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Target: the Central Avenue mosque that was raided in the early August FBI sting. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

First They Came For . . .
Ad hoc group forms to take a stand against anti-Muslim profiling

On the same day as the FBI sting that arrested two Albany Muslims for allegedly agreeing to launder money for a fictitious assassination attempt, a white man, William Nettles, was arrested in Chicago with a large amount of fertilizer and charged in a plot to blow up a federal courthouse. Though a much more tenuous case that didn’t avert any actual planned harm, the Albany bust caused a much bigger stir in the media.

This, said Erin O’Brien of Women Against War and one of the organizers of a new ad hoc group called Solidarity Network, is just one example of how bias against Muslims and Arabs still pervades the country. Locally, she said, the sting (which O’Brien, speaking for herself, not the group, said was clearly entrapment) was only one of many instances of profiling, including the deportation of Ansar Mahmood and the family that was interrogated for praying in a mall parking lot.

The Solidarity Network, which includes Women Against War, the Stand for Peace Antiracism Committee and Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, as well as individuals who are not affiliated with any other organization, wants to “communicate to the general public in the Capital District that there’s a pattern of racial profiling and discrimination and we recognize it and we stand against it,” said O’Brien, noting that that the country has “done this before; we put Japanese Americans in concentration camps. . . . We’re hoping [this time] people will stand up and say no.”

Because the Muslim community feels so vulnerable, Solidarity Network is moving more slowly and carefully than the peace activists’ “standard things that we do in response to public events” like rallies, said O’Brien. The group’s meetings are closed to the media so that representatives of the Muslim community feel safe there.

Current projects include getting officials and concerned citizens to sign onto a broad statement of support and then taking out a full-page ad in a local newspaper or maybe a billboard, collecting donations for the families of the two men who were arrested, and maybe helping with some repair work on the Central Avenue mosque, which was damaged in the raid. The statement reads, “We, residents of the Capital District, are deeply troubled and concerned by patterns of profiling, stereotyping, and discrimination against our Arab and Muslim neighbors. We urge you to join us in assuring that religious freedom is protected, that cultural diversity is cherished, that political expression is encouraged, and that fear shall not divide us.”

O’Brien said it does not address the arrests specifically because they want to keep the focus on the broader pattern of profiling, but she did note that they want to communicate that the men are “innocent until proven guilty” and that when the government won’t make its evidence public, the case is suspect.

Timelle Andrews, the civil rights director of the newly formed Albany chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has been working with Solidarity Network as part of her outreach to civil liberties groups in general. She said the group “represents what this country is all about: unity for all people.”

Andrews said that compared with the rest of the country, the Capital Region has been “relatively fortunate” in that it hasn’t seen much anti-Muslim or anti-Arab violence. She spends most of her time doing education about the Muslim community, overcoming traditional misconceptions like Muslim equals Arab. Still, she noted, the FBI sting has “install[ed] a lot of fear. Some people are afraid to come out to the masjid; they are not sure if it’s still under surveillance. No one should have to live with that kind of fear.”

“If you don’t stand up for your neighbor, you could be next,” noted O’Brien.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Say Hello To The Feds
FBI questions protestors, who say it's an attempt to stiffle dissent

The FBI has been in town. After questioning protesters planning to attend rallies at the two national political conventions, the bureau has been fending off accusations by congressional Democrats and the press that it was trying to suppress dissent. Despite bureau claims that they only interviewed “Midwestern anarchists,” at least one Capital Region activist was among those contacted.

On Aug. 16, The New York Times revealed that agents from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had been interrogating political demonstrators, and their families and friends as well, around the country in an attempt to prevent disturbances at the Republican National Convention in New York City this week. In a few cases, the Times reported, the FBI had even subpoenaed protesters to try to learn of possible disruptions, and some activists said they had felt menaced by the bureau’s tactics. The Times editorial page attacked the DOJ in a scathing commentary the next day, saying, “The knock on the door from government investigators asking about political activities is the stuff of totalitarian regimes.”

Three House Judiciary Committee Democrats, Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Robert C. Scott of Virginia and Jerrold Nadler of New York, called for an investigation of the FBI probe, saying in an Aug. 17 letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general that the FBI “appears to be engaged in systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate anti-war protesters.” But Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to concede that the bureau had attempted to trample on free speech. At a news conference on Aug. 20, he maintained that the JTTF had only interviewed protesters in the Midwest whom they thought were planning to firebomb media trucks at the Democratic convention or might have known about such plans. The Associated Press, however, reported that the people interviewed by the FBI told the American Civil Liberties Union that the agents never asked about a firebombing plot.

And a Capital Region antiwar protester evidently was contacted by the FBI a few weeks ago. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the activist said she received a phone call from a man who gave his name and identified himself as a federal agent. He then asked her if she was going to New York City to demonstrate this week, whom she was going with, and if she would be traveling by bus. Declining to answer his questions, she told him she would consent to an interview if a lawyer were present. At that, the caller concluded the conversation. “These are scary times we live in, and I think this an effort to intimidate people from protesting,” she said.

Melanie Trimble, director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said no one has to talk to the FBI unless they are arrested. She added that the NYCLU is compiling a list of attorneys willing to act as witnesses to FBI political questionings. (Anyone wishing such assistance should call 436-8594.)

An FBI spokesman, Joe Parris, denied that the bureau was trying to silence dissent. “The FBI is not interviewing protesters. The FBI does not set about to stifle free speech or infringe upon anyone’s First Amendment rights or freedom to protest. We interviewed a small number of people who we had reason to believe may have knowledge of planned criminal acts at a number of designated national security events,” he said, and explained that the events in question were the two national political conventions, the presidential and vice-presidential debates, and the November elections. Parris also asserted that the number of interviewees was “under 25,” and added that the agents had spoke to anarchists from “three Midwestern states” who “might” be planning attacks with Molotov cocktails, slingshots, or large-capacity water pistols filled with bleach or urine. He would not comment when asked if the FBI had contacted any protestors in the Albany area.

According to the Web site of the Democracy Now! radio program, civil-rights groups have actually reported 40 to 50 cases of documented JTTF questionings, and The New York Times reported on Aug. 17 that the interviews had occurred in six states, including New York.

Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at SUNY Albany who studies mass protest movements and author of Toward Nuclear Abolition, condemned the FBI’s tactics. “With the organizers of the 9/11 attacks and of the subsequent anthrax attacks still on the loose, it’s astonishing that the FBI is spending its time harassing peaceful protesters,” he commented. Paul Tick, a leader of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, agreed, saying, “It is sad that we go to Iraq supposedly to bring the people their liberty while here at home, we suppress it. I wonder what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine and John Adams would say about the Bush administration’s attempts to erode the rights they fought for.”

—Glenn Weiser

Women (and Supporters) for Kerry

(l-r) Lynn Mahoney, chair of the Rensselaer County Democratic Committee; JoAnn Smith, president of the board of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund; Mike Breslin, Albany County executive; Lucille McKnight, Albany County legislator; Shawn Morris, Albany Ward 6 councilwoman; Ginny O’Brien, deputy minority leader of the Rensselaer County Legislature; Pat McGeown; and Kathleen Garrison, president, CSEA Region 4, gathered on the 84th anniversary of women’s suffrage (last Thursday, Aug. 26) to announce the formation of Capital Region Women for Kerry. They chose Academy Park, because it was “in the shadow of” the Elk Street residence that served as the headquarters for the state’s anti-suffrage movement. Speakers said that voter turnout must be raised among young women. Members of Albany and Columbia counties’ Young Democrats set out on a voter-registration drive after the press conference.

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