Newton County’s temporary moratorium on new houses of worship died this week, but it did not go quietly.
Instead, it expired to the serenade of half-baked conspiracy theories about a Doraville-based Muslim community spread and supported by some of the state’s more notorious figures from the fringe of the political right.
For the past two weeks, television cameras circled armed protesters on the Covington square. Let’s face it, paunchy guys in fatigues carrying assault rifles is pretty engrossing TV, particularly when they are itching to say what’s on their minds.
If it needs to be said, these people are not part of the mainstream. The proposed mosque may be “controversial,” but it does not follow that all parties involved are equally legitimate.
Take, for example, the Georgia Security Force III%, a heavily armed and costumed militia group led by McDonough resident Chris Hill. Hill, a former Marine, is one of the louder voices in the so-called “three-percenter” movement in Georgia.
Three percenters are a loosely organized wing of the patriot movement who view the federal government as tyrannical and train to fight for various imagined future conflicts. Based on the Georgia Security Force’s social media posts, that could either be with the federal government or Islamic jihadists or both.
Put bluntly, these guys aren’t just rednecks exercising their First and Second Amendment rights. They are training to fight the United States government.
Members of this group staged armed protests in downtown Covington for the past two weeks and were heavily involved in the pro-Confederate flag demonstrations at Stone Mountain following the deadly Charleston church shootings last year.
“The organization behind the mosque is linked to terrorism,” Hill wrote on his Facebook page in the hours after Tuesday’s Newton County Commission meeting ended.
Not true. False. There is no evidence of any such thing. Apparently that doesn’t bother Hill. In a now-deleted video posted earlier this month, Hill claimed the mosque congregants followed “the Antichrist.” Hill’s rhetoric was so inflammatory that the Newton commission cancelled a planned meeting last week for security reasons.
Hill and his people aren’t from Covington. They didn’t elect the commissioners, they don’t pay taxes there and when all this is over, they will go home. That wasn’t lost on Edward Ahmed Mitchell, an Atlanta lawyer and state director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“These armed bigots do not represent the people of Newton County, who are as warm and welcoming as other Georgians,” he said.
Hill even has drawn critics within the militia movement. A Facebook group has popped up for “survivors” of the Georgia Security Force just to discredit him.
“He is a dangerous fool,” said Donnie Dean, leader of a rival militia outfit. Dean said he views Hill as an attention-grabbing apostate, more interested in stirring up controversy than the militia movement.
“With guys like Chris Hill, we are seen as fools, tyrants, terrorists,” he said. “People either laugh at us or fear us.”
Anti-immigrant interloper from Augusta
Another of the armed protesters tramping around the Newton County Courthouse is Augusta resident James Stachowiak, another member of the patriot movement whose anti-Islamic activism has made headlines for the past several years for his outrageous online statements, including on his internet-based radio show.
In response to the last year’s terroristic shootings at a recruiting center and Navy installation in Chattanooga, Stachowiak decided to stand armed guard outside an Augusta recruiting office to prevent a future attack. He wasn’t alone. Others did similar self-imposed guard duty at centers around the nation even though the military considered them a threat.
And speaking of threatening, Stachowiak scared the pants off government workers in Atlanta this spring when he staged a protest earlier this year at the State Capitol and threatened to shred a copy of the Quran. He promised to bring hundreds of anti-Islamic protesters, putting Capitol Police on high alert.
State workers called in sick and a nearby daycare kept the kids off the playground, but in the end the “protest” was just Stachowiak and outlaw Florida preacher Terry Jones carrying on in front of a dozen or so reporters and photographers.
A hastily arranged counter-protest by a few Georgia State University graduate students easily outnumbered them. The terrorists Stachowiak hoped to provoke by destroying the holy book of a major religion didn’t show up.
Doraville man takes property spat to Covington
Another figure less in the limelight but equally important in framing the debate around the proposed Newton County mosque is anti-immigration activist and failed politician Tom Owens. Owens’ home backs up to the Masjid At-Taqwa, the Doraville mosque that would like to build a place of worship and cemetery in Newton County.
Owens has a long-running fight with the mosque over alleged code violations, including noisy observances and unsanitary conditions. He even sued the mosque in 2013 in DeKalb State Court, but the lawsuit itself is kind of strange for a property dispute.
In the suit, Owens asks the court to order the mosque to list “any religious partnership, religious association” affiliated with it as well as personal information on members of the congregation, including where they worked. The mosque countersued Owens claiming he had pressured leaders to purchase his house at an exorbitant price, threatened their imam and made claims on the internet suggesting the group was connected to terrorism.
The case was dismissed by mutual agreement in 2014, but the allegations in Owens’ lawsuit have been brought up by opponents in Newton County as though they were judged true. Doraville Police Chief John King said described the situation as “unfortunate.”
“I would hate to make a public message on unconfirmed information,” he said.
Mosque has better reputation than critic
In fact, King said the folks at the mosque have been great for Doraville.
“They’ve been good neighbors. They have been engaged in getting a conversation going with other churches in our community,” he said. “They have invited our officers to come talk to their youth and their congregation.”
I requested all code enforcement complaints for the mosque for the past five years and turned up a paltry few, most of which concerned overflow parking on the streets around it. King said the mosque leadership had been responsive to those complaints and worked with the city to keep the streets clear.
Owens’ own record isn’t so shiny. He is considered such a volatile character that Capitol Police decided he shouldn’t be allowed to wander the Capitol without an escort. The warning came despite the fact that he was running for a seat in the House at the time.
What do Owens’ own neighbors think of him? He lost in the GOP primary to incumbent Rep. Tom Taylor, who had just been arrested for DUI while driving around with a handgun and four teenage exchange students in the car. Of the two, voters believed Taylor was the safer option.
Clearly Hill, Stachowiak and Owens are not the only people complaining to Newton County officials about the proposed mosque, but they are loud voices on the topic. Best to know who they are.
As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out.What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.