Oct 11, 2022 – Niraj Warkoo Detroit Press
Hundreds of protesters packed a Dearborn Public Schools board meeting this week and shut it down with cries of anger over certain LGBTQ books they said are too sexually explicit for children. And now, some community leaders anxiously await a rescheduled meeting set for Thursday night as others call for calm.
A heavy police presence failed to prevent the Monday night meeting from descending into chaos as demonstrators took it over and then various factions within them jostled for control, shouting at each other. Protesters often ignored the requests of police officers to stop interrupting board members.
It was unclear who was in control of the meeting at times. Most of the crowd appeared to be in opposition to the books, but there were also a number of people with the the American Federation of Teachers union who showed up to support inclusion of LGBTQ people and others.
Not until Dearborn Police Chief Issa Shahin arrived later did the protesters stop their agitation. Shahin pleaded with the crowd to relax and not embarrass Dearborn. There was concern expressed by some community leaders that the protesters are making the city and its Arab American Muslim population look bad. But others said that as Muslims, they have to stand up for their faith.
“The eyes of the nation are on us. … So please, calm down, let’s have respect for each other,” Shahin told the crowd at about 9:10 pm. “We can have a spirited debate, but we can’t conduct ourselves this way, guys, we just can’t. We’re better than this. Dearborn is better than this. This community is better than this. We’re brothers and sisters regardless of race, ethnicity, religion.”
Shahin said the board suspended the meeting and would reschedule it for Thursday evening at Fordson High School in order to accommodate a larger crowd.
“Vote them out!” the crowd repeatedly chanted during the raucous meeting inside an administrative center where the board holds its public meetings. The room was packed tightly, with many using an overflow room and others standing in the back and on the sides. Several held up signs with anti-gay rhetoric in English and Arabic, making religious references to assert that LGBTQ educational materials and books should not be available in Dearborn Public Schools, the third largest school district in Michigan. Some of the placards held up read: “Keep your porno books to yourself,” “Homosexuality Big Sin,” and “If democracy matters, we’re the majority.”
Most of the protesters appeared to be Arab American and Muslim. But others in the Arab American community strongly objected to the actions of the protesters Monday night.
“What happened tonight at the school board meeting in Dearborn is very embarrassing and is totally rejected,” Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News and a longtime community leader, wrote on Facebook. “Remember that the loss of any individual’s right to express himself/herself is the beginning of the end of all people’s rights … Remember that Islam is a religion of love, peace and tolerance, not a religion of insults, violence and threats.”
Aya Moughni, a Dearborn resident who is Muslim, also said earlier that Arab Americans should not be attacking the LGBTQ community. She spoke at a previous Dearborn rally in support of the books.
On Sept. 25, another protest with similar themes was held outside Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn and a pro-book rally was held earlier at the library that same day.
So far, Dearborn Schools has removed six books for review, a majority of them with LGBTQ themes, and restricted some of its online access, announcing a plan to give parents more control over what books their children can check out.
Monday’s meeting was largely calm for about an hour, but then spiraled out of control as some became upset with board members who spoke about time limits for public commenters and the need to show civility and respect. At one point, a speaker said Dearborn’s fire marshal had determined it was unsafe to continue, which further upset some in the crowd. Mike Hachem, one of the protesters, and others questioned why that determination was only made just before the public comment session was to begin.
The chair of the board, Roxanne McDonald, tried to keep the peace, saying she didn’t want to hear people make baseless and slanderous remarks.
“Let’s all be civil and respectful,” she said.
Police officers repeatedly told people who yelled out and interjected to keep quiet.But their efforts failed as the crowd’s anger grew. Part of the frustration was the board first addressed other issues not related to the books that most had showed up to discuss. They also didn’t like what some called a condescending attitude toward them and their concerns.
As the crowd started shouting and resisting calls to leave when the gathering exceeded fire safety capacity, board’s members decided to end the meeting and left, filing out of the room. It was unclear if the meeting was temporarily suspended or over, which added to the chaos.
“We’re going to send a message to the board of education,” Hassan Aoun, a protester, declared. “We the people … put you in this position We put you on the chair. We elected you.”
Auon then led the crowd in cries of “Vote them out!”
Hassan Chami and others also tried to lead the crowd and meeting at various times. A religious leader also at times tried to take control, but was yelled at by others.
At one point, board member Hussein Berry came back out and pleaded with the crowd to allow him to speak and allow the meeting to resume.
Earlier, Berry, 59, said he’s open to hearing the concerns of parents, recalling that when he attended Dearborn public schools, parents had the option to have their children opt out of certain activities such as coed swimming and dancing that they said clashed with their faith. He said the opt-out option could be used in the debate over controversial books.
“Back when I was in school at Salina it was coed swimming,” Berry said. If “some parents don’t want their daughters or sons and daughters” swimming together, they could opt out. Then, he said, it was “sex education classes. So that opt out is a way to give parents control without breaking the laws. You know, as a district, we get funds from the federal government, funds from the state, getting funds from many, many sources. So there are laws on the books that determine what we can’t and we can do.”
For weeks, Muslim leaders and community activists had been urging people to attend the meeting to voice their opposition to certain books and educational materials. One of Michigan’s most prominent faith leaders, Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights, urged people during his Friday sermon to attend the protests.
“Some of those books are completely inappropriate for our children to read,” Al-Qazwini said. “Some of those books promote pornography. Some of them promote homosexuality. We don’t need this. Go and attend this meeting.”
Al-Qazwini and others said that they have the democratic right to decide what is appropriate in their schools since their faith is now in the majority. Dearborn is about 47% Arab American, most of them Muslim, and Dearborn Heights is about one-third Arab American, according to census data. Recent protests involved demonstrators who appeared to be mostly Muslim, but one of the key organizers, Stephanie Butler, is Christian, and appeared at both events.
“We don’t need those books in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights,” Al-Qazwini said. “Take them somewhere else. The majority rules. If you are the majority of people in Dearborn, you decide for your children. We live in a democratic society. And there are certain tools and techniques with which you can change the law in this country.”
Wadeea Yassir Alzabah, who held up the sign that read “If democracy matters, we’re the majority” had a similar message.
“They are proponents of democracy, but only if it supports liberal values,” he said of proponents of LGBTQ books. “The moment it goes against liberal values, they are authoritarian and they want to impose their own values on people.”
Other Muslim leaders have shown support for the protesters.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), gave a talk Sunday at the American Moslem Society in the south end of Dearborn, one of the largest and oldest mosques in metro Detroit, about how Muslims can protect their religious rights in Dearborn public schools from materials or practices that conflict with their faith, such as using transgender pronouns. At the board meeting Monday night, a supporter of CAIR handed out fliers from CAIR Michigan that advised them of their rights to practice their faith, offering a hotline or email to contact. CAIR is the largest Muslim-American civil rights and advocacy group, with chapters across the U.S.
The CAIR flier was titled “Concerned?” and informed them of state law regarding parental rights and said parents can “advocate for your child by attending school board meetings, communicating with their teachers, and being cognizant of the materials they consume.” It also had a section titled “Your Rights” with an drawing of a girl in hijab that read: “Schools cannot disparage or cast doubt on any religion because this would infringe on the child’s rights.”
Wearing red, AFT union members and leaders who attended the meeting released a joint statement that supported the books, saying: “Everyone believes that our schools and classrooms should be safe, welcoming, and supportive environments that are free from discrimination and bullying of any kind. … and that includes young people who identity as LGBTQ. Having resources and books in our classrooms and libraries that speak to the diversity of our students and the broader world we share is critical to providing a quality and supportive education.”
Brian Stone, who is part of the LGBTQ community, attended the meeting with a poster that displayed two photos next to each other: the one on the left said “1957” with a photo of whites screaming in anger at a Black woman, Hazel Bryan, attending a school in Little Rock, Arkansas that was integrated for the first time; the photo on the right said “2022,” with a photo of a man with an angry face giving the middle finger to Sam Smalley, a transgender person who was a counter-protester, at the Sept. 25 rally at the library against the books.
As he displayed the sign, Stone drew the attention of some angry men, including Chami.
“This is a community where everyone should be safe and they should be represented,” Stone said as they yelled.
Stone was later escorted to his car by two police officers, echoing the scene after the Sept. 25 rally, where several police officers had to escort Smalley to protect him as he walked to his car.
As Stone walked away, a protester yelled at him a phrase advocates note is often used to make bigoted attacks against gay people based on inaccurate stereotypes: “Leave our kids alone.”
Photos by David Rodriguez Munoz, Detroit Free Press