A day of trying to keep a Muslim advocacy group out of Hillsborough County’s public schools didn’t go as planned.
After a prayer vigil Tuesday morning, opponents of radical Islam and about 30 supporters gathered for a news conference outside the school district’s downtown headquarters.
They were met by an equally sized and equally vocal group of demonstrators who objected to their message.
Carrying signs that said “Free Speech,” “No Hate Today” and “I love angry white people,” they shouted down the panel of speakers who had been invited by School Board candidate Terry Kemple, a conservative Christian leader in eastern Hillsborough.
“We are here because we don’t stand for religious intolerance,” said Charles Allen, 26, a University of South Florida graduate student who learned about the counter-protest on Facebook.
Estefania Galvis, a 21-year-old student from Colombia, said she is offended when immigrants are stereotyped.
And she objects to Kemple’s vilification of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a campaign that began after CAIR executive director Hassan Shibly visited Steinbrenner High School in Lutz last year.
Opponents of CAIR say the organization has terrorist ties. Local CAIR leaders say their mission is to promote tolerance and respect.
For a while, members of the opposing groups stood nose-to-nose, shouting each other down.
They included Richard Swier, a retired 23-year Army veteran involved in United West, an organization that seeks to defend Western civilization against what it calls the cultural onslaught of Islam.
Swier tried to convince the chanting protesters his group was not hateful. “We want to stop hate as well,” he said. “Hate is coming from those who want to kill us.”
Kelly Benjamin, 35, got into arguments with several anti-CAIR speakers, including radio host Roger Homefield.
“I am not hateful,” Homefield bellowed, pointing a finger at Benjamin’s chest. “My girlfriend is black. Am I a racist? … Who are you calling hateful?”
Benjamin countered: “You seem a little hateful right now, sir.”
Kemple, who spoke last, directed his comments to those gathered to oppose him.
“It’s always amazing to me that the people who talk about tolerance and freedom of speech are the most intolerant in keeping others from having their freedom of speech,” he said.