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How ‘Un-American’ are Peter King’s Congressional hearings?

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponents of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings here:

Photo courtesy of www.upi.com

POLL: Do you support the Peter King hearings?

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Jury Rules Immigrant’s Murder a Hate Crime, Even as Vicious Ads Continue to Stoke Racial Tensions

Guest Blogger: Jackie Mahendra from America’s Voice.

While the mainstream media has been largely absent, Latina Lista has been busy covering the dramatic trial of the two men charged with the hate crime killing of immigrant Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pa. It turns out the 2008 murder was, indeed, a hate crime.

A federal grand jury has convicted the two Pennsylvania men, in a verdict that many argue was long overdue.

On July 14, 2008, Ramirez was beaten to death by a group of teenagers who yelled racial epithets throughout the killing.  A retired Philadelphia police officer said she heard one of the defendants yell to Mr. Ramirez’s friends, “Tell your [expletive] Mexican friends to get the [expletive] out of Shenandoah or you’ll be [expletive] laying next to him.”  Defendants were reported to have yelled, “Go back to Mexico” as they beat him to death.

Despite the evidence, an all-white jury found two of the defendants “not guilty” of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation last year, to cheers in the courtroom and the astonishment of the Latino community.  The Federal government took up the case and finally justice was served.

Yet, two years after Ramirez’ gruesome murder, we continue to see egregious examples of race-baiting and immigrant bashing for political gain. This campaign season, a number of candidates are running race-baiting campaign ads that demonize immigrants. They use extreme, anti-immigrant rhetoric instead of offering real solutions to our immigration crisis.  Republican Senate candidates David Vitter (R-LA) and Sharron Angle of Nevada are both running anti-immigrant ads that paint Latinos as dangerous criminals, freeloaders, and the enemies of “real” Americans.

The FBI reports that hate crimes against Latinos rose 32% between 2003 and 2008 (the last year for which data is available), and groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented a correlation between anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Latino violence.

According to Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice:

Hateful campaign ads and rhetoric that demonize immigrants have no place in America today.  It’s as if some politicians think there is no cost for immigrant-bashing.  Well they are wrong.  This type of rhetoric creates a climate where violent crimes are committed against human beings simply because of the color of their skin.  Yesterday’s verdict in the Luis Ramirez murder is just, but it’s not nearly enough.  Politicians and pundits must stop using immigrants as scapegoats and instead use their microphones to spread a message of tolerance, humanity, and the need for common sense immigration reform.

In light of this tragic case, we believe it’s time for politicians and pundits to end the hateful rhetoric and immigrant bashing that has created a hostile climate for Latinos and encouraged hate crimes like the murder of Mr. Ramirez. Luis Ramirez lost his life because of the unaccountable, incendiary, and out-of-control immigration debate in this country.

Politicians who stoke racial fears and hatred need to realize that their rhetoric has severe — but not unforeseen– consequences.

The ruling on Luis Ramirez’ murder should serve as a wake-up call to those who refuse to end the politics of division and fear.

Photo courtesy of americasvoiceonline.org

Breaking news – Department of Justice files lawsuit against Arizona law

In a much anticipated move, the Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s SB1070 today, retaliating against the harsh anti-immigrant law that requires local police to detain suspected of being undocumented. The law, slated to begin on July 29th, is the subject of national controversy coming under fire from civil rights advocates for giving racial profiling the green light.

The Department of Justice accuses the state of Arizona of crossing “the constitutional line” by interfering with the federal government’s authority to create and enforce immigration law. The lawsuit, with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the state of Arizona as defendants, argues that “the Constitution and federal law do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country”, drawing on the “preemption” doctrine which works off the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution, a clause that gives federal law precedence over state statues.

In our constitutional system, the federal government has preeminent authority to regulate immigration matters. This authority derives from the United States Constitution and numerous acts of Congress. The nation’s immigration laws reflect a careful and considered balance of national law enforcement, foreign relations, and humanitarian interests… Although states may exercise their police power in a manner that has an incidental or indirect effect on aliens, a state may not establish its own immigration policy or enforce state laws in a manner that interferes with the federal immigration laws…Accordingly, S.B. 1070 is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and must be struck down.

The lawsuit also challenges the anti-immigrant law saying that if enforced it will lead to the diversion of precious resources away from targeting those who have committed serious crimes. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the lawsuit-

Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration, and the federal government has a responsibility to comprehensively address those concerns…But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country’s safety… Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.

The brief also calls out the law on humanitarian grounds arguing that making the enforcement of law mandatory for the police will inevitably result in the unjust harassment and detention of foreign visitors, legal permanent citizens, and citizens who might not be able to immediately prove their legal status. Accompanying the lawsuit were declarations from many police chiefs, including from Tucson and Phoenix, who have said that if implemented, SB 1070 will hamper their ability to effectively police their communities.

Late last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Department of Justice was preparing to sue the state of Arizona over SB 1070, sending waves through the media and political networks. President Obama has spoken out against the law.

…the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.

The federal lawsuit joins five other lawsuits against SB 1070, including a class action suit field by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment, encourages racial profiling, and interferes with the jurisdiction of the federal government. The government has asked for a preliminary injunction and delay in the enforcement of SB 1070 until the case is resolved. A hearing to decide this will take place on July 22nd in a Federal courthouse in Phoenix.

SB 1070 is a shocking example of what goes wrong when the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not addressed. When we allow our government to deny due process and fairness to some, we put all of our human rights at risk. The Arizona law has already resulted in copycat legislation in other states, which if allowed to continue unchecked will add more chaos to a broken system and further marginalize vulnerable groups.

By filing this lawsuit, the federal government has sent a direct message that they will not tolerate laws like SB1070 that instigate racial stereotyping and interfere with the federal enforcement of immigration law. In an address on immigration last week, President Obama called for bipartisan support to fix the broken immigration system.  Please keep up the momentum and write to President Obama and your Members of Congress to take action on immigration now.

Photo courtesy of politico.com

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Is the criminal justice system “The New Jim Crow”?

Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole. – From ‘The New Jim Crow’.

Placed within the context of the euphoria around the election of President Obama as the nation’s first black President, Michelle Alexander‘s first book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” argues that while on the surface it seems like racial subordination is no longer entrenched in the law books, the truth is Jim Crow laws have simply been redesigned and appropriated by the criminal justice system.

Some shocking stats. One in every eight black men in their twenties are in prison or jail on any given day. There are more African Americans who are in jail, prison, probation or parole today, than were enslaved in 1850. Alexander reacts against the dominant narrative of racial justice which says that while there is still a way to go, America has come a long way from it’s history of racial discrimination, and instead explains the way that the system works to exercise a contemporary form of racial control, a process that continues long after the individuals are officially released out of the system. From Chapter 5 of the book-

The first stage is the roundup [when] vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color… Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty, whether they are or not. Once convicted… virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system. The final stage… often [has] a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. [Parolees] will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives-denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.

In Alexander’s opinion, far from living in a post-racial utopia, the last few decades have seen the United States move towards a “color-coded caste system” where minority groups are targeted, maligned and marginalized by the criminal justice system. She attributes this increase in the mass incarceration of African Americans over the past thirty years to draconian laws that have been constructed to wage “The War on Drugs”, a battle waged against low-income communities of color, even though research consistently counters the claim that any one racial community uses and sells illegal drugs more than any other.

It’s a moment to contemplate race and class in today’s America. To go beyond the illusion that all is well to a striking reminder that racial injustice is still deeply entrenched in the country. According to Alexander, nothing short of an informed and agitated movement will put an end to this perpetuation of racial inequality in the guise of enforcing justice.

Photo courtesy of newjimcrow.com

POLL: Does the criminal justice system unfairly target communities of color?

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