'I'm on active duty': Meet the Texans arming to fight Islamophobia in America
David Michael Smith and Keith Toledo stand in the sweltering Texas heat, with assault rifles slung across their chests.
Around them, 40-odd protesters, some with hand guns in holsters, hold up signs that read: "Stop Islamophobia" and “United against Racism and Facism".
“We are here to provide security to Muslims at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention,” 64-year-old Smith, a retired political scientist, activist and former military veteran, tells Middle East Eye.
“There's a number of fascists threatening to disrupt this event, just as they did last year. And we believe that the Muslim community has a right to have a convention, work and worship without any fear or intimidation,” Smith said before stopping to crane his neck at some sudden movement across the street.
“Nah, nothing happened, it’s all good,” his comrade Keith Toledo, with an AK-47 cradled in his arms, says.
“Sorry about that, I am on active duty,” Smith says, turning his attention back to MEE. “So, where were we?”
The protest, organised by a coalition of organisations, including the Houston Socialist Movement (HSM), the Democratic Socialists of America Party (DSA) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, had been arranged to counter an anti-Muslim protest by groups associated with white supremacists, outside the venue during the convention last weekend.
'Violence is inevitable'
With the revival of white supremacy in the US and a documented rise in hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, Smith said he wanted to be present, and armed, “so the fascists would be well aware” that Muslims at the convention had the backing of the larger community.
"Even if there are police officers here, we know that Muslims have a great distrust of the police," he added.
It is legal in the state of Texas to openly carry firearms with a license, a right Texans take seriously and one that Toledo believes is critical in dealing with the scourge of white supremacy.
“[Violence] is inevitable at this point. With this many issues with white nationalism, everyone has to be ready for anything at this point,” the 33-year-old says.
Since the beginning of 2019, around 119 people have been killed in 19 mass shootings in the US.
At the same time as the ISNA convention itself, a gunman killed seven people and injured 21 in the cities of Odessa and Midland in West Texas. A month earlier, 22 people were murdered in an attack in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
In the days leading up to ISNA’s annual convention in Houston, where thousands of American Muslims were to descend for weekend discussions, workshops and meetings, a group known as Texas Patriot Network had made a call for protest outside the convention centre.
According to reports, the protest, co-organised by James “Doc” Greene, a right-wing broadcaster with America Voice Radio Network and an avid Trump supporter, called for an armed mobilisation of “Texans against radical Islam”.
“Once again the Terrorist Fundraiser by the Muslim Brotherhood under the fake title as ISNA is coming to Houston and again Texans will stand against this tyranny,” the call to action read. “The event takes place alongside Discovery park facing the GRB Center, open carry is allowed," it continued, indicating that protesters could bring weapons.
On 31 August, a large contingent of local law enforcement kept watch while other agents swept through the vicinity, ahead of a planned visit by Democratic presidential nominees Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro. Across the road from George R Brown Convention Center, the two groups of protesters, some armed, stood about 50 metres apart and tried to out-taunt each other.
Despite the calls for mobilisation on social media, the Texan Patriotic Front only managed to draw around 15 protesters. Some wore red "Make America Great" T-shirts, while others with banners screaming for a ban on Sharia, gathered around a scratchy sound system, singing songs, preaching verses from the Bible and warning bystanders about some of the verses in the Quran.
Dozens of attendees at the conference watched with some bemusement, either from the balcony or outside, as the two groups of mostly white Americans traded insults.
Some Muslims approached the anti-fascist group and thanked them for their support. Others tried approaching those protesting against the conference, where they were told that the protest was only an attempt to lead them to Jesus.
“We are here to welcome Muslims to the city and we wanted to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you read the Quran, you will see that Jesus features quite prominently in the Quran and we wanted to show that ... because a lot of people haven’t had the time to read the Quran,” radio host “Doc” Greene, tells MEE towards the end of their protest.
'It is also good to show people that leftists are also pro-gun and it's not just right-wingers'
Dan Royce Sehochlur III, protester
Asked if he had attended to protest against Muslims or try to convert them, he says: “I’d certainly like to convert them. But we wanted to welcome them. They are a fine looking group of people.”
But Smith, the long-time activist, cautions that given they were outnumbered and being called out as fascists, “Doc” Green and his ilk were merely pretending to have “cleaned up their act”.
“They are racist, full stop,” he says.
Toledo agrees: “My father is Mexican, and I know what he had to go through. I have seen how people who are different can be treated. That is why I am here."
Likewise, Dan Royce Sehochlur III, draped in an anarchist flag, said he had come “to oppose the reactionaries and stand with his Muslims brothers and sisters".
Sehochlur III, who says he is part of antifa, a loose grouping of leftists opposed to fascism, said he was also quite comfortable to be part of a protest in which demonstrators were carrying weapons because it actually “calms things down".
“I think it is great. I wish I could have brought mine. But I don’t have an open carry license yet.
"It is also good to show people that leftists are also pro-gun and it's not just right-wingers,” the 22-year-old added.
Antifa protesters have mobilised across many parts of the US since Trump's election. Their interventions have prompted the Trump administration to issue warnings that they were considering naming the group and its affiliates "an organisation of terror". In mid-August, during a face-off between white nationalists and antifa protesters, Trump issued the same threat once more.
Guns put off some
Will Levi, the co-chair of the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who came with a cohort of members, admits that the open-carry policy deterred others from coming to the protest.
“Some were uncomfortable with the idea of guns at a rally, so they didn’t come. But we thought that we should be here,” Levi told me.
Nida Saleem, acting deputy director from ISNA, said the threat faced by those at the convention was not out of the ordinary this year.
“This is a common tactic to intimidate and we didn’t want to pay too much attention to it," Saleem told MEE.
As the shadows of late afternoon begin to drag over the convention centre, the protesters that rallied against ISNA begin to pack up.
The sound system is dismantled. The banners are folded and the handful of protesters scatter.
“Doc” Greene, ambles, a handgun firmly at his waist, past the anti-fascist protesters.
Smith and the small cohort of counter-protesters who have remained behind stand under a tree on the sidewalk and look on.
As he passes, someone screams out, “You have lost. Go home.”
“Ah, but it is not over," Greene says, with a wry grin. "We will be back," he adds, before continuing on his way.