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What does a world without civil liberties look like?

There are many examples of the steady dissolution of human rights in this post-9/11, “War on Terrorism” age in the United States. Racial profiling and the practice of preventive prosecution have disillusioned many who have traditionally seen the U.S. as a place where civil liberties thrive and the justice system is fair. Racial and religious profiling have become major causes for concern, and that is just one aspect of the web of increasingly stringent laws and security practices that have proliferated life in America since 9/11. The tragedy of that ill-fated day has translated into a continued state of paranoia, where basic values are ignored in the face of a potential or assumed threat.

One such story is that of Syed Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen who has been through the worst of the American detention system after being accused of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. This “material support” involved letting an acquaintance stay with him, an acquaintance who later delivered winter clothing to Al Qaeda.

Hashmi’s story was recently retold in a compelling piece by his former Brooklyn College (CUNY) professor Jeanne Theoharis for The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the account, Hashmi was a devout Muslim and very politically active, regularly voicing his criticisms of American policies in the Muslim world. While pursuing his master’s in London, Hashmi hosted an acquaintance – Mohammed Junaid Babar – who had brought luggage that he later handed over to an Al Qaeda leader in South Waziristan, in Pakistan. Hashmi was arrested on June 6, 2006 and held in custody for 11 months until his extradition to the United States. Hashmi was then placed in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, at first with some facilities. However, five months later, he was put under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a measure that severely restricts a prisoner’s contact with the outside world and removes all sense of privacy. Under SAMs, Hashmi’s detention was described as follows-

[Hashmi] was allowed no contact with anyone outside his lawyer and, in very limited fashion, his parents—no calls, letters, or talking through the walls, because his cell was electronically monitored. He had to shower and relieve himself within view of the camera. He was allowed to write only one letter a week to a single member of his family, using no more than three pieces of paper. One parent was allowed to visit every two weeks, but often would be turned away at the door for bureaucratic reasons. [Hashmi] was forbidden any contact—directly or through his lawyers—with the news media. He could read only portions of newspapers approved by his jailers—and not until 30 days after publication. Allowed only one hour out of his cell a day, he had no access to fresh air but was forced to exercise in a solitary cage.

The government cited Hashmi’s “proclivity for violence” as a justification for the measures, even though he did not have a criminal record, did not exhibit any signs of violence or have a demonstrated reach outside of the prison. Over the next three years, Hashmi’s lawyers appealed the SAMs over 30 times, being rejected each time for one implausible reason after another. On April 27, 2010, Hashmi agreed to a plea bargain, with the government, of one count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison not just for luggage that someone else had brought into his apartment, but also because of his “anti-American jihadist ideology,” according to Judge Preska. Hashmi made his first public statement in four years, thanking everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims, for their support. Hashmi was later transferred to the federal high-security prison in Florence, Colorado and in March this year moved into its Supermax ADX facility, the most draconian prison in the federal system. Meanwhile, his once acquaintance Babar, who was the one to physically deliver winter clothing to Al Qaeda, was sentenced to “time served” (four and a half years out of a possible 70) for his “exceptional” service and because he “began co-operating even before his arrest.

While Hashmi’s true intentions – i.e. whether he was aware of his acquaintance’s Al Qaeda connection or if he had ever considered that route himself – are unknown, the outcry against his detention is more about the authorities completely denying him his right to basic human rights and civil liberites. This becomes even more deplorable especially since he is a U.S. citizen imprisoned in his own country. Hashmi’s case echoes other stories of racial and religious profiling that received much media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the stories was of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who went missing on 9/11. Widespread speculation labeled him as a terrorist and an accomplice to those who carried out the attacks. However, a few months later, his remains were found near the World Trade Center wreckage and it became clear that he had died while being part of the rescue efforts.

Institutionalized racial and religious profiling deeply impacts the community at large and influences the public perception of specific groups that have been targeted by government and national security. In the ten years since 9/11, Arab-Americans and South Asians have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes around the country. In a recent instance, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down in a suburb of Sacramento without any provocation. The police indicated that there was a high chance of hate motivation for the crime.

Representative Peter King (R-NY), who had recently triggered much uproar about his Congressional hearings targeting Islam in the United States, has now added ethnic profiling to his earlier agenda. In a public television appearance on April 5, King stated that “a person’s religious background or ethnicity can be a factor, one of the things to look at.” This blatant push for religious and racial profiling instead of behavioral profiling is a foreboding sign that the issue will not be going away anytime soon. Until there is a change in this position, unfortunate stories of extreme incarceration, wrongful accusations and hate crimes will continue.

Hashmi’s former professor, Theoharis, sums up her thoughts on America’s tenuous handling of the terrorism threat, stating-

…Seeing that humanity is at odds with the political zeitgeist, where endless searches and small bottles of shampoo and fear-mongering subway posters have become the currency of national security. Where a growing obsession with homegrown terrorism means that we are again willing to chisel away the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting America.

This disintegration of the Bill of Rights for the sake of “national security” points to a future where the state of paranoia may quite likely run every facet of our lives. Such a dystopic future, where basic American values and human rights have been compromised, is the subject of Breakthrough’s ground-breaking new Facebook game, America 2049. In this alternate reality game, the player is tasked with the capture of a presumed terrorist and pushed to ask the question- What if? How close have we already come to America 2049? How can we work together—in real life—to build a better future? The game addresses issues such as racial profiling, religious intolerance, and sexual discrimination by presenting a scenario where wrong choices made today will adversely affect our future. And if the widespread cases of racial profiling and complete removal of civil liberties continue, as with the case of Hashmi, the virtual world of the future in America 2049 might come upon us much sooner than we think.

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Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill gives racial profiling the green light

The passage of SB 1070 by the House of Representatives in Arizona will have chilling repercussions if signed into law by Governor Brewer. The bill dramatically expands police powers to stop, question and detain individuals for not having proper identification, a move that will instigate racial profiling and fear and driving a wedge between groups.

SB 1070 effectively makes it a crime to be undocumented in Arizona, and will be one of the harshest anti-immigrant legislations in the U.S. if it becomes law. The bill passed in Arizona’s House of Representatives and is to be combined with a similar bill that passed in the Senate, after which it is expected to be signed into law Governor Brewer. Senator Russell K. Pearce (R-AZ) who introduced the bill has publicly stated that if it passes, 10 other states will follow suit with similar legislation.

So what’s in it? The bill requires the police to investigate the immigration status of every person that they come across, whom they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe is in the country unlawfully. This implies that everyone has to carry their papers with them at all times in order to avoid being stopped, arrested, and detained, effectively fashioning Arizona into nothing short of a police state. Currently, police officers can only inquire about a person’s immigration status if the person is a suspect in a crime. In addition, the bill allows anyone to sue a local, country or state agency if they believe that the agency is not enforcing immigration law, expressly forbids cities from adopting “sanctuary” policies that prevent police from carrying out immigration enforcement, and makes it illegal to solicit work or hire day laborers.

While opponents of immigration have been rooting for this measure for a long time, immigrant rights advocates have unanimously condemned the bill as an affront on the civil liberties of the residents of Arizona. From business groups and faith leaders to municipal governments and police chiefs, the bill has seen increasing opposition. Even within the police, while police unions support the bill, the state police chief’s association has opposed the bill, saying that it will hamper the trust that immigrant communities place in the their services. Outraged by its potential passage, groups like the ACLU, NDLON, Bordern Action Network and national networks have gone into overdrive to protest the bill. According to Alessandra Meetze, President of the ACLU of Arizona,

Instead of working on real solutions to the immigration crisis, our legislators have devised a proposal that is full of shortcuts…Contrary to what proponents of SB1070 say, the bill does not prohibit officers from relying on race or ethnicity in deciding who to investigate…A lot of U.S. citizens are going to be swept up in the application of this law for something as simple as having an accent and leaving their wallet at home.

While Senator Pearce believes the bill simply “takes the handcuffs off of law enforcement and lets them do their job”, in reality, it promotes racial profiling and cements anti-immigrant sentiment already prevalent in Arizona. The grounds of “reasonable suspicion” on which police officers will  investigate people about their immigration status will in many cases be based on racial and ethnic grounds. One immigration group, Somos America, likens it to the system operating under apartheid or pre-civil rights America with Jim Crow laws, where people of color were disallowed from entering “white” land, yet were exploited for their labor by the white population. Given Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Arpaio whose dictatorial methods favor neighborhood sweeps, tent city detentions, and racial stops the fear of the misuse of the bill is not far fetched.

Sign a petition to tell Governor Brewer to stand up for Arizona and stop signing a bill into law that will terrorize communities and create painful divisions. Send a free fax to make your thoughts on SB 1070 heard. Tell Gov. Brewer to say no to racial profiling.

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How many more hate crimes against immigrants will it take?

Quintessentially ‘New York,’ Port Richmond is a diverse and vibrant neighborhood that has been home to most of Staten Island’s Latino community for many years. In incidents that often go unreported, in the past few years this neighborhood has seen more hate crimes against Latino immigrants than one can bear to count. The latest one took place early morning on April 5th when 26 year-old Mexican immigrant Rodulfo Olmedo was attacked by four young men outside his apartment. In this horrifyingly vicious assault, the attackers yelled racial slurs at him, beat him with wooden planks, metal chains and a baseball bat, and took his money, leaving him with a fractured skull.

Although Olmedo is home from the hospital and recovering from his injuries, the entire community is reeling from the psychological and emotional trauma caused by yet another episode of race-based violence in their midst. Last night, there was a combination of sadness and outrage as 150 community members gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the bakery where Olmedo was employed. Led by a local priest, they prayed for an end to the violence that has plagued the immigrant community for years. Speaking about the frequency of hate crimes in the area, Gonzalo Mercado, the director of the Center for Immigrant Families in Port Richmond, said that “the community is living in fear, because these types of situations are not new to this area.”

Rodulfo’s mother, Margarita Olmedo, said that the family is traumatized by the violent attack and is determined to make sure that it does not go unnoticed. She spoke to local press on Rodulfo’s behalf-

He’s under a lot of medication, so he’s resting sleeping…He just wants to make sure that everybody says something about it, that nobody should keep quiet. He does not want this to happen to anybody else.

The attack was captured by two surveillance cameras, and was broadcast on the local television channel (NY1). Following the broadcast the police received a tip, and, after searching their “stop-and-frisk” database, they arrested four suspects on Friday, the 9th of April.  The arrested youth face assault and hate crime charges, and if convicted, could received up to 25 years in prison. The arrest of the suspected perpetrators has given rise to a controversy around the NYPD database that contains information of all the people they stop, question or frisk on grounds of “reasonable suspicion,” as a part of their “stop-and-frisk” policy.

Begun in 2001, the database was started as a safeguard that recorded information of all police stops, thereby ensuring against racially disproportionate action on the part of the police. This case has brought to light the fact that a database that was initiated to prevent against racial profiling, is being used by the police to track down suspects, raising concerns amongst civil liberties advocates like the New York Civil Liberties Union. Speaking about the potential of the database to allow for racial profiling, Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the ACLU said-

The prospect of occasionally finding additional information about suspects already known to the police does not come close to justifying a police database of millions of innocent black and Latino New Yorkers.

While this case received coverage in the press, most of these cases go unreported. On Friday, community leaders in Staten Island gathered to tell people that the only way for concrete action towards putting an end to such violence is if people who are victims or witnesses of hate crimes come forward and report them. The “April 5 bias crime,”as the press has named it, drives home the fact that race-based violence against immigrants has seen a dangerous surge in the past few years.

As the momentum is growing towards just and humane immigration reform, it is important to keep in mind the horrific reality of individual stories like Rodulfo’s, unfolding in our own neighborhoods, right before our eyes.

End it. Not mend it. Message to the administration over failed immigration program.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for detention and deportations of immigrants, is on a roll. Haitian earthquake survivors and mentally ill detainees are amongst those locked up in inhumane detention centers. Memos leaked last week confirmed a desire for growing deportations of immigrants. And now, the government’s own agency, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General delivers a scathing critique of ICE’s 287(g) program that gives local police the power to enforce immigration law.

60 police forces across the country have signed agreements with ICE that allow their local officers to detain suspected immigrants for deportation. Various reports have documented racial profiling concerns, but the government has failed to listen. Even Members of Congress and police foundations have spoken out against the program, which diverts scarce resources from the police and endangers community safety as people are afraid to report crimes.

The OIG points out serious flaws in ICE’s 287(g) program for its lack of training, oversight and transparency, and its failure to protect against racial profiling and civil rights abuses. In one example, a victim of a traffic accident who was also an immigrant was taken straight to the local jail until federal officers arrived to check his legal status. And although the program is supposed to focus on “Level 1″ offenders or those who have committed serious crimes, almost half of those reviewed had no involvement in such crimes, revealing a misdirection of resources.

The issue around a lack of supervision is grave. “In the absence of consistent supervision over immigration enforcement activities, there is no assurance that the program is achieving its goals.”This has led to severe violations, with Sheriff Arpaio type neighborhood sweeps to locate undocumented immigrants. Other horrific examples – Juana Villegas, 9 months pregnant, was detained on a minor traffic stop and remained shackled while giving birth, while Pedro Guzman, a mentally ill U.S. citizen was mistakenly deported to Mexico.

And finally, the 287(g) training of police officers is very inadequate. In one example, two officers who were enrolled in the program had been defendants in past racial profiling lawsuits, indicating a flawed selection process. The performance records of local officers are not examined properly while many officers are given only a cursory training in immigration law.

While ICE claims that the report was researched before it has made radical changes to the program, the changes that have been made are largely superficial and problems continue unchecked. Many groups consider this report a wake up call and have demanded the 287(g) program be “ended, not mended.” Take action to “Reign in the Cowboys at ICE.”

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