On Saturday, Ramon Mejia, a Latino Muslim, stood across the street from a bunch of people wearing Confederate flags and white power shirts, people who say they don't believe that the religion Mejia credits with saving his life is even a real religion.
Mejia had driven all the way down from Dallas to rally against hate, a counter-protest he and about 50 others attended, attempting to overpower the voices of a dozen white supremacists across the street who don't actually think they're a hate group. The Confederate-wearing USA lovers with the group Heart of Texas had come out to protest the new Islamic Da'wah Center that recently opened downtown, complete with an Islamic library, a museum and a worship center.
But in the words of one woman who thinks Islam isn't a religion but is actually "a very dangerous ideology used to infiltrate Europe, England, and Sweden," the building is not just a library. "I hope that it’s just a library, but somehow I doubt it," said the woman named Hannah, who described herself as "just a southern girl, born and raised, and I don’t want my country taken over by third-world...[points across the street]," and who admitted that she didn't actually inquire with the center's management about what's going on inside.
Another man legitimately, actually, seriously told us that "the people who founded this country are white, and diversity and multiculturalism will end up destroying our country—you know what I’m sayin'? The darker our population gets in color, the worse off we are." When the topic of Hitler came up, he told us the Holocaust, apparently just like Islam, wasn't real and the survivors are "more or less" liars. He said his views weren't racist at all, that it was just about loving "our people," white people, more than other people.
Ramon Mejia has been on the receiving end of discrimination like this, he said, for pretty much his entire life. His father had immigrated from Mexico, and even though he was born right here in Texas, he has still been branded a "foreigner." It only got worse when he converted to Islam in 2008.
Mejia says he joined the Marines in 2001 and joined in the invasion of Iraq two years later. All he had known about Islam is what the people on the other side of the street were saying: that it inspires hate and is full of evil. He heard it from his command staff, from fellow soldiers, from American society in general, he says. So when he left the military, he decided to discover Islam for himself.
"When I started to investigate and learn about Islam," he said, "I realized it wasn’t what people were telling me. It gave me a sense of peace. Because I was suffering. I was mentally anguished, and I dealt with trauma. Islam gave me the peace I needed in order to address it."
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Mejia drove down from Dallas to try to say this to the people across the street.
"I get tired, I get frustrated, I sometimes begin to think, well is it ever gonna change?" he said. "But at the same time, you know what, I have children that are gonna be raised in this society, and if I can do as much as I can to try to change people’s opinions about either the religion or immigrants, then I’m going to do my best."
At one point, Mejia and a few other military veterans stood together, and a woman with a bullhorn called attention to them to pay them respect for their service. It appeared to be the single time that the dozen people across the street shut up. The veterans said, "We love this country—we've made sacrifices for this country." A man in "White Lives Matter" shirt said, "Thank you for your service." He clarified that they don't hate the military.
And then the shouting against "multiculturalism" continued.