A flash mob generated by text messaging escalated a disturbance at a historic amusement park that started when Muslim women were told they couldn't go on some rides while wearing religious head scarves, a county police commissioner said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the first of the 15 people arrested in the scuffle pleaded not guilty to disorderly conduct charges.
About 3,000 Muslims had gone on a trip to Playland Park in Rye on Aug. 30 to celebrate the Muslim festival Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Islam's holy month of fasting, Ramadan.
Playland, which is owned by Westchester County and is a National Historic Landmark, bans headgear, including baseball caps and eyeglasses, on several fast rides for safety reasons, parks Deputy Commissioner Peter Tartaglia said Tuesday. He spoke at a hearing called by two committees of the county Legislature.
Tartaglia said some Muslim women who were wearing religious scarves known as hijabs objected when told they couldn't go on those rides.
The county had made the policy clear to the trip organizer, the Muslim American Society of New York, Tartaglia said. But Sharif Aly, vice president of the society, said by phone Tuesday that some Muslim women had previously been allowed to ride with their head scarves on.
"This inconsistent enforcement gives the perception of being discriminatory," Aly said.
Tartaglia said that managers arranged to grant refunds and that a booth was set up to handle the 30 or so dissatisfied patrons.
Public Safety Commissioner George Longworth said scuffles then broke out within the group, apparently because of "dissatisfaction over not being notified about the rule."
County police and park rangers made five arrests, and "the situation calmed," Longworth said.
But as the five were taken to the park's police station, about 25 relatives and friends gathered outside, "upset by the arrests," he said.
"At that point we experienced a phenomenon that law enforcement has experienced across the country called flash mobs, where groups tend to gather rapidly because of texting," the commissioner said.
He said he saw people texting and then the group grew "from 25 to 100 in five or six minutes."
The crowd "started to yell, scream and make gestures at the police officers," he said. "When we started to move the prisoners out of the building, the crowd became unruly, more physical contact followed and additional officers were brought in."
Ten more arrests were made, and the crowd eventually dissipated, he said.
Longworth said the police response was appropriate. Aly said many witnesses believe "the police used excessive force."
George Oros, chief of staff to County Executive Rob Astorino, told the lawmakers that besides the 15 criminal cases, civil cases may be brought.
"The county attorney's office has been contacted by lawyers for some of the people that were there," Oros said.
Two of those arrested, Entisar Ali and her husband, Fuad Alnajjar, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to disorderly conduct charges in Rye City Court. Their lawyer, Gideon Orion Oliver, told The Journal News that he would try to get the charges dismissed.