Published in Critical Resistance Magazine, 2008
The War Abroad and the War at Home: Immigrant and Black Communities at Stake
By Fahd Ahmed and Monami Maulik
“They say money’s the root of all evil but I can’t tell
You know what I mean, pesos, francs, yens, cowrie shells, dollar bills
Or is it the mindstate that’s ill?
Creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build”
– Black Star, Thieves in the Night
The last 30 years has seen an exponential growth in the building, expansion and filling up of prisons throughout this country. The last 10 years has seen the unparalleled growth of the immigration policing and detention system with 30,000 immigrants detained on any given day with that number being increased now five times and over one million people deported.
The common elements in both systems are attacks on poor people of color and lots of power and profits for a few. Someone somewhere sees hard cash and political power from these incarcerations. DRUM aims to expose the different and common ways immigrants and Black communities are affected by the same system of prisons, policing, and war so that we can build unity and fight our common enemies together. DRUM- Desis Rising Up & Moving is an organization of working class South Asian (people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Trinidad, Guyana, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka) immigrants fighting detention, deportation, and winning justice and dignity for immigrants and all people of color. Our work has focused on resisting the criminalization of immigrants, especially the targeting of Muslims through the War on Terror.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, we saw massive sweeps and detentions of Arab, South Asian, Muslim immigrants, and those who looked like them. In the New York and New Jersey area, well over 1,000 people were picked up out of their homes, their workplaces, and off the streets and secretly detained within a span of a few weeks. Our members immediately wen from block to block putting up flyers for our hotline and we got endless calls about missing husbands, co-workers, fathers. We tracked down hundreds of immigrant locked up in New Jersey jails in deplorable conditions of overcrowding, racist abuse, little food, and punishment by guard dogs. Our membership of families began a public campaign to call the government to release the detainees and expose these round-ups. We held protests outside the prisons after planning with our detainee members inside. We organized weekly protests outside of the federal detention facility were families were banned from visiting. Families spoke at press conferences, met mothers of Black and Latino youth killed by the police, and mobilized allies to pressure Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called the Department of Homeland Security) to end these secret detentions. Through this organized fight back by affected families, the authorities’ actions were exposed. Eventually, most of the detainees were deported to their home countries or charged with other minor crimes, while only a few were released. In 2003, our actions along with many others’ ended the Special Registration program nationally that was rounding up thousands of Muslim men between the ages of 16 and 45 for deportation. Not a single one of these immigrants was found to have any connections with terrorism, but were simply immigrant working class people supporting their families used as scapegoats.
As the racist and vicious actions of the government became more and more apparent, these government agencies, such as the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, local police departments and Immigration, started to undertake “public relations” programs to try to repair damage to their image, but also to buy out a section of the Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities in the U.S. They needed collaborators from our own communities to do their bidding. Having failed at finding any legitimate threats from our community, these agencies resorted to creating the threats they needed. The FBI built relationships with more conservative and patriotic institutions and so-called “leaders” in our communities. Through these gatekeepers, they met individuals they hired as government informants who would report back on every little activity, conversation, and personalities they would encounter. In return for their work, these informants are offered money, up to $100,000 for a years worth of work, or are told that there pending criminal charges would be worked off or erased.
As the informants report back regularly, their handlers then direct them to pursue and build relationships with particular people. The people in our community they usually go after are young men, hotheads, those with mental or substance abuse problems, or the naïve. These informants develop these relationships over a period of several months and establish trust, and when sufficient trust was established they start to inject the relationships with emotionally inciting conversations and propaganda. They refer to the suffering of Iraqis, show pictures and websites of victims of the war, tell stories of rapes and tortures, and other similar tactics. As these informants built up and incited this anger, they start to encourage and push their targets to take action or do something. In most cases, the informants themselves provided the ideas and plans for actions to undertake. Once the target would agree to the plans, the FBI or police departments move in and arrest them with much media frenzy of a ‘terrorist’ being arrested or disaster being averted. The media and politicians then declare another notch on their belt of winning their imaginary “War on Terror”.
Our own example from DRUM’s membership of working class immigrant families here in New York City is the nationally publicized case Matin Siraj. Matin, a Pakistani and Muslim immigrant, was 19 years old and working at his uncles bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, when he was befriended by Osama El-Dawody, an informant working for the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Unit for a fee of $100,000. El-Dawody undertook the exact tactic described above, and was the one to push for the plot to bomb Herald Square during the Republican National Convention in NYC in 2004. He even promised to provide all the necessary materials. Two days before the RNC, Matin was arrested with the story plastered on front-pages and provided fodder for second term election of the Bush-Cheny-Rumsfeld regime. Matin was found guilty in 2006, and on January 8th of 2007, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for mere words which were incited out of him by El-Dawody.
Less than 12 hours after Matin was sentenced, over 15 immigration and federal agents came to the Siraj family home and arrested his father, mother and sister and hauled them off to immigration jail. The family was targeted for having been outspoken community leaders of DRUM. Matin’s whole family came to DRUM six months earlier to organize for their son’s release and to fight the bigger detention and prison system. After a successful support campaign by DRUM, the mother and daughter were released on bond two weeks later, and the father released six months later. Since then, the family, and particularly, the mother has continued to be outspoken on behalf of her son, but also highlighting the role of informants. Due to her outspoken criticism, the media has become much more critical of the role of informants in subsequent “terrorism” cases. There have been and continue to be countless similar cases ongoing throughout the country.
Taking a step back, our organization asks the question, who this “War on Terror” and its prison/detention system benefit and for what purpose? We see the purpose of this system of war and incarceration as three-fold:
First, it feeds the hysteria for the war machine. As the US government wages war, directly or through proxy, on several Muslim countries, it needs such cases at home that keep people in fear and thus in support of the wars. Is it a coincidence that just before every vote in Congress to send more troops or money for war in Iraq, a new supposed “terrorist plot” is reported to have been captured here at home? This creation of a “boogy-man” among us to justify war is nothing new, whether they are called “terrorist” or “criminal” or “illegal alien”. In fact, any people of color resisting U.S. actions within the belly of the beast has been the biggest threat to the ruling class here. During Vietnam, Black and Brown communities resisting U.S. policies were targeted at home. During the U.S. wars to spread capitalism in Central America in the 1980’s and 1990’s, here at home, the War on Drugs was waged to criminalize and lock up Latino and Black communities.
Second, these actions intend to silence resistance within Muslim communities at the very same moment that our countries and homelands are being invaded or bombed. The very same communities that would be at the forefront of speaking out against the war are intimidated and forced to live in atmosphere of fear and suspicion of their neighbors, community members, friends, political activities and organizations.
Third, there is a lot of profit (billions of dollars) to be made by the ruling class in the U.S. The New York Police Department alone has received over $80 million in “counter-terrorism” funds since 2001. All this money goes to buy high tech surveillance and enforcement equipment, buying out informants, and the pockets of various corporations and contractors who fund the re-elections of the very same politicians allocating this money. It’s a system of nepotism and gangs of the ruling class under a guise of democracy.
Perhaps the most disturbing development in all of this is the increasing collaboration between government enforcement agencies. We see in the Siraj case that Matin’s case was planned and carried out by the NYPD, and that the family was targeted by the Depatment of Homeland Security (immigration) with the intent of silencing them. At the same time community members and our organizers report these informants created for anti-terrorism purposes are calling the police or immigration if they suspect someone’s immigration status. Special units are also being created to house these entrapped targets, where their activities and communications are strictly monitored and restricted, in prisons such as the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana or the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Conditions at the Florence facility have been described to be worse than the Guantanamo Bay camps. Many informants are also being created within these and general prisons to entrap people already serving sentences.
These tactics of infiltrations and informants that were used extensively as part of COINTELPRO instituted by the FBI in the 60s and 70s to repress civil rights, Black, Latino, and Native American power movements. While COINTELPRO may have been disbanded, the tactics and methods continue to be used today. The way that police operate to criminalize poor black communities in mass, we see immigration operating in similar ways in immigrant communities through harassment, raids, detentions, and deportations, making immigrants the fastest growing segment of prison populations. The recurrent patterns underlying these are white supremacy and capitalist profits.
So what do we do in these times and under these conditions here and globally where U.S. policies seem to be going unchecked and out of control? DRUM believes that all we can and must do is organize, organize, organize. We see organizing ourselves as joining forces among oppressed communities in the U.S. with people around the world as the only way to end this ruthless system of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We know that we have a lot to re-educate our communities about each other as South Asians, Arabs, Black, Latinos, and Native Americans because we have been intentionally kept divided and fighting each other for the crumbs within the belly of the beast. But imagine what we can win if we join forces against our common enemy? We imagine it and practice it each day here in our small ways in our work at DRUM.
We go door to door training our members to form Community Defense Networks so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) vans know not to mess with us. We march and rally for the rights of over 14 million undocumented immigrants because slavery was evil before and it is evil now. We mobilize our members of South Asian and Muslim immigrants for justice for the family of Sean Bell, a young Black man killed by the racist police here in New York City.
Our Muslim immigrant youth members join forces with Black and Latino youth to fight City Hall and the Department of Education to get more books and resources in our schools than metal detectors and cops. Our members march, even though the threat of being deported looms over them, to end the war in Iraq because those 700,000 Iraqi men, women, and children murdered there are our sisters and brothers. We organize and unite with each other because we simply cannot afford not to.
For more information and resources on immigrant detention and racial justice, also contact:
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights at www.nnirr.org
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) at www.blackalliance.org
The Detention Watch Network at www.detentionwatchnetwork.org