Two nights of pro-American rallies run amok had left police in southwest-suburban Bridgeview reeling. So when Friday rolled around they called in plenty of backup—about 125 officers from 20 surrounding towns, plus the Illinois State Police and the Cook County Sheriff's Police.
Any newcomer needing a briefing got one from Lieutenant Tim Callahan, who's been a cop in Bridgeview for 17 years and says that until last week he'd never dealt with an incident of this magnitude. He explained to the recruits who came to see him at the main staging area—a Menard's parking lot at 92nd and Harlem—that the mosque on 93rd Street a block away had been targeted by anti-Arab demonstrators and order needed to be restored. At 4 PM, after two nights of riots had put Bridgeview in the international spotlight, Callahan was telling a pair of officers from Chicago Ridge that the plan was to shut down Harlem Avenue if things got out of hand.
Cars bearing American flags were soon streaking up and down side streets, flying by people who'd stepped out with lit candles in a 7 PM show of solidarity. An hour later traffic was barely moving, and the din from the horns and shouting was incessant. There was lots of sidewalk activity, particularly right outside the Popeye's, where parents stood with their children and shouted, "USA! USA!" Men wearing "Burn Osama" T-shirts paraded nearby, drawing honks from a car with "Nuke the Bastards" painted across its rear window. The occupants inside leaned out to shout, "Let them burn!" Callahan estimates the crowd of demonstrators edged over 400 just about 9 PM, which is also when 14-year-old Ahmed Salah decided to take his nine-month-old sister Summaya out for a walk because she couldn't get to sleep.
Ahmed, the oldest of five children, lives on a quiet side street just a few doors from the mosque. Next door is a Muslim school where Ahmed is in tenth grade. He and Summaya were within a few feet of the school when a dark sedan with an American flag in the back window slowed to a stop beside them. Ahmed looked to his left, then turned and faced front again. Whatever the driver was saying made Ahmed keep walking. The car kept pace with him for a few more feet, then finally sped away.
Moments later Ahmed said he wasn't that shaken. "They're ignorant—they'll learn eventually." Still, he said, until last week he never knew how much hate his neighbors could have. "Muslims died in the World Trade Center too," he said. "They just don't want to know that." Ahmed looked relieved to see his aunt and uncle drive up a few minutes later. They wanted to check on how he and Summaya were doing. She still hadn't fallen asleep.
Harlem Avenue was closed to traffic by 10:30.