Park51 protesters, supporters face off

A police officer moves toward two opposing demonstrators near the site of the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center on Sept. 11, 2010. Photo by Chelsia Marcius

Separated by about 5 feet and one generation, two men stood a block from the contested site of Park51, the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, each shouldering American flags and shouting which side they support.

“We’re disenfranchising our own citizens,” said Matt Sky, 26, a freelance Web developer from the East Village. “These aren’t the people that blew up the towers.”

Vietnam veteran and Staten Island resident Ed Bougherty, 61, opposes the center.

“They might have the constitutional right to build a place of worship here, but it’s wrong,” he said. “For such a small number of them, they sure did a hell of a lot of damage,” Bougherty continued, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorists, all whom were Muslim.

The Park51 debate has polarized the country, and as plans to build the center two blocks from Ground Zero continue to move forward, both its supporters and detractors have shown a new level of charged emotions.

On Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, those emotions – about politics, religion and civil rights – moved into the streets surrounding Ground Zero.

Eliezer Jimenez, 58, of Washington Heights, lost his 37-year-old son Eliezer Jimenez, Jr. when the towers fell.

He said the Park51 center is like “a slap in the face” that is too close to “the cemetery of my son.”

Retired history teacher Lance Corey, 61, whose his nephew Todd Ouida died in the attacks, agreed, holding up a sign that read in bold, black print: “Muhammad is the first radical Muslim; Osama bin Laden is following directions.”

Several Muslim spectators took issue with the claim, including Amir Prince, 51, from the Seventh Sun Mosque in the South Bronx.

“That’s just not true,” he said. “We’re American, too. They can’t tell an American where he can and can’t move on American soil.”

Sky, who has frequented the site for several weeks in defense of what he considers a breach of democracy, called the situation a “strange hypocrisy.”

“They’re denying people freedoms a few blocks from where they’re putting the Freedom Tower,” he said, referring to construction of the new World Trade Center complex. “Some of the families are trying to claim they’re the only people who suffered. I regard them with the utmost respect, but our freedoms are the bedrock of this nation. We can’t let sensitivity set a precedent in this country.”

Yet sensitivity is just the thing that Joey “Boots” Bassolino, 43, of the Upper West Side, said supporters of the Park51 location need to consider, since recent polls show that a majority of Americans disagree with its location.

“I see hypocrites and ignorance on both sides, but I don’t want them there,” said Bassolino, a contributor to the Howard Stern Show who saw the first plane hit the north tower.

He hasn’t been to the site since — but he said this year, in light of the controversy, he felt it was time to come out and pay his respects.

“I shot some video the other day for my blog and got all choked up,” he said. “I slept in the green room at Stern Studios that night (after the attacks), covered in dust from the debris. I remember walking through the streets and there wasn’t even a cab out. It was like I had the whole city to myself.”

Sky said he understands both sides of the debate and that he was not here to be combative.

Still, at this time, he can’t see a good way out of the predicament for Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who proposed the plan to build Park51. According to Sky, Rauf can either move the mosque and suffer potentially threatening international ridicule from the Islamic world, or he can move forward with  and continue to face opposition here at home.

“Right now it’s like a knife in your throat,” he said. “Rip it out and it starts bleeding; leave it in and you have a knife in your throat.”