For those who have known me, my keen interest in the Occupy movement comes as no surprise. For those whom I have met only recently know me as the researcher, freelance journalist and blogger who has been making it a strong point to let everyone know that I am merely observing protests from the sidelines and not participating as a demonstrator.
Since the beginning of Occupy at Wall Street on 17 September, I have stood on the peripheries of encampments observing a democratic movement unfold before our very eyes: from marches, to GA meetings, to police raids, and even the arduous online activism that has now become part and parcel of the current movement.
As a researcher and journalist, I have spent a lot of my time ranting about nothing but Occupy since its inception. It may come across as somewhat odd in case some wonder whether or not I have an actual job. Those folks are correct to wonder, in fact. Since the first day at Wall Street, I have actually put my main project – about how anti-terrorism laws in the United Kingdom effect the broader British society as a whole – on a backburner while I do my best to keep up with the daily happenings in the United States with regards to Occupy.
There is a reasonable explanation as to why I have temporarily abandoned my project. My parents are activists and when I was a kid, they dragged me to rallies and protests of sorts. As a teenager, my parents actively participated in activism against the Bosnian war. It was my job to come up with various antiwar peace slogans then to make and colour placards to hand out at demos. My activism took its own form when I was a college student from supporting unions at labour rallies, to free Palestine, to the anti-war movement leading up to both the Afghan and Iraq wars. And like for many else in the United States, my activism went dormant after our “democratic” governments ignored the pleas of millions throughout the world against the Iraq invasion.
In the meantime, I finished up my undergrad, got married, got my masters, got divorced, then subsequently landed a job as a researcher on anti-terrorism laws and counter terrorism strategy in the United Kingdom. The nature of my research was true to my activist upbringing, as I look not only at how anti-terrorism affects European Muslims, but also non-Muslim majority in every day circumstances in Europe. Filling my head with all sorts of useful knowledge while speaking out against the criminalisation of ethnic minority communities throughout Europe felt like a natural fit.
To someone like me, the Occupy Wall Street protests have been the most exciting developments in the United States in almost a decade. Thus, it was only natural that my attentions piqued. Those who have known me for years are not surprised that I showed up to New York City to meet a bunch of people I had never met in my life. My new found friends I met at the first few days at Occupy, on the other hand, fast learned me as the freak who stands on the outside frantically observing the police and ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Some have laughed at my anxieties, while others patiently stood by my side observing with me, ready to make a dash when I said so.
Sometime in August, shortly after the UK riots, I began seeing twitter references to 17 September as the day to stage a Wall Street sit in and demanding financial accountability and an end to corruption. “These guys are nuts,” I thought to myself. Had they ever seen the heavily guarded New York Stock Exchange? I tweeted back at people telling them that Wall Street is not only guarded by killer attack dogs, but that the police guards carry machine guns across their chests. I remember being in New York City in 2006 and waking up Wall Street past the New York Stock Exchange and seeing the heavily armed guards and my instincts were to run far and fast. I picked up the pace because I didn’t want to attract too much attention to myself. Running while brown and Muslim in New York City past heavily armed police guards would most likely not bode well and, I assumed, could potentially land me in a whole host of trouble.
My senses as an anti-terrorism researcher are precisely what tuned me into the fact that the policing in the United States around Occupy protests had shown a dramatic shift from the protests I attended in the 1990’s when the police accommodated protest and were willing to not only negotiate with protesters needs, but also, by practice, resisted the urge to arrest demonstrators to a “last resort” basis. This, however, was merely my rational academic judgment at play here.
Truth be told, my problem has not been the mere fact that I am tuned into making police analyses before many others. As some can testify, I was beyond frightened by the NYPD and their overkill presence even on day 1 of Occupy Wall Street – well before all the paramilitary madness, with all of the crazy documented explanations behind it, unfurled before our eyes. My problem was my learned fear of the police over the past decade.
Norm Stamper, former police chief of the Seattle Police Department who resigned after the heavy handed response by Seattle police to the WTO protests in 1999, writes the following in “The Nation”:
The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.
It is precisely for this reason a slew of ironic article titles have appeared through the twitter circuit such as Elon James White’s piece “Dear OWS Welcome to Our World: Police brutality experienced by the movement is nothing new in the black community” in which White states:
While the Occupiers were dealing with such abuse, during civil disobedience, communities of color suffer these type of injustices simply because it’s Wednesday, and they may look like someone else. That’s what happens to us — and it’s accepted as if it were just a day of the week.
One morning about 9:30am, approximately seven to ten days after 9/11, I received a phone call on my mobile phone. I was a part time college student at the University of Massachusetts Boston and was having a slow morning at home catching up with my reading for class. It was an FBI agent. He asked me if I was at home because he was driving in a car on his way to talk to me. Quite naturally, my insides melted. I had absolutely no idea what this meant, nor why he wanted to speak to me of all people. I told him I was at home studying and that he could stop by. He told me to expect him in about 15 minutes. I was at home alone and wished at that moment my parents had mobile phones so that I could call them home to be present when the FBI showed up to question me.
I got up from my desk and tried to make myself look as presentable and friendly as possible. I even put a kettle of water on the stove so that I could offer him a cup of tea or coffee then got out a plate of biscuits and put it on the living room table.
The knock on my front door was not a minute too late or too soon. There were four agents gathered. All four walked into my house and up the stairs. I brought them into the living room where I sat them down like guests and offered them coffee. They all agreed. While I went into the kitchen, two of them began to walk around my house searching for something, up and down my walls, around corners, in the bathroom, behind the shower curtains. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what they were looking for or expected to find.
I brought coffee for four on a large tray and proceeded to ask around how much sugar each agent would like in their coffee. Once each had their coffee, the questioning began. First they took out a series of photos and asked me if I was able to identify a series of Arab and Muslim looking men. It was all quite bizarre. Why on earth would I know these people, and what on earth would connect me to them? So I asked questions back. “Who were these men?” and “Were these men suspecting of carrying further attacks against the United States?” 9/11 was a very fresh memory for us all.
Then came the question that still shocks me to this day: “Do you know Mohammad Atta?” I am pretty sure I screwed my face and gave the FBI agents my “lolwut?!” response.
I had a question of my own: why on earth did these FBI agents show up at my house? Weren’t they supposed to be finding the terrorists that had attacked us? To which I was told that the FBI had been receiving daily leads from various individuals and organisations. By that point, I was told that the leads database had reached in the 10s of thousands and that as protocol, agents were following up on each lead. So, it appears, someone had snitched on me. And for what? To this day, I have no idea.
What I do know is that as the events on 9/11 were happening, I sat in a university classroom when multiple students got up and began to hysterically address the class that Arabs and Muslims were an uncontrollable cancer on this earth and that they finally needed to be put in their place. One student stared me down as she ranted in a panicked state. Two days later, at work I was singled out when one of my colleagues asked me in front of 20-30 people what my background was. When I told him that I was born and raised in America, he was dismissive and told me not to be evasive. So I told him that my parents were Pakistani. To which his follow up question was “And they are Muslim in Pakistan, right?” to which I nodded my head, to which he sounded out an assured “Mmhmmm.” One month later, I was called into my supervisors office and blamed for an incident that I was not present at work the day of the incident in question. Nevertheless, I was subsequently fired anyway.
The 9/11 Muslim narratives like mine are not novel. If anything, these stories have gone on to make it into the mainstream consciousness in the United States. However, the reason it is extremely critical to recall these stories at this particular point in time into the American consciousness, is so that Occupy protesters, previously part of the American mainstream who have only recently joined the rank and file of the criminalised Americans, fully grasp the fact that millions of Americans not only distrust the police forces, but are frightened of them and for good reason – even mouthy activists like myself. One only has to look as far as the recently leaked “Moroccan Initiative” to know that the police are no friends of minority communities.
For more than a decade, American Muslims have been well aware their communities have been infiltrated with FBI spies looking to entrap people. Multiple members of my family have encountered a mysterious never before seen loud mouthed persons at Muslim community centres, mosques, and events using unusually politicised and extreme language that, I can surely attest, one would not normally find at an average Muslim gathering.
Over the past decade, the very system that has been used to stir up fear and suspicion against Muslims, Muslims, on the other side of the coin, have had their fears and suspicions stirred up against that same system.
I don’t protest at Occupy because I know that my name has long existed on some intelligence database and I do not know what on earth it will be used for and how I will be targeted because of it – especially if I begin to show my face more regularly protesting at my local encampment.
Police target minorities in a disproportionately heavy handed manner than they do our white counterparts, be us all part of the 99% or not.
Just this past August, an Eid-ul-Fitr celebration at an amusement park in upstate New York ended when police beat up 3 and arrested 15 during a scuffle over whether or not a woman’s headscarf was a health and safety risk on an amusement park ride.
Kareem Meawad, 17, went to try to protect the woman and was beaten by cops and also arrested, she added. Her brother, Issam Meawad, 20, was pushed to the ground and taken into custody when he tried to help his cousin, she said.
“She just wanted to get on a ride. That was it,” Dena Meawad said of the initial confrontation. “It’s clear, this all happened because we’re Muslim.”
It is also pretty clear to me that the heavy handed nature of this incident was due to the fact that police forces are trained to view American Muslims as a potential security threat – sadly, even when they’re at an amusement park amusing themselves with hotdogs and popcorn.
This is precisely why when Hannah, a headscarf wearing Muslim woman, attended the October OWS march in which 800 protesters were kettled and arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, she found herself in a distinctive position during the mass arrest:
Before the handcuffs were put on me a man came up to me, clamped his hand down on my shoulder, and led me away from everyone else. He was wearing a long black trench coat. This detail sounds comically villainous, but I specifically recall it because it worried me that he was not wearing a police uniform. The first thing he said to me was that he was “not a cop”. I knew immediately that these were not reassuring words to hear, and later my suspicions were confirmed when my lawyers told me that this likely meant he was an FBI agent. This man isolated me from my friends to interrogate me, threaten me, and attempt to intimidate me into answering his questions, which were all along the lines of, “Who are you and what are you doing on the Bridge?” His manner made it clear he assumed that I was on the Bridge for a reason other than participating in a peaceful protest. I told him several times that I was exercising my right to remain silent, and he became more aggressive. He finally shouted to the other cops, “This one’s a keeper!”
Now with the passing of the National Defense Authorisation Act, Muslim Americans are more afraid than ever. Just this past Friday, mosques all throughout the city of Boston made announcements at their Jumma prayer services about the passing of this bill that extends indefinite military detention to include US citizens. American Muslims have been threatened to be thrown into concentration camps since the early days of the War on Terror should there be another terrorist attack on US soil. It is no exaggeration to say that American Muslims currently feel like the US has just declared war on US soil in which they know they will be targeted first.
If Occupy protesters are wondering why they are not attracting enough minorities to their causes, this may help to explain things a little bit. Some of you may be reading this and might be tempted to call me chicken shit – and that’s fair. At least on the sidelines, while I warn people about the police, I feel a little bit like I am doing something rather than nothing at all.
In the meantime, one way to make an impact on American minority communities is for movements to engage with minority concerns by taking them out of fringe politics and universalising their concerns as Philip Brennan did in his recent piece suggesting Occupy create a civil rights angle as one of its central components.
As tempted as many white Occupy protesters are to proclaim “we are all one and the same!”, you cannot expect minorities, whose communities have been subjected to intimidation and abuse, to suddenly throw away the race card and jump on the bandwagon. These are critical times, and as such, it is important for Occupy to get it right. We are all part of the 99% – and the concerns of some should fast transform into the concern for all.