Living in fear of the government

January 4, 2011

Activists in the Bay Area have come together to form the Coalition for a Safe San Francisco, a grassroots alliance of individuals and organizations working to protect civil rights that are being shredded in the name of "national security."
Veena Dubal, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, and Summer Hararah, coordinator of the Asian Law Caucus' National Security and Civil Rights program, are involved in Coalition activities. They talked to Jeremy Tully about the wave of Islamophobia and FBI harassment of Muslims in the Bay Area–and how activists are challenging these attacks.

An FBI agent knocks on the door of a family's home

CAN YOU describe the kind of harassment and abuse that people have been facing?

Veena: The types of things we see in the Bay Area really vary. There's the very common story of FBI agents coming to people's homes early in the morning. Sometimes they do it politely, knocking on the door, saying, "We just want to talk to you." And sometimes they do it really aggressively, either with or without a search warrant, knocking loudly on the door and saying, "Police, open up!"

In the case of one of our clients, they aggressively made their way into his home and asked him for his identification. The whole time he went to retrieve it, they kept their hands on their guns.

But even when an FBI agent is polite, it doesn't mean that the individual being interviewed should be less cautious. One client of ours had a cordial relationship with an FBI agent over a period of years to the point that he considered the agent a friend. The client ended up on the no-fly list, and we believe he may have been put there because he refused to be a paid informant.

In addition to going into people's homes, agents will visit their places of work. Sometimes they'll come repeatedly, especially if the person was willing to talk the first time. We've also had cases of people approached on campuses by the FBI. Really, it seems they're just on fishing expeditions to get as much information as possible.

Those are individual cases, but we also know that FBI agents often attend community events. They get themselves invited and get tickets, or they come uninvited. They were recently undercover at a talk given by local playwright Wajahat Ali, who wrote The Domestic Crusaders, which is about the experience of Muslims in America. We have received complaints from the community that they have also gone undercover to events at schools with a majority of Muslim students.

IF THEY'RE undercover, how do you know they're there?

Veena: Sometimes we know they're there because they've approached other people from the community before a community event. Those people then say to us, "The FBI agents I talked to the other day were here." That's how we find out the majority of the time.

Those in favor of the increased surveillance say, "What's the big deal? This community is more likely to know about 'terrorists' than other communities. It's just a minor inconvenience for them to talk to the FBI."

But it's much more than an inconvenience. When a worker is visited at his place of employment, and they come and say, "We're the FBI, Muhammed isn't in trouble, but we just want to talk to him," it sends a message to everyone else that works there that people should be wary of Muhammed. It stigmatizes him and affects the way he's perceived and treated at work.

To give you an example of how afraid the community is right now, sometimes mosque members are weary of our coming to do a workshop for them. It shows what a state of siege this community is under that they're afraid of having a civil rights organization advising them of their legal rights, because they think it makes them more vulnerable or might catch the eye of the FBI.

IS THERE a consensus among community leaders around cooperating or not cooperating with the FBI?

Summer: There's a strong split, with a lot of people feeling that it will benefit the community to cooperate. I think working at the Asian Law Caucus gives an interesting perspective because of the parallel between the experiences of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and Muslim Americans today.

Fred Korematsu was one of the few Japanese Americans who wanted to fight back against the internment process. Most of the leaders of the Japanese American community at the time didn't want to make any waves–they went along with being rounded up, being put in concentration camps and cooperating with law enforcement They thought it was a way to prove their loyalty or a way to prove they belonged to America.

As a Muslim American, I see the same pattern today. A lot of the community is really upset that their loyalty to their country is being questioned. They see cooperation with law enforcement as a way to prove, "We are American, this is our country too; we want to work with the FBI, and we'll be the first people to report any problems."

But when the abuse starts escalating, the split widens. When there are informants in the community tracking people, when there are innocent people imprisoned and lives destroyed, more leaders begin to say, "There has to be a line here. We'll be the first people to report crimes, but we also want to be treated equally like everyone else."

IF SOMEONE is approached by an FBI agent, what do you advise people to do?

Veena: One, don't talk. You are under no obligation to talk to anyone. Two, if you really must talk, you should only do so with your attorney present. You don't want to talk to an FBI agent without an attorney because an FBI agent can lie to you. But if you lie to them or misspeak–say, you give a wrong date that you traveled, and it's somehow relevant to their investigation–then that's a crime that you may very well be put in jail for.

It's very common for FBI agents to discourage people from contacting attorneys. They'll say things like, "You're going to make things more complicated," or they'll be threatening. It's all part of an attempt to make people feel isolated.

Many people have an idealist perspective. They think, "I have nothing to hide. Why wouldn't I want to talk to them? It's just going to make me look more suspect if I don't." But with 90 percent of our clients, once I write the FBI a letter saying I represent an individual, they never hear from the FBI again.

WHAT ABOUT cases like Adnan Mirza, the Pakistani citizen in the U.S. on a student visa who was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly conspiring to provide material support to the Taliban? Adnan maintains that he was entrapped by the FBI, and that the charges are trumped up.

Veena: The people they target are almost always very poor people with no resources and/or folks who have mental illnesses. And there is secret evidence, the use of secret court opinions, the use of agent provocateurs, the use of pending immigration applications, and the use of really bad translators who are not independent and give very pro-government translations.

Summer: There's a term for this tactic: "pre-emptive prosecution." It derives from the Cheney doctrine of pre-emptive war. They are prosecuting people for crimes they supposedly would have committed.

This isn't solely a problem of the Muslim community. Our justice system has historically been very unjust, especially to minority communities. The law is just another tool to dominate that community and chill their freedoms and their rights.

It's really problematic because this paradigm of the "war on terror" is endless, and the funding for all these programs also seems endless. You wonder that once you have this big infrastructure in place, how long before you run out of Muslims to persecute? And how long until it gets turned on other American citizens who aren't Muslim?

I already see how it's moving in that direction. When the FBI targets someone like Hatem Abudayyeh–the executive director of a prominent non-profit in Chicago, the board of which has ties to President Obama–and upends his entire life, it's really scary. And it's a scary direction for the country.

MANY PEOPLE were scared by the increased militarization of the national security state under George W. Bush, and there was a lot of hope and expectations that Obama would change that. Obama himself said in aRolling Stone interview that if you value civil liberties, you need to vote for the Democrats. Have you seen any change from Bush to Obama in the area of civil liberties?

Veena: I say this not as an Asian Law Caucus attorney but as an individual, since the Caucus is a nonpartisan nonprofit. But in the national security context, differences between Republicans and Democrats, as in many other contexts, are very minimal.

Under Bush, there was broader consensus that we should be fearful about warrantless wiretapping and the use of secret evidence. There was a way in which he was a demagogue that we all could unite around opposing. I think that Obama has absorbed a lot of that energy because there is a sense–especially among people who aren't affected by it day to day–that they can be a little more hands off about these things now because this Black constitutional law scholar is going to be more attentive to people's civil liberties.

But if anything, things have gotten worse for our communities in the last few years. Let me give you an example: under Bush, a law was passed that made it legal for customs and border patrol agents to electronically copy people's laptops. This was unprecedented, and people thought, of course, that the Obama administration would undo this.

The only change that Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, made is that when the laptop is copied, you can ask to be in the room–but you can't watch the process itself. It's a nominal whisper toward civil rights while these policies become more and more unbridled.

Summer: Everything really hinges on holding government accountable. A big part of our campaign is just to get people involved in the process and feel empowered–entitled to and defending their rights. If people are scared to defend their rights, it puts us in a bad situation.

It reminds me of the quote, "The only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." That's how I feel the situation is. It doesn't matter if it's Democrats or Republicans in power, because the structure is so encompassing that it goes beyond that. The people in the streets really have to say no to what's going on and have to be willing to sacrifice to work towards stopping it.