Bowling Green residents commemorate ‘massacre’

Community members hold candles at the Bowling Green Massacre Remembrance Gathering Feb. 3, 2016. Organizer Justin Swindle, 27, said it all began as a joke with friends. “It somehow got super popular,” Swindle said,” so we tried to make it matter by collecting donations.” Donations will be given to the International Center of Kentucky.

Andrew Critchelow

Members of the Bowling Green community gathered downtown and stood together in the cold Friday night, lighting candles and holding signs to commemorate a tragedy that never happened: “the Bowling Green massacre.”

The Bowling Green Massacre Remembrance Gathering was held as a reaction to a statement made by Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump during a Thursday interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. Conway defended the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on refugee admissions and travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries during the interview by falsely claiming that a “massacre” occurred in Bowling Green and was orchestrated by two Iraqi refugees.

“I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre,” Conway said in the interview. “Most people didn’t know that because it didn’t get covered.”

Conway was referring to the May 2011 arrest of two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green who were later charged for plotting to send money and weapons to Al Qaeda. The two men, named Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadiwere, were mistakenly accepted as U.S. refugees and were resettled in Bowling Green in 2009. The two men never plotted a terrorist attack in the United States and no “massacre” ever happened in Bowling Green.

The Obama administration temporarily tightened security checks on Iraqi refugees and visa applications following the incident, but a ban was never instituted in 2011.

Justin Swindle, co-organizer of the Remembrance Gathering, said the event was initially created as a joke directed toward Conway, but it eventually gained traction through social media.

“It was initially supposed to be just a few of us,” Swindle said. “ … I made a Facebook event that was public and invited some people and it just blew up from there.”

Along with the burning of candles, some participants of the event made speeches and held signs saying things such as “we survived a massacre of truth” and “we stand with Bowling Green resident, ban lies, not people.”

“Congratulations, Bowling Green,” Adam Brownlee, Bowling Green, said during a speech. “Today we just became an alternative fact.”

Donations for the International Center of Kentucky were also taken at the event. Speakers at the event used the platform to support local organizations such as Bowling Green #blacklivesmatter and Bowling Green Fairness. The speakers also voiced support for and encouraged people to attend The Unity Walk that happened in downtown Bowling Green on Saturday.

Swindle said that accepting these donations and using the gathering as a forum for discussion helped add purpose to an event that started as a joke.

“I thought since we were reaching a large group of people it was more helpful to actually be helpful than to just make fun,” Swindle said.

Bowling Green businesses have also taken jabs at Conway’s remarks with drink and food specials such as the “the Bowling Green Massacre” pizza at Home Cafe & Marketplace and the “Bowling Green Massliquor Shot” at Hilligan’s Bar and Grill.

Conway retracted the “massacre” comment on Twitter Friday saying, “I meant to say ‘Bowling Green terrorists.’” Bowling Green mayor Bruce Wilkerson expressed sympathy toward Conway in a statement on Friday.

“I understand during a live interview how one can misspeak and we appreciate the clarification,” Wilkerson said.

At the Remembrance Gathering, Swindle said during a speech that Conway’s words were deliberate.

“She said that she misspoke, but really her intent was to turn people against Muslim folks and immigrants and refugees and that’s something that we recognize,” Swindle said. “Bowling Green is not going to stand for her using us as her ammunition.” 

Reporter Andrew Critchelow can be reached at 270-745-6288 and [email protected]