Friday was a day meant to celebrate the Republican Party at the West Virginia Capitol. But a poster connecting a Muslim congresswoman to the 9/11 attacks led to heated emotions and the resignation of at least one staff member, and reportedly left another injured when things got physical as the altercation spilled into the chamber of the West Virginia House of Delegates.
The poster, at a table in the Capitol’s rotunda, featured an image of freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) spliced next to one of the twin towers burning.
“‘Never forget’ - You said,” read the caption over the World Trade Center photo.
“I am the proof you have forgotten,” the caption over Omar’s image said.
Omar, one of the first two Muslim congresswomen ever elected, has been the target of Islamophobic smears since she took office.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the poster, which came on a day of events called “WVGOP Day” sponsored by the state’s Republican Party. Melody Potter, the state party chairwoman, did not respond to voicemail or text messages.
Photos of the poster show it next to a placard promoting ACT of America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as an anti-Muslim hate group. ACT of America did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mike Pushkin, a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, told the Washington Post that he was in a morning committee meeting when someone sent him a picture of the poster. He later took and tweeted a photo of it.
“I said, ‘What does she have to do with 9/11?’” he said. “It was Islamophobic. I thought it was racist and it was wrong.”
The poster kicked off a heated debate in the hallway outside the House of Delegates that eventually spilled into the chamber, Pushkin said.
The body’s sergeant-at-arms submitted a letter of resignation at the end of the day after being accused of making an anti-Muslim slur during the dispute, according to West Virginia Public Radio and other local outlets. A doorkeeper was reportedly injured in a dispute with a member.
Pushkin, who is Jewish, said he condemned the poster from the floor of the House of Delegates and asked his colleagues to do the same.
“I said in 1933 in Berlin, they might have had a similar poster about somebody like me,” he said.
But no Republican delegates condemned the poster, Pushkin said.
“I’m really disappointed that not a single Republican elected official in this building could join me in saying it’s wrong,” he said.
Many Republicans got up to speak about the 1st Amendment in response, according to West Virginia Public Radio.
“My issue with what I saw outside has to do with another truly American foundational issue, and that’s freedom of speech,” Republican Delegate Dianna Graves said, according to the radio station. “So, while I may not agree with everything that is out there, I do agree that freedom of speech is something that we have to protect, even if we don’t agree with it.”
Democrats countered that the poster amounted to hate speech.
House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, a Republican, gave a speech in which he lamented the anger and tension that had marked the day.
“Friends, we owe it to ourselves to do better,” he said.
“The West Virginia House of Delegates unequivocally rejects hate in all of its forms,” he said in a statement later. Spokesman Jared Hunt said Hanshaw did not specifically condemn the poster because of the full sweep of the day’s events.
“There was a poster, there was reaction, there was an argument between the sergeant-at-arms and a delegate, then an incident that led to the injury of a House staff member,” Hunt said. “This was an escalating series of events that were wrong.”
Omar, a refugee from Somalia who immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was young, tweeted that she had been receiving threats recently.
“Look no further, the GOP’s anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!” she wrote.
Omar was rebuked by conservatives as well as Democratic Party leaders last month after a tweet about the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups that some considered anti-Semitic. But she has also been the subject of attacks based on her religion.
Pushkin said he wasn’t concerned with her politics.
“I don’t agree with a lot of the things that Rep. Omar has said — l think we probably have different views on Israel and the Middle East,” he said. “But I have the utmost respect for somebody who entered this country in the manner that she did and came [to] the United States of America with absolutely nothing and has earned the right, through winning an election, to serve in our nation’s Capitol in the House of Representatives.”