Hundreds of protesters, many of them carrying guns and cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, rallied outside a Phoenix mosque Friday, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters railing against what they called bigotry and racism.
The two sides exchanged heated rhetoric for hours outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, hurling insults and slogans as a thin line of police officers in riot gear stood between them, NBC affiliate KPNX reported. About 250 protesters gathered on each side, Phoenix police estimated.
Though the competing rallies spurred arguments and yelling, the protest was otherwise peaceful. The protest had broken up by 9:45 p.m. local time, three hours after it was scheduled to end.
The event was billed a free-speech rally at Washington Park, and included a “Draw Muhammad" cartoon contest similar to the one attacked by two would-be terrorists in a Dallas suburb earlier this month. People at the pre-rally were wearing shirts that read "F*** Islam."
Counter-protesters held signs promoting love and peace, who came to show their support for the mosque and Muslim community.
The FBI and local police surrounded the park after they were earlier informed of the event taking place at a mosque that received a threatening letter this past weekend, according to KPNX. The mosque was also once a place of worship for suspects in the Garland, Texas, cartoon contest.
Event organizer Jon Ritzheimer, who has held two protests in the city since the Texas shooting, told the station that the event is supposed to be peaceful.
“I don't condone any threats being made to the mosque,” Ritzheimer said.
But when the station asked him about the potentially hateful message of the protests, citing anti-Islamic shirts people have worn to past protests, he said: "I'm a Marine, and I'm far from politically correct. I’m outspoken, and I've just had it."
A Facebook page for the event says it's "in response to the recent attack in Texas where 2 armed terrorist (sic), with ties to ISIS, attempted Jihad."
Usama Shami, president of the community center, told KPNX that he respects people’s right to protest.
"Everybody has the right to be a bigot," he told the station. "Everybody has the right to be racist."
Imraan Siddiqi, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Arizona, said his group was telling Muslims to avoid the area.
"CAIR has advised local Muslims to try and steer clear of this because if people are spewing this level of rhetoric and this level of hatred, this is not a forum for dialogue," Siddiqi said in a news conference Friday afternoon. "Because of the fact that people are expressing violent rhetoric and saying, 'Bring your weapons,' this is not a good forum for people to show up."
Phoenix Police Sgt. Trent Crump said in a statement that the department “has a great deal of experience in dealing with and managing protest and demonstrations.”
“Dealing with groups of protesters and opposing views is not the difficult part," Crump added. "Our goal and the real challenge are trying to anticipate unlawful activities that might occur in conjunction with these events.”
The suspects in the Texas attack, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, opened fire on an unarmed security officer stationed outside the contest on May 3 in the Dallas suburb, according to The Associated Press. The security guard was wounded in the leg before the gunmen were killed at the scene.