Brevard activist at Texas event targeted by shooters

Roger Gangitano says he was helping live-stream event

Florida Today

Roger Gangitano.

A Brevard County leader of a local group spotlighting what he calls "radical Islam" was at the site of the controversial "Draw Muhammad" cartoon contest in Texas where two gunmen were shot to death late Sunday.

Federal authorities are looking into any connections the two men might have had with terrorist groups like ISIS before they pulled up to the center in Texas where the contest was being held.

Roger Gangitano, the chapter leader of Act! Space Coast Chapter and a coordinator for The United West, a group with a mission of creating awareness about what it sees as the encroachment of Islamic religious law, said he was inside assisting with live-streaming the event when the shooting occurred.

"I'm doing OK, but it's a little frantic in Garland," Gangitano told Local 6 News partner Florida Today. "From what I understand, two terrorists came into the parking lot expecting the people to be filing out. They had drum-fed AK-47s."

His Act! Chapter meetings draw 50 to 100 people monthly at the Brevard County Commission chambers.

The Texas event was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization led by Pamela Geller, a political activist known for her anti-Islamic criticisms, and was done in response to terrorist attacks and protests by Muslims worldwide condemning artistic renderings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Images of the prophet are forbidden by Islam, a faith with 1.5 billion adherents.

Geller's organization has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit agency that uses litigation and research to report on groups with extremist political, racial and ideological views. Gangitano, however, says his group and Geller's are simply voicing concern about the threat of radicalized Islam in the United States.

"This contest was held as an expression of free speech. Certainly, whether drawing Muhammad is an insult or not, no one should have their life taken over a drawing. For them to attack, it's a blatant attack on our freedom of speech and the concept that we have to back down on how we speak is absurd," he said before describing what happened Sunday.

"The event had just concluded and I was doing some stuff for Pamela Geller. I was on the stage at the time speaking with her...(when) all of a sudden, her security grabbed her and pulled her away," he said.

Gangitano said he began to realize that something had happened after coming across Garland police SWAT team members in the building.

"One of the officers was in the SWAT gear, stood there and said, 'you can't leave yet.'"

Garland police reported the two men drove up to the Culwell Center and were spotted by an officer. The pair got out of their car and shot a security officer in the leg, prompting Garland police to return fire and fatally wound the men, according to reports.

Gangitano said the shootings show that other similar events should take place across the nation to bring awareness to what he believes is an issue of free speech.

In January, Islamic gunmen shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "Our God is great," stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine known for its controversial artwork featuring the Prophet Muhammad, and killed eight employees, prompting protests across Europe.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations in 2014 slammed ACT! Of the Space Coast as a hate group and asked the Brevard County Commission to stop renting out its space after Gangitano announced he was bringing controversial University of Central Florida professor John Matusitz to speak.

The Act! Space Coast chapter will meet again May 12 to discuss the Middle East and counter-terrorism efforts.

"I'm no hero," Gangitano said, who would not elaborate on security for the events. "But you don't do what we do if you're afraid."

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