After a brawl erupted between police and Muslims at Rye Playland Tuesday, local officials defended what some have criticized as a disproportionate use of force. "The incident was very quickly escalating," Peter Tartaglia, deputy commissioner of the Westchester County Parks Department, tells the Times, "and the police had no choice to interfere, or it could have turned into a riot." Video shows police pushing at least one Muslim woman to the ground, and over 100 officers responded to the melee, which was started by one 17-year-old girl from Brooklyn.
"I started the whole thing," Ola Salem tells Lohud.com. She says she was told to remove her headgear if she wanted to go on a ride, and recalls telling the attendant, "This has nothing to do with headgear. This is my religion." Salem complained to a manager, who refused to bend the rules, explaining that her scarf could get stuck in a wheel. As word spread among the 3,000 Muslims visiting the amusement park, a heated debate unfolded near the park's entrance.
Lohud.com reports that some members of the group were yelling at the women to just take off their scarves. "That's like telling a girl to take off her shirt," Salem's twin brother, Ali, recalls. He says he saw a park ranger push a Muslim woman, she pushed back, and then "Rangers pulled out sticks and started hitting people, taking them to the floor." In all, 13 people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager at the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells the Times, "There seems to have been a disproportionate response in which police used excessive strength and force to subdue female protesters. That had a snowball effect on the antagonism and aggression that ensued."
Whether police overreacted or not, it seems the melee could have been avoided had the group's organizers communicated to their members that 10 of the 26 rides at the park would be off-limits to hijab wearers. According to emails obtained by Lohud.com, Playland officials were clear about the ban on hijabs and other "headgear," but a flier about the trip sent out to the group had no mention of hijabs being banned on certain rides. Still, Ali Shibah of Yonkers, who was part of the Muslim group, tells the Post, "I understand the point that this could be a safety issue. But they have to learn how to deal with certain groups... What would they say if the Virgin Mary wanted to go on a ride—to take off her hijab?"
It appears that Rye Playand's rules are stricter than other amusement parks'. Six Flags in New Jersey, for instance, permits hijabs on rides as long as they are securely wrapped around the head. On the other hand, Six Flags hasn't had a fatal accident since the '80s, and it may be that Rye Playland has tighter safety regulations because of a 2005 incident in which a 7-year-old boy who was killed on a boat ride at the park.