15 Arrested In Playland Melee Over Muslim Head Scarves
A melee broke out Tuesday afternoon at Playland Amusement Park when Muslim visitors became angry that the park was enforcing its ban on headgear by prohibiting the women from wearing their traditional head coverings on some rides.
Police from at least nine agencies converged on the park beginning at 3 p.m. after county police sought assistance in responding to the disturbance, which involved 30 to 40 people.
Two rangers were injured while breaking up a fight between visitors, and two visitors were charged with felony assault, police said. Another 13 people were arrested, most charged with disorderly conduct. All those charged were released by Tuesday night.
One of the rangers suffered an injured knee and the other an injured shoulder, said Westchester Deputy Parks Commissioner Peter Tartaglia.
The park was crowded with Muslims celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr, one of Islam’s two major holidays. Most were from community groups in Westchester and New York City as part of a daylong event arranged by the Muslim American Society of New York.
“It’s unfortunate because everybody just wants to be home with their families today,” said Zead Ramadan of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
Parks officials “painstakingly” told the organizer about the headgear ban, said Tartaglia. But he said that the rules might not have been communicated by the organizer to some attendees.
Three accidents on Playland rides that killed two children and a park worker between 2004 and 2007 were unrelated to clothing the victims were wearing. But the headgear ban was among safety rules that went into effect after those deaths.
“It’s a safety issue on rides. If it’s a scarf, you could choke,” Tartaglia said.
Accounts of what happened varied, but everyone agreed the dispute began after parkgoers were told the headgear ban applied to women wearing traditional Muslim head coverings, known as hijabs.
Tartaglia said once word of that got out there were “a lot of unhappy people.”
Tartaglia said park officials were in the process of arranging refunds when members of the Muslim group got into a scuffle with each other.
Ramadan said he could see both sides.
“The people feel like victims, and the police feel like they were just doing their jobs,” Ramadan said. “Personally I think things got a little out of control on both sides.”
Lola Ali, 16, of Astoria said she witnessed a group of girls and women wearing hijabs go to park security to confront them about the headgear issue.
She said the women were upset and yelling. She said the security officers started pushing them away and the girls stood their ground, at which point the security officers grabbed them, pushed them to the ground and handcuffed them.
Men within the park saw this and tried to intervene, Ali said, and the situation went downhill from there.
“They were beating down the girls, then they started beating down the guys,” she said of the security officers.
Earlier, a park cashier told a Journal News reporter that a woman wearing a hijab either pushed or hit a ride operator who forbade her from going on the ride. She said a police officer tried to restrain the woman and the woman’s husband took offense, at which point a multiple-person fight broke out.
The park was never closed to attendees but for a time new visitors were not being allowed in. Crowds were being turned away at Playland Parkway and Forest Avenue. Officials said late in the afternoon that they were slowly reopening the park to new visitors and that the group‘s religious ceremony planned for 9 p.m. might still occur.
The organizer had put together the gathering with an offer of $20 ride-all-day wristbands and $3 spectator wristbands. Visitors had come from around the tri-state area to take advantage of the offer.
Brooklyn resident Amr Khater, who had come to the park about noon with his family, said his family was told about the hijab rule by park employees when they arrived.
“Everybody got mad, everybody got upset,” he said. “It’s our holiday. Why would you do this to us?”
He said he had left the park and was not being allowed to return, but his children and wife were still inside.
Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It is a three-day period during which Muslims give to charity and celebrate their completion of Ramadan’s requirements with family and their community.
At 4:30 p.m., more than an hour and a half after the incident started, nearly three dozen cruisers blocked Playland’s entrance and a helicopter was flying overhead. A reporter counted nearly 60 cruisers on the scene from various agencies.
Tartaglia said the county believed a mass response was required “as a safety precaution.”
Playland’s policies, posted on its website, include: “All items and clothing must be appropriately secured while on a ride; some smaller items can be stored/secured in cargo pockets or waist pouches. Hats must be secured, and jackets/sweaters must be worn properly and not around the waist while on a ride. Some rides do not allow backpacks, purses or head gear of any kind.”
Ali and Gina Shibah of Yonkers said the scale of the police response was unnecessary.
“Sixty vehicles, it’s wasting our taxpayer dollars,” Ali Shibah said.
Sal Mohumed of Brooklyn said he hoped for a refund for himself and his two cousins.
“I thought we would come and play in Playland,” he said. “There’s no playing here. Coney Island is better than this.”