Outside the gates of Playland, on Tuesday afternoon, a group of more than 50 Muslim visitors to the park bowed to pray. They waited for news about the 15 additional members of their group arrested earlier in the day after a confrontation with park rangers.
They were a smaller contingent of the approximately 3,000 Muslim visitors to the park that day. For them, it was a fun, holiday outing that had turned into an ugly affront against their beliefs and culture.
Two rows of men and three smaller rows of women—some on prayer rugs, others on the pavement—faced the park’s courtyard fountain, then placed their heads on bended knees.
Just yards away outside the park’s entrance gate, a row of Westchester County police stood in helmets and protective vests. More than 40 law enforcement vehicles, cruisers and SUVs, even canine units, from municipalities across the county, lined the entry road to the amusement park. Even more law enforcement officers blocked park access roads in all directions. And there at the front gate of the park, a row of police officers stood on one side of a barricade and while the group of Muslim patrons sat and milled about on the other. Behind it all, the rides continued. Children bounced on the Jump N’Bean ride and other Muslim patrons, not part of the group, walked in and out of the gates of the park.
All because of the chain of events that unfolded after a young Muslim woman named Haifa Ali questioned the ride operator who told her to remove her hijab.
The account of the afternoon’s events told by members of the group gathered around the Playland fountain is decidedly different than the one released by park officials. According to a statement released by Playland, “park security had to intervene.”
“In the course of restoring calm, two park rangers suffered injuries and had to be taken to a nearby hospital,” says the statement. The statement does not include what injuries were sustained by the park rangers, nor does it say exactly what charges were assigned to the 15 patrons who were arrested.
The anxiety among the women was palpable. Some stood together in a circle, others sat on benches. They waited for news of their daughters and sons, taken away in police vans by police. Why had they been treated this way, they asked.
From their vantage point, on Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement, both park rangers and county police, acted aggressively and excessively, subduing and beating a woman as she lay on the ground and roughing up others who tried to defend her, though Westchester County Parks Deputy Commissioner Peter Tartaglia said on Tuesday afternoon he had not heard of such an incident taking place.
For the Muslim group, the number of officers who came to the park seemed to them a disproportionate response to a group of women patrons who questioned park policy and demand a refund.
Haifa Ali said that she and a group of young women tried to enter the Dragon Rollercoaster ride at around 2 p.m. on Tuesday. The park ride operator told Haifa she would have to remove her hijab.
Haifa says she asked the operator why and attempted to explain that her scarf was part of her religious observance, only underscored by the fact of it being a Muslim holiday.
Ali said she has visited other amusement parks where she was able to ride without removing her scarf and did not understand why, at this ride, she was being challenged.
“This misunderstanding was very unfortunate,” Tartaglia said. “Our headgear policy is designed to protect the safety of patrons and safety is our first concern. This policy was repeatedly articulated to the tour operator, but unfortunately the message did not reach some of the members of his group.”
After an exchange with the ride operator, Ali says she and a small group of women went to the front gate of the park to demand refunds. They thought they were being denied access to the ride not because of safety reasons, but because of their religious dress, which encourages women to wear modest clothing and, if they choose, cover their hair with a scarf called hijab.
Most of the women in the group gathered around the fountain wore the scarves over their hair, tightly across their foreheads, and inside the park, women could also be seen wearing veils that covered their faces.
From that point, members of the Muslim group visiting the park tell a very different story than Playland officials.
Ali says that at some point while she and the women were at the front of the park, someone grabbed her hijab. She said a park ranger wrestled another one of the women in the group to the ground. From there, she says law enforcement began to converge on the group, hitting them with batons and pinning some of the women to the ground.
A Yonkers woman not with group would not give her name, but said she saw a female park ranger hit one of the women in the group repeatedly with a baton. The eyewitness said that the woman said, as she lay on the ground, something about her scarf being her religion and the park ranger yelled “I don’t give **** about your culture.”
According to the witness, the Muslim woman was on the ground trying to hold her garment down when other members of the group came to her aid.
Ali said when some of the men in the group saw that women were being hit, they came over and objected and they were also struck by the police officers and arrested, including Ali’s brother.
At around 5 p.m., a county police officer came to the police barricade separating the two sides and spoke with one of the men in the group. The women arrested were being held in Hawthorne and the men in Ossining. The group could go to pick them up.
Word was quickly relayed to two of the parents, sitting crosslegged in front of the fountain. Some of the men said they should leave, others insisting they should stay put. The mother promised she would not leave the park until her children were brought back by the police officers who took them away. The father rose from his seated vigil, pondering what to do next.
Click here for our original story on the Playland incident: http://patch.com/A-l8r6