However, in the interest of public safety we have no choice but to cancel Friday’s event.”

Board members had spoken earlier in the day with Grantham Police Chief John Parsons, and both Eastman officials and Parsons said they were concerned that there was not enough time to make public safety plans for the GOP event, a likely sold-out performance at the restaurant by singer Jason Cann, and possible protests. Although Eastman is a private community, its center is open to public events and members of the public would be allowed to protest outside.

Parsons said that the center is at the end of a road that has “limited access,” and that he only learned of the event on Wednesday morning, making preparing and staffing for any type of emergency response, including a fire, impractical.

“It was a lot to try to bring together in a very, very short period of time,” Parsons said.

And Bill Matson, the president of the Eastman board of directors, also said the cancelation by the board was not over Spencer’s message.

“We don’t know who might show up. That’s part of the problem,” Matson said. “What we did know for sure is with 48 hours before the event was to take place, we didn’t have time to do the contingency planning to ensure that anybody who shows up could exercise their First Amendment rights safely,” Matson said.

But Sullivan County GOP Chairman Keith Hanson, a conservative radio talk-show host who himself lives in Grantham, said Eastman officials had capitulated “to the whims of an offended, vocal minority” who don’t like Spencer’s message.

“We are proud to be the political party that embraces the concept of ‘freedom of speech,’ and all of the God-given rights entitled to us all as recognized by the Constitution of the United States,” Hanson said in a statement, calling the invitation to Spencer an “opportunity for many to hear a fact-based opinion they may not understand, share, or accept.”

In a phone interview, he said Spencer was a “subject matter expert” who has worked with federal agencies, including the FBI and the military.

“The bottom line is fundamentalist Islam, sharia law, advocates for subjecting women and treating them at best as second-class citizens, and at worst equivalent to commodities and chattel, condones state-sponsored torture and execution of members of the LGBT community, and advocates and condones pedophilia and child marriage, wherein 8- and 9-year-old girls are forcibly married to 50-year-old men, routinely,” Hanson said.

Spencer earlier in the day had objected to a Valley News political column which had noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels him as “one of the most prolific anti-Muslim figures in the United States” and said in an email, “All my work is dedicated to defending the freedom of speech and the equality of rights of all people before the law. Do you really think that constitutes ‘vilifying and maligning Muslims’?”

But Asma Elhuni, the lead organizer of the United Valley Interfaith Project, pointed out that the right-wing Norwegian extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2011 bomb attack and shooting spree, appeared to be influenced by Spencer. Breivik quoted Spencer 64 times in his manifesto, according to the New York Times.

“I don’t know any Muslim who doesn’t know Robert Spencer,” said Elhuni.

“This man is extremely dangerous,” she added later.

She said Spencer’s work is particularly troubling because he paints Muslims with one brush, labeling the entire religion and not just extremists as dangerous. His characterization of sharia, or Islamic law, is particularly ignorant and uses a single hard-line interpretation to scare people, Elhuni said.

“There’s no one sharia for the Muslim world,” she said. “My sharia teaches me that I should make sure my neighbors don’t go hungry. My sharia teaches me to take care of the poor and orphaned.”

The Sullivan County Republican fundraiser Friday evening has been moved to the Elks Lodge on Summer Street.

Hanson said he was in touch with Claremont police about security.

News staff writer Tim Camerato contributed to this report. John Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.

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