Arabs, Muslims, Central and South Asians from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area say they are fed up with being discriminated against because of their religion or appearance.
At a special Human Rights Commission hearing at San Francisco’s City Hall Sept. 23, more than 150 concerned community members gathered in the main hearing room and in two other overflow rooms that were equipped with simulcast television screens.
More than 60 community members testified that they have been harassed or racially profiled by police and TSA officials, particularly at San Francisco International Airport. They also called on the police department to end the surveillance of Muslim communities by the FBI.
The hearing came on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – Northern California against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to “speed the release of FBI records on the investigation and surveillance of Muslim communities in the Bay Area.” The community was also concerned over San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón’s recent announcement that he planned to resume intelligence-gathering operations that civil rights groups had stopped in 1993.
Attorneys from the ACLU, Asian Law Caucus, and Council on American Islamic Relations testified that their clients have been questioned and visited frequently by FBI agents at their homes and workplaces because of such “acts as simply donating to their local mosques,” according to Veena Dubal, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus.
Another attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, said she has countless Muslim, Arab and South Asian clients who are afraid to testify despite being U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. They are afraid that it could endanger the naturalization process for their children. On many occasions, she said, they have been approached by the FBI and urged to become informants in order to facilitate the process. One Egyptian legal permanent resident said he refused to become an FBI informant and after 10 years, he said, his son’s application is still in “security clearance.”
Many speakers noted that the public’s attitude toward the Muslim community has influenced the way the community is treated. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that “roughly half the country (49 percent) holds an unfavorable view of Islam, compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view.” In October 2002, 47 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam and 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view.
Michel Shehadeh, executive director of the Arab Film Festival, said intolerance and a lack of cultural understanding were the most important factors.
“We were targeted because we were seen in ‘terrorist clothes, singing terrorist songs’ when we were in our cultural clothing, performing our traditional folkloric songs and dances,” said Shehadeh, who was a former defendant in the LA 8, a 20-year campaign against eight Arab nationals in Los Angeles allegedly tied to Palestinian terrorists, who were exonerated in 2007. He said the United States has a history of excluding and mistreating minorities, recalling that as early as 1917, “Jews were deported because of their ‘undesirable ideas.’”
Several Sikh families who testified echoed his frustration over the public’s lack of cultural sensitivity. One Sikh mother from Menlo Park said her sons were badgered about their turbans at SFO airport and were even asked to remove their Kara, a metal bracelet worn by Sikh men. Her 8-year-old son also testified about his “humiliating experiences with airport cops.”
“Why aren’t other kids put in a glass cage?” he asked.
More than a dozen Arabs and Muslims said they did not feel safe in San Francisco, a city that they believed was considered to be a haven for everyone. One Arab-American teenager said that during the March 2009 anti-war protest in San Francisco, he and a small group of Arab Americans were abused by the SFPD, and later arrested. Some were charged with alleged terrorist enhancements and turned over to ICE for questioning.
“I’m just a youth,” he said, “but yet they [SFPD] took me to 850 Bryant [the adult county jail] and detained me for six hours, cussing me out and calling me a terrorist.”
In April 2010, San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón offended many Arabs and Muslims when he suggested that the San Francisco Hall of Justice was susceptible to a terrorist attack by a member of the Middle Eastern community, later clarifying that he was only referring to the Yemini and Afghan communities. He publicly apologized shortly thereafter.
The consensus was clear among the commissioners who heard four hours of testimony that the situation was serious and needed to be addressed. “We will carefully review this and make recommendations to the mayor’s office and San Francisco Board of Supervisors to take the next steps,” said commissioner Jamal Dajani.
“You all matter to us,” echoed commission chair Cecilia C. Chung. “We want to make sure San Francisco is safe for everyone.”