By ANDREW POLLACK
The United States in late summer 2012 was awash with anti-Muslim, anti-Sikh violence and rhetoric, perpetrated by racists both in and out of office.
In an Aug. 17 statement, the National Lawyers Guild’s Muslim Defense Project (MDP) noted: “Today, merely gathering as a Muslim has become an act of courage in the face of terror. Indeed, the last few weeks have been marked by horrifying instances of hatred around the United States. The day after Wade Michael Page, who had ties to white supremacy groups, brutally attacked members of the Sikh community at their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a mosque was also burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri. This mosque had been the subject of persistent attempts at arson. In Morton Grove, Illinois, a man was shot at an Islamic center where 500 Muslims had gathered for Ramadan prayers. And in the suburb of Lombard, a soda bottle filled with household chemicals was thrown at an Islamic school, also during Ramadan prayers.”
The MDP countered media attempts to portray each case as unique and inexplicable: “These acts of hatred towards Muslims and others regarded as ‘foreigners’ to American society are not random or isolated but have been fomented by politicians, law enforcement officials, and sanctioned by judges. The two attacks in Illinois followed the incendiary claim made by local Republican House Representative Joe Walsh … that there is ‘a radical strain of Islam in this country … trying to kill Americans every week.’”
The MDP itself has been organizing against spying by the New York City police department, which has put every Muslim house of worship, business, and school under surveillance. The Project notes that the department “continues to promote its ‘radicalization’ theory, connecting all Muslims to terrorism, which it uses to justify the wholesale surveillance of communities, with an army of informants and spies in areas extending far beyond New York City.”
On Aug. 21 the latest in a series of stories by the Associated Press exposing NYPD spying focused on a deposition by NYPD Assistant Chief Joseph Galati, head of the department’s Intelligence Division, in which he admitted that the department had turned up not a single lead to any crime, much less any terrorist act, despite years of spying on every Muslim organization and establishment in several cities. This news soon went viral on the internet. But the deeper significance of the story was widely underplayed, the fact that Galati admitted their real goal had been achieved: that is, the department had sufficient spies in the Muslim community to listen to political conversations of thousands of community members.
Just speaking Urdu or Bengali, just coming from Lebanon, said Galati, was enough to be worthy of departmental interest. By the same token, a conversation by any Arab, South Asian, or Muslim in any language complaining about anti-Muslim words or deeds was enough to get noted down in NYPD records. Complaining about anti-Muslim hate crimes, about U.S. killing of civilians using drone aircraft, and similar speech supposedly protected under the Constitution made you worthy of surveillance, said Galati. (Galati, by the way, is the same cop who harassed and illegally detained Iranian diplomats in a widely-reported 2007 incident.)
So while they turned up not a single lead, the department was able to cast a net over entire communities in the hopes of intimidating them and discouraging political activity and dissuading them from asserting their rights. And the longer-term danger is that this ubiquitous surveillance puts in place a mapping of the community that could be used in future wholesale crackdowns involving mass detentions.
And the focus on the alleged “ineffectiveness” of the NYPD spying ignores the entrapment and frame-up that has gone on during this same period. For instance, Michael Williams, who was trying to defend young Palestinian women from a physical and verbal attack by a racist at a Palestine demonstration, faced seven years in jail after his unjust conviction. Fortunately, a vigorous defense by NLG-MDP founder Lamis Deek got the sentence reduced to 90 days; an appeal of the guilty verdict is currently in process.
Deek is also representing another NYPD victim, Ahmed Ferhani, a young, mentally unstable Algerian American, entrapped and framed up by an agent who concocted a fictional scheme against a Jewish house of worship.
Another group central to the movement against police spying in New York, Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), issued a statement after the Wisconsin Gurudwara shootings in which they pointed out that these crimes were “part of a history of targeting of communities of color that all too often goes unchecked and remains rooted in a national climate bolstered by state policies. This climate of racism and intolerance targeting Sikhs, South Asians, Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners, particularly since 9/11, has been fueled by frequent media distortions, governmental policies of racial and religious profiling, and the rise in hate groups. Yet, the media and public discourse mistakenly puts the Sikh and other religions on the hot seat rather than the vast network of organized hate groups.
“Organized white supremacist and hate groups remain largely unchecked. In 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put out a report on the dangers of right-wing extremism in the U.S., it received severe backlash from many conservative policy makers. As a result of the criticism, the DHS dismantled and cut funding for the intelligence team that monitored such threats.”
After the shootings, Harsha Walia, a community organizer and writer based in Vancouver, described the logic behind hate crimes, including their roots in economic exploitation and the contribution of racial oppression in stifling a fightback against it: “The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism. People of color face legislated racism from immigration laws to policies governing Indigenous reserves; are discriminated and excluded from equitable access to healthcare, housing, childcare, and education; are disproportionately victims of police killings and child apprehensions; fill the floors of sweatshops and factories; are over-represented in head counts on poverty rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and high school dropout rates. Colonialism has and continues to be shaped by the counters of white men’s civilizing missions. The occupation of Afghanistan has been justified on the racist idea of liberating Muslim women from Muslim men.”
This theme was echoed by radical professor and activist Vijay Prishad, who wrote: “With the political class unwilling to reverse the tide of jobless growth and corporate power, the politicians stigmatize the outsider as the problem of poverty and exploitation. … Far easier to let the Sikhs and the Latinos, the Muslims and the Africans bear the social cost for economic hopelessness and political powerlessness than to target the real problem: the structures that benefit the 1% and allow them to luxuriate in Richistan.”
Meanwhile, activists in the antiwar and Occupy movement are increasingly finding themselves targets of state repression as they are framed up on bogus “terrorism” charges (e.g. the NATO 5 and Cleveland 4, coming on top of the FBI/grand jury frame-up of antiwar and solidarity activists whose homes were raided two years ago).
The revelations by the NYPD’s Galati came out under questioning by a lawyer seeking to have the department’s Demographics Unit dismantled under provisions of the Handschu ruling. That ruling was a result of a lawsuit filed by activists seeking to dismantle the ubiquitous spying of New York cops on social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Handschu was largely eviscerated after 9/11, and efforts to restore it, and expand it, certainly deserve our support.
But the movements at the center of the Handschu case themselves raised even more radical demands against police spying, brutality and repression, demands which are worth reviving today. We must demand the opening of all police files, unredacted, so we can see the names of all cops and informers who have violated the rights of the oppressed. We must re-raise demands for community control of the police and their eventual replacement by community self-policing—a demand that will only be won as part of a society-wide movement against the capitalists’ state itself.
Getting to that point means joining today the growing movement around individual cases of entrapment, against policies of spying and frame-ups, against verbal and physical attacks on Muslims and all other targeted communities and movements, whether those attacks come from official or unofficial individuals and institutions.
Photo by Tony Savino / Socialist Action