Caramel colored clouds that hang atop Brooklyn Prison and Detention Center lend a sober sight to a treeless, flowerless and a friendless neighborhood. Dog dirt strewn across the pavement emits a fowl smell while the desolate structures all around look like a wild west movie set. An odd immigrant shopkeeper shuffles around, eyes downcast lost in his weary shack. The silence is eerie. Unbelievable that only 10 subway stops away is lovely Manhattan and its alluring sights and smells with wealthy Americans out shopping on late Saturday summer morning!
As I cross under a Brooklyn bridge laden with water (a burst sewer?) I see the protesters gathered in front of the Prison across the road. The poker-faced police is in full force and have cordoned the area. My effort to stray off and get a close shot of the maximum -security federal prison sends a scowling cop scampering after me with a stern warning that such a trespass will not be tolerated.
Every Saturday for the past 21 weeks, protesters have assembled in this very spot to demonstrate against FBI and INS (Immigration Service) detention of over 2,200 Arab and Pakistani immigrants since 9/11. “We are experiencing one of the worst periods of xenophobic and racist backlash this country has seen in recent history,” Robina Niaz , a Pakistani volunteer tells me. She works with Justice for Detainees Coalition, “The Arabs and Pakistanis have been under direct attack in the forms of racial violence, racial profiling, mass incarcerations and deportations. None have been charged with crimes connected to the 9/11. We live in fear because these incidents have gone unreported as INS, FBI and NYPD (New York Police) are still continuing to kidnap members of our community.”
Flashing images of Pakistani men being deported on visa violations come to my mind as Adem Carroll, Relief Coordinator for Islamic Circle of North America, tells me, “We have received reports that some Pakistanis have been deported in their jail clothes, an orange jumpsuit, which may criminalize them in the eyes of the authorities back there.”
Wait a second. To be dressed in a jailbird orange jumpsuit and arriving on your sacred homeland is the ultimate humility the Americans can heap on Pakistanis! Can one imagine these fallen men to ever lead normal lives again? And yet, not a stir of protest from our Embassy here nor from authorities in Pakistan. Such official indifference is so devastating.
About the identity of these unfortunate men, Adem tells me, “for the moment I will not provide the names we have as I would like to give them time to readjust back in Pakistan. Apart from the humiliation and indignity they have suffered, it’s difficult as many have lost their savings with legal fees or to keep families fed during their confinement. Some have Americanized children who may find return to Pakistan a new but confusing experience.”
Brooklyn has been one of the INS’s main targets. Hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in the middle of the night with most of their loved ones still being kept in the dark about their charges and conditions, “the INS refuses to return our phone calls or answer our letters,” says Adem. While his organization has spent $150,000 for legal services, “attorneys are reluctant to take up pro bono cases because of the stigma attached.”
“Mohammad Azmath and Ayyub Ali remain in solitary confinement after 9 months in this prison. This does not mean that the charges of terrorism against the two Pakistanis have been substantiated,” says Adam who recalls that 35 men were kept in solitary confinement at this facility for many months and were only moved down to general jail population when FBI cleared them.
DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving) is also coming to the rescue. Being a community-based social justice organization of working class and poor South Asians immigrants in New York founded in 1999, it’s mission is to organize low-income South Asians immigrant for racial, economic and social justice on critical local struggles and their global roots, “we make this happen through our campaigns, actions and programs,” says Monami, a Bangladeshi activist, who has worked tirelessly with families of detainees.
“Mohammad Rafiq Butt, a Pakistani, was picked up by the FBI after 9/11 and was tortured to death. The INS reluctantly sent his body back to his family in Pakistan who carried out an independent autopsy and discovered that the cause of his death was severe beating and torture.
“We want INS to provide us with answers to Butt’s death”, demands Monami at the rally, as a chorus of slogans are raised
Say No to repression and racial profiling!
Say No to Cointerlpro (FBI secret police)!
Stop the detentions!
Stop the deportations!
Stop the disappearances!
Norman Siegel, former executive director of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)
warns about the sinister intrusion of FBI agents who are always present at such gatherings. “I strongly recommend you find out who is who at such a public demonstration because the FBI does not let us or the public know what they are up to.
“This is antithetical to an open democratic society like ours,” says Norman who wonders how America could have targeted 150,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor “whose lives were negatively affected” or allowed former FBI director Edgar Hoover and senator Joe McCarthy reign of terror.
“We must now wake up and speak up,” says Siegel who has been here all 21 Saturdays, ” we want middle New Yorkers and mainstream America to join in with our protests. Washington will only sit up and change its policies when we form a mass movement as we did during the civil rights days.”
“We must not be silent and must continue to demand from FBI and INS to give us the names and specific information about the people they are currently holding.”
FBI director Robert Mueller along with Attorney General Ashcroft have taken so much flak for their colossal 9/11 intelligence failure that now they are playing catch up and grabbing any Muslim that crosses their path. The Puerto Rican Jose Padilla, a.k.a Abdullah al Muhajir, is the latest catch, arrested last month for plotting to attack the United States with a so-called radioactive “dirty bomb”. Ashcroft victoriously flashed his
victim to the world from Moscow where he had gone for a conference. Reminds one of an overzealous police in the Third World, who when put on a deadline by higher authorities nab the wrong man or kill him in ‘police encounter’! Mueller and Ashcroft with all their millions and sophisticated high-tech are as tawdry as our rundown ramshackle law enforcement authorities!
A Kashmiri-American, Zahida is scared stiff of Ashcroft’s ambition to swell his ranks of Muslim detainees: “. My parents left India to escape Hindu persecution. I was born and raised here. My mother reminds me daily: ‘Zahida, remember you are a Muslim’. Zahida volunteers for DRUM: “I believe in my freedom. I am an American. Why should I be profiled?”
Debbie Almontaser is a hijab-wearing Arab woman who demands: “I should be able to walk alone on these streets in my hijab. But I am afraid. I want security. This is my home. I know of no other home. I want to be okay.”