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Community shares message of love beneath a message of intolerance

By Emelia Hitchner, For StAugustine.com, On 02 May 2016, Read Original
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Ibrahim Zori, 12, holds up a sign during a peaceful protest at the base of an anti-Islamic billboard on A1A in St. Augustine Beach Sunday afternoon, April 24, 2016.

 

Peaceful protesters standing beneath a controversial “Islam Bloody Islam” billboard along State Road A1A on Anastasia Island shared a message of peace, love and unity Sunday afternoon.

The rally was organized by Compassionate St. Augustine and the Islamic Center as a reaction to the billboard’s words of intolerance.

“The point is to show whoever put up this sign that we are united and that no one can spread hate among us,” said Ayman El-Sawa, 51, a member of the Islamic Center.

Community members in bright peace-sign T-shirts posed together for a group photo. Many of them decided to attend after news of the event spread by word of mouth.

“This photo means that all these people are against the message of this billboard,” said 12-year-old Ibrahim Zori. “It’s very hateful, and it’s a terrible representation of our town.”

St. Augustine Beach Commissioner Andrea Samuels joined the demonstration to support its cause.

“I think it registers with the community that any form of intolerance will not be tolerated,” Samuels said.

The billboard gained international attention after a petition by local resident Becky Williams went viral.

Williams, 31, created the petition two weeks ago on Care2’s petition website after noticing the billboard on her drive home from work.

She said she started it to show support for the Muslim community and defend the voice of St. Augustine.

“This isn’t who we are,” Williams said.

The petition targets the company that owns it, St. Johns Outdoor Advertising, and requests removal of the sign.

It is unclear who paid to have the message posted, and company and billboard owner Robert Harry Jr. have not responded to interview requests.

The petition has rallied nearly 54,000 signatures from supporters all over the world.

Williams said even if the sign remains, the sense of unity has been overwhelming.

“It’s just amazing having the momentum of everyone being able to have a voice,” Williams said. “And it’s a voice louder than this visual image.”

Some community members said they hope the demonstration draws the attention of local government officials to discourage future hate-filled messages.

For Claire Southerland, 71, spreading love and support in her community is worthwhile, regardless of the outcome.

“Any little thing is better than doing nothing,” Southerland said. “Anything at all.”