April 1, 2020

Protests ramp up outside Islamic Center in St. Augustine

Protests ramp up outside Islamic Center in St. AugustineJaime Spears holds an American flag while standing on the sidewalk in front of the Islamic Center, 1760 State Road 207, Thursday evening, July 23, 2015.

A group of protesters held American flags and homemade signs Thursday outside the Islamic Center on State Road 207 in St. Augustine, saying they were there to take a stand against evil.

“We’ve been angry, but we never once said we hate these people. That’s where we draw the line,” said Debora Emerick, a St. Johns County resident. “I don’t hate them; there’s no hate in my heart for anyone, but I hate evil and the killings and the murders, not just in this country, but all over the world, and I can’t take it anymore.”

It started as a one-woman protest in response to the killing of servicemen in Chatanooga last week by a gunman, said Jaime Spears, another St. Johns County resident and that first protester.

The gunman, 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, killed at least four Marines and a Navy sailor, authorities said.

The FBI in its investigation is treating the attack as an act of terrorism.

The St. Augustine protest started as a way to prove that not all Muslims are anti-American, Spears said.

“This isn’t to show that they’re all evil. But unfortunately, they proved me wrong,” she said. “I have videos of people screaming at me and telling me they were going to kill me. All they’ve been doing is producing hate.”

When Spears started the protest last Wednesday, she was alone for three days. But as word grew about her efforts by word of mouth and on Facebook, her support grew, she said.

By the fifth day, she said 40 people gathered on the sidewalk in peaceful protest.

Emerick was one of them.

“I’m not ashamed to say we got very passionate, but I’m not going to let hatred or evil come out of my mouth because I’m angry,” said. “I’m not here to cause strife and hatred; I’m here in the spirit of love and peace.”

Emerick said the Chatanooga shooting inspired her to take a stand against evil in the world.

“I can’t not do anything anymore. I asked my husband if he was willing for me to die to do what I needed to do to stand for what I believe in,” she said. “As a nation, we need to stand together and start fighting back. We can’t just complain and murmur to ourselves anymore.”

Spears says protesters from Alachua County, Daytona Beach, Green Cove Springs and Pennsylvania have joined the cause.

“It’s just overwhelming. I never expected it to travel as quickly as it has, but I’m also very proud that it has,” she said.

St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office officials say the protests have been relatively quiet.

One protester was issued a trespass warrant for going on the Islamic Center property, but no arrests have been made, said Kevin Kelshaw, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

“I’m not leaving until we are taken seriously,” Emerick said.

Spears agrees.

“[I’m staying here] until I have to,” she said. “I’m going to let these people prove just who they really are. We are not going have to slander them. They will prove it by their own actions.”

But when Spears and Emerick continue their protest Friday, they will not be the only group standing outside the center.

Members of Compassionate St. Augustine will be at the Islamic center to pass out snacks to both the protesters and Muslims going to the mosque for Friday prayer service. The group is made up of people from all faiths in St. Augustine who say their aim is to strive to live their lives by the Golden Rule.

“We want to build an understanding and respect in our community and show a faith in St. Augustine that is diverse and shares that diversity,” said Ervin Bullock, the interfaith coordinator for Compassionate St. Augustine. “So when we saw this [protesting] was happening to one of our faith groups, it felt like a wound, and we knew we had to do something.”

For Bullock, Compassionate St. Augustine’s message is simple: “We’re your neighbor, they’re your neighbor; hope you enjoy the snacks.”

Leaders of the Islamic Center did not return The Record’s calls for comment.

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