- Protesters targeting LGBTQ books shut down a school board meeting in Michigan.
- Demonstrators ignored requests from police.
- Several people held up signs with anti-gay rhetoric in English and Arabic.
Hundreds of protesters packed a Michigan school board meeting Monday night and shut it down with cries of anger over certain LGBTQ books they said are too sexually explicit for children.
A heavy police presence failed to prevent the Dearborn Public Schools 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 (AFT) 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 the Michigan city just outside of Detroit.
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“Please, calm down, let’s have respect for each other,” Shahin told the crowd. “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.”
‘Vote them out!’
“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. 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.
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 start shouting and resisting calls to leave when it exceeded fire 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!”
An ongoing protest
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.
Al-Qazwini and others said 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.
Other Muslim leaders have shown support for the protesters.
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 white people 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 some angry men.
“This is a community where everyone should be safe and they should be represented,” Stone said as they yelled.
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @nwarikoo.