Fifteen people were arrested last Thursday after fighting broke out in Playland Park in Rye in New York’s Westchester County when a group of Muslims were told that women could not wear their headscarves on some of the rides. The trip had been arranged by the Muslim American Society of New York for some 3,000 people from New York City, Yonkers and parts of Long Island, to celebrate Id al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Most of the female Muslim visitors were wearing the hijab; they were told they could not get on some rides — the Catch-a-Wave ride, the Crazy Mouse roller coaster and the Dragon Coaster — because of their scarves. As the New York Daily News reports:
The ban, which is not Muslim specific, was imposed about 3 years ago mostly to prevent hats from falling onto the tracks of roller coasters and other rides, park officials said.
“The cops started getting loud with her and she started getting loud, too. They pushed her on the ground and arrested her,” Meawad said.
Her cousin, Kareem Meawad, 17, went to try to protect the woman and was beaten by cops and also arrested, she added. Her brother, Issam Meawad, 20, was pushed to the ground and taken into custody when he tried to help his cousin, she said.
“She just wanted to get on a ride. That was it,” Dena Meawad said of the initial confrontation. “It’s clear, this all happened because we’re Muslim.”
In addition, Ali’s sister, Ayman Alrabah, 24, said that her husband, brother and father were all “tackled by cops” and handcuffed when they tried to help her sister. Alrabah said that, in the midst of requesting a refund, ”all of a sudden an argument became a riot” with police appearing and hitting her relatives and handcuffing her husband in front of his 4-year-old son, who’s now ”traumatized.” Alrabah added:
“They treated us like animals, like we were nothing. They came with their dogs and sticks. We came to have fun.”
Up to 100 police officers were dispatched to the park and two park rangers were injured, leading to felony assault charges against two people. John Hodges, chief inspector of Westchester County Public Safety, says that “excessive force” was not used.
Kathleen M. O’Connor, commissioner of the Westchester County Parks Department, says that things at Playland Park, which is owned by the county, “got heated” as the group’s members “were frustrated they couldn’t get on the rides.” Park officials said that visitors were offered a refund on the $20 each had paid and several proceeded to the park’s main entrance to do so. The Parks Department then says that “about 20 members of the Muslim American group started fighting among themselves”; Peter Tartaglia, the deputy commissioner of the department, said that park rangers intervened because there was “pushing and shoving.”
County officials said that 15 people including three women were arrested; they did not say whether all were members of the tour group. All of those arrested were released and charged with disorderly conduct, says the New York Daily News. Playland Park shut down for two hours after the incident.
County officials said the tour group’s organizers had not informed visitors that they would not able to get on certain rides while wearing “headgear.” While saying that he did not know of any specific instances in which wearing headscarves had led to injuries, Tartaglia pointed out that “Something flying off your head could land on the track” and “If you have a scarf on, you could be choked.”
Sharif Aly, vice president of the Muslim American Society of New York, says that the group is investigating what happened “before drawing any conclusions.” As Zead Ramadan, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - New York, comments in the New York Daily News:
“In this heightened state of Islamaphobia, a woman wearing a hajib is an easy target these days. Unfortunately, this turned ugly due to a lot of miscommunication.”
Ola Salem of Coney Island, Brooklyn, was told she could not get on a ride because of her “headgear.” According to the New York Times, she then said that “It’s not my headgear, it’s my religion.”
A little cultural sensitivity — requesting that park employees understand that headscarves aren’t simply “headgear” but worn for religious reasons — might have made a very big difference, as would county park officials doing some research about whether or not wearing headscarves actually has led to injuries. These might seem like excessive steps but they could go a long way to preventing future incidents and misunderstanding.
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Photo of Playland Park in Rye, NY, by SpecialKRB