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Poster linking Rep. Ilhan Omar to 9/11 sparks outrage, injuries in W.Va. state Capitol

After an anti-Muslim poster targeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R) said, "we owe it to ourselves to do better." (Video: Reuters)
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Friday was a day meant to celebrate the Republican Party in the West Virginia Capitol. But a poster connecting a Muslim congresswoman to the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to heated emotions, caused the resignation of at least one staff member and left another reportedly 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 freshmen Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) underneath one of the New York’s twin towers burning.

“'Never forget’ — You said,” read text placed over the photo of the World Trade Center.

“I am the proof you have forgotten,” read the caption over Omar’s image.

Omar, one of the first two Muslim congresswoman ever elected, has been the target of Islamophobic smears since she took office this year.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the poster, which was displayed on a day of events called “WVGOP Day” and sponsored by the state Republican Party. Melody Potter, the state party chairwoman, did not respond to voice mail or text messages.

Photos of the poster showed it next to a placard promoting ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-Muslim hate group. ACT for America did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mike Pushkin, a Democratic member of the 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 snapped and tweeted a picture of it after walking over to see 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 a making an anti-Muslim slur during the dispute, according to West Virginia Public Radio and other local outlets. A doorkeeper was reportedly injured during a dispute with a member over the doors to the chamber.

Pushkin, who is Jewish, said he condemned the poster from the floor of the House 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 First 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 Del. Dianna Graves said, West Virginia Public Radio reported. “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.

Roger Hanshaw, a Republican and the House speaker, 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.

On Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted that, “When racism becomes acceptable on a partisan basis, and official GOP groups begin to use it to demonize communities, it puts real people in danger. @IlhanMN, I am sorry these threats are being targeted on you.”

Omar was rebuked last month by conservatives as well as Democratic Party leaders after a tweet about the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups that some found to be 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 Representative 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 through 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.”

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