Like Momma like Son
Some people seem to think that Muslims building mosques will somehow put them in danger of becoming targets of terror.
by Shane Blatt
Lilburn’s Hood Road carries new Gwinnett into old Gwinnett. The mile of asphalt begins with a mosque at U.S. 29 and turns into a byway of houses, trees and gardens.
But now, when the sun goes down, tension grows in this tidy, middle-class neighborhood.
Some residents opposed to a mosque expansion on Hood Road say for the past seven months, they’ve been the frequent targets of harassment, mostly by those they describe as “Middle Eastern men”. But a founder of the mosque says the claims are unfounded and the city’s mayor, who lives on Hood Road, hasn’t witnessed anything unusual.
Nonetheless, residents have reported vehicles traveling the road at night with occupants yelling, making obscene gestures, snapping photos, even confronting two women in their driveway.
Since November, when city leaders ruled against a local Muslim congregation’s plans to expand, the Lilburn Police Department has received 21 calls of suspicious activity along Hood Road.
Lilburn police officials say they have investigated every claim and patrolled Hood Road around the clock for two months starting in April, when reports started to escalate.
“We have been unable to substantiate any crime by any person there,” Lilburn police Capt. Bruce Hedley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “[Residents] feel certain people have been driving up and down the road harassing them. Suspicious cars simply driving down the road is not something we can arrest someone for.”
And Wasi Zaidi, a founding member of the Muslim congregation of Dar-E-Abbas, said residents’ claims are “all lies and B.S.,” trumped up by a handful of people who have a political ax to grind against the mayor and the Police Department.
Still, residents say, the harassment is real. Some have installed security camera systems. Others are carrying guns.
“A lot of people are locked and loaded because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” resident Angel Alonso, 46, said. “We have a feeling somebody is going to get hurt.”
Residents say the harassment started Nov. 18, the same day the Lilburn City Council rejected the congregation’s proposal for a 20,000-square-foot mosque, cemetery and gym at U.S. 29 and Hood Road. The council’s decision has since sparked a federal religious discrimination lawsuit against the city.
The congregation has worshipped at two 2,000-square-foot buildings on the same property for nearly 12 years. It owns 1.4 acres of the land and wanted to buy an additional 6.5 acres to accommodate the city’s growing Muslim population. Lilburn Mayor Diana Preston owns four of those acres.
In November, more than 400 residents packed the Gwinnett County courthouse to protest the rezoning. They argued it would pose traffic and parking problems and run afoul of the city’s land-use plan.
After the meeting in Lawrenceville, resident Janie Hood said she was followed and boxed in on U.S. 29 by a van and sport utility vehicle full of “Middle Eastern” males, according to a police report. The vehicles were pulled over. Hood didn’t pursue the matter further, the report said.
But Hood said she didn’t drop it. Since March, she said she has spoken three times to the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office, which is investigating.
Now the 56-year-old Hood, whose father and grandfather built Hood Road, won’t sleep at her house at night, not since an attempted break-in in late December, she said. And on April 23, Hood said five vehicles pulled in front of her property. Two to three men exited and approached, according to a police report. Hood’s daughter, Christi Nichols, who feared for her safety, grabbed a firearm and told the men to leave, the report said.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” Hood said. “All we get from the Police Department is, ‘Stay in your house.’ We will stay in our house, but we should haven’t to.”
Zaidi, of the Muslim congregation, said the 90-plus families who worship at the mosque have “nothing to do with this.”
“They’re saying the mayor isn’t doing her job, the police chief isn’t doing his job,” Zaidi said. “But if they falsely accuse us, we will sue them.”
For months, the mayor was in the cross hairs of the controversy. In January, a group of residents demanded Preston step down or be removed from office for trying to sell her land to the congregation. Preston maintained she had a right to sell her property and refused to quit.
To avoid a conflict of interest, Preston recuses herself from all mosque-related meetings.
As for the harassment claims, Preston gardens close to dusk and up until recently has slept with her windows open. She said she hasn’t seen or heard anything.
“It’s a mystery,” the mayor said. “But every complaint that is made the city is taking seriously and investigating it and giving it due process. A policeman is here quite frequently. I really don’t know what else [the city] could do.”
Yusof Burke, president of the board for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Georgia, said the city’s decision against the rezoning created tension in the neighborhood, but he didn’t think it would boil up into this.
“I’ve never heard of this happening before,” Burke said of the alleged harassment. “The best solution is to meet and talk things out.”
A month ago, a group of residents met with the city manager and police officials.
“We were told that yes, people can take pictures of our houses. Yes, they can stop in front of our houses,” resident Allan Owen said. “The city has essentially been useless.”
Councilman Scott Batterton said the city has tied up significant police manpower to investigate every claim.
“I feel like we need to make no apologies in terms of our efforts to catch or to see what’s going on on Hood Road,” he said. “Policeman like to arrest people for doing wrong. So far, they have not yet been able to identify anyone.”
Capt. Hedley said Lilburn police officers now patrol Hood Road twice a day, and they will continue to investigate all leads.
“I’d love for the community to return to where it was,” Hedley said. “A nice, peaceful neighborhood.”