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Speaking for Justice

Sikhs, Somalis, Arabs, Latinos, people whose lives have changed since September 11, 2001, gather in Seattle to tell their stories of fear and humiliation--stories that echo the Japanese internments

My name is Mouhamed Hamoui. I came to America in 1992 from Syria, seeking asylum. On February 22, 2002, something happened that I never thought possible; after all, this is America. At 7 a.m. that morning, seven INS and FBI agents dragged my parents and my sister out of bed with guns and flashlights. ... Since then, they have all been suffering in detention. ... My sister thinks that Arab Muslims are no longer welcome in this country, and it breaks her heart that a country she loves and has called home since she was nine years old is making her go through this."
null Pramila Jayapal
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null Pramila Jayapal, Photo by Nadeem Uddin
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Thirteen-year-old Mouhamed Hamoui's parents and sister, who have been in detention for over eight months, are among the casualties of Attorney General John Ashcroft's Alien Absconder Apprehension Initiative, under which 6,000 men from “al Qaeda-harboring countries” were the first to be targeted for apprehension.

Mouhamed was one of those who testified on September 21, 2002, in Seattle at a landmark public hearing called Justice For ALL: The Aftermath of September 11, 2001. The hearing marked the first time that immigrants targeted by the Bush Administration's post-September 11 crackdown have come forward in public to speak about the impacts on their lives of these policies and the repercussions of the hate crimes, racial profiling, and discrimination that have become part of everyday life.

On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President George Bush said that “freedom and respect for human rights are owed to every human being, in every culture.” He also said that throughout history, freedom has been threatened by war and terror. But many civil liberties and immigrant rights groups believe it is the actions of the Bush administration that pose one of the greatest threats to our freedom as Americans.

In the year following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration successfully pushed forward a series of actions that erode fundamental constitutional rights, with the burden falling disproportionately on immigrants. Post-September 11 policies allow people to be detained without charge or access to legal counsel and allow hearings to be held in secret. The TIPS program seeks to turn our mail carriers and truck drivers into a cadre of citizen spies. Our system of justice, which presumes that individuals are innocent until proven guilty, has been turned on its head.

The domestic struggle is, of course, intimately linked to the international struggle for power (read: oil). The quelling of public dissent that was seen with the attempts to silence anti-globalization protestors has spilled over. What is at stake as each of us decides whether or not to be involved in the struggle is nothing less than what it means to be free.

 

Speaking out

The idea for the public hearing emerged in the basement of the Wing Luke Asian Museum at a meeting called by the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, a nonprofit organization serving communities targeted in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Approximately 30 people from Somali, Sikh, Arab, Latino, Muslim, and Japanese-American communities came together that July evening to discuss how to commemorate September 11 and its aftermath. Although we in the Hate Free Zone Campaign had been working with all these communities for the past year, most had never met each other. As each spoke, it became clear that they had in common a terror of speaking out and a sense of being isolated and unwelcome in America.

 

Devon Abdallah, an Arab-American, and Jasmit Singh, a Sikh, said they didn't want a kum ba yah event. “We need to stand up and talk about what is really going on.” These words unleashed a fury of assent. This was what the group wanted: to speak out together. But how?

The answer came from Karen Yoshitomi, of the Japanese American Citizens League, who suggested we hold a hearing modeled on those held in the early 1980s on Japanese internment. Individuals from different communities would testify before a commission of high-level officials about their personal experiences of discrimination and profiling since September 11. “Let's not wait 40 years this time,” Yoshitomi said passionately.

Magic entered the room.

The meeting became the first of many organizing sessions, held every week and attended each time by 20 to 30 people from different ethnic communities. In the end, more than 100 people from 30 organizations worked with a consuming energy and excitement.

The magnitude of what we planned to do was tremendous—first, because drawing together a coalition of such diverse communities is a true feat, and second, because we were asking people to take a huge risk by coming forward to testify. Many feared that testifying would worsen their situations. Many had been targeted and questioned by the FBI and did not want to draw more attention to themselves. And those who had been the victims of violent crimes did not want to relive those experiences.

The Hate Free Zone Campaign along with the Arab-American Community Coalition, the Sikh Coalition, and various Somali groups began collecting testimony. Multiple work groups were formed. The venue would be Seattle's Town Hall, and our goal was to have 600–800 people in attendance.

We had less than two months to pull it together.

The week before the hearing, we were still collecting testimonies, which had to be translated and transcribed. Organizing logistics seemed endless: securing buses to bring immigrants without cars; printing a preliminary report with all the testimonies; coordinating media releases, interviews, and volunteers, including a peace-keeping force of over 35 people. Somalis, Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs were still fearful of coming forward. It had also been difficult to secure the commissioners; we heard unofficially that several invited officials felt it would be “too controversial” or that they did not believe that immigrant communities of color could pull this together.

Our panel in the end included US representatives Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott, both from districts in Washington state, as well top officials from the Department of Justice, INS, FBI, and state and local elected officials. The forum would be moderated by Washington state Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith, a highly respected African American with a long history in civil rights.

The last group meeting was five days before the hearing. When we finished discussing all the last details, I looked around the room at the 40 tired, but resolute, faces. We all felt the miracle of what we had accomplished even before the hearing had taken place. Working together, we had seen the possibility of creating a new world that honored all hands and hearts, races and religions. Now, only one question remained: Would people come?

 

Freedom

September 21 was sunny and gorgeous. By 8 a.m. Town Hall was bustling. The video crew was there. Fifty-some volunteers had their instructions. The peacekeepers were standing guard. A local television news crew and reporters from the Seattle Times and the Washington Post arrived. The commissioners arrived. Ahmed—a Somali grocer disqualified from and then reinstated into the USDA's Food Stamp program in what appeared to be a case of ethnic/religious discrimination—was calling every 10 minutes on my cell phone with updates on the Somalis who were on their way.

 

Yes, they came. Over 1,100 people attended, filling Town Hall with one of the most diverse audiences Seattle has ever seen. Progressive European Americans came in support and because they understood that this hearing was about the rights of all of us. Somali women in hijab arrived in hundreds. Sikh men wearing colorful turbans arrived. Japanese Americans, Cambodians, Muslims, and Arab Americans. All of them came in, tentatively at first. But then, as they looked around at the packed room and listened to the testimonies, they sat taller. They became defiant. They radiated beauty. “We want to testify, too,” they started whispering to us. “I had no idea we could be heard like this! I want to tell my story!”

Those on stage testified about FBI harassment, about hate crimes, about discrimination: A Sikh taxi driver who was beaten for looking like Osama bin Laden; children ranging from the ages of five to fourteen who had been bullied and beaten in schools; women who had been denied jobs because they wore hijab; Latino airport workers who had been swept up in raids on airport workers; and the lawyer for a Tunisian man who has been in detention for one year based simply on the statement of a woman who claimed to have heard him say he was going to blow up the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The final testimony came from Mako Nakagawa, who had lived through the Japanese internment camps herself. “We have been through this all 60 years ago,” she said, her voice breaking with tears. “Our community keeps saying, ‘Not again! Please, not again.' Haven't we learned anything?”

As I watched, I wept. I wept because I saw the fear and the courage of those who came and those who testified. The hearing was not just about safety or harassment or discrimination. It was about freedom, freedom these communities were ready to stand together and fight for.

The commissioners listened for almost two and a half hours. Then they each had a chance to respond. Washington state Senator Adam Kline said: “That these stories have happened right here in America is a national embarrassment.”

Bruce Miyake, assistant US attorney for western Washington (whose office is directly responsible for carrying out many of DOJ's policies), told the crowd that “Part of me doesn't want to be here because I don't want to be identified with [the stories I have heard today]. But we have to be accountable. We have to hear the effects of the policies that are being enacted. ... I intend not only to brief the US attorney for western Washington but also to send a letter to President Bush and to Attorney General John Ashcroft about what we have heard today.” The crowd broke into a roar of applause.

Some commissioners were defensive. “You have to understand that we are government servants,” said Dorothy Stefan, head district counsel for the INS. “We just carry out the policies.”

Congressman Jim McDermott urged people to hold hearings such as this across the country. “My colleagues in Congress [need to] listen to what we've heard today.”

When Justice Charles Smith stood to offer closing comments, he reminded the crowd of what America stands for. In a voice cracking with tears, he quoted the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

As tears rolled down his face, Justice Smith asked the audience to join hands in celebration.

 

Taking power

One reporter who covered the event said this on the air: “In Seattle, over 1,000 people that we often take for granted are showing us that democracy works.”

 

We believe that while this was an incredible beginning, it was not the end. We will know that democracy works when we see real changes in policies.

Meanwhile, we hope to replicate the hearing in states around the country, and to take the hearing directly to Congress and the attorney general.

The people who told their stories in spite of tremendous fear, did so not only for themselves and their communities but for all of us. They spoke out because they love America and they believe that public debate is essential for a functioning democracy. They spoke out for freedom for their children and for all of our children. They spoke out because they know that ultimately, the erosion of their rights can summarily be applied to all of us. As Benjamin Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

What happened in Seattle was people power. We did not wait to be invited to participate. We did not wait to be given power, knowing that marginalized communities rarely are given such power. We took it. Those who believe that these communities can be ignored will have to think again, for these communities have discovered the power of action, of standing together, of creating a new world that does not pit us against them.

As we continue in this struggle to reclaim what it means to be American and what it means to live in America, we raise our voices together in pride to say this to each American: Alone, each one of us can make a difference; together, we are unstoppable.


Pramila Jayapal is founder and director of The Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington and author ofPilgrimage to India: A Woman Revisits Her Homeland, Seal Press, 2001.

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