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Here’s Why Arab Americans Like Me Are Supporting Efforts to Defund the Police

As an Arab American whose community has endured chilling surveillance, I back the movement to defund the police.

Activists march through the Lawndale neighborhood calling for the defunding of police on July 24, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois.

Part of the Series

Both Republicans and Democratic leaders have been pushing increasingly hyped-up narratives to persuade us that crime is exploding, and calling for increased policing and police funding. This is standard Republican rhetoric across the board, and Democratic mayors like Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and Eric Adams of Chicago have been parroting a similar message. Even Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia who has received widespread support from progressives, announced Thursday that she is in favor of raising police pay.

In recent weeks, we’ve also been repeatedly told that bail reform has caused crime to skyrocket. But according to the American Civil Liberties Union, this is a “false narrative.”

Yes, homicide is up since 2020, but it is very possible that the increase is tied to the expansion of neoliberalism and the dislocations caused by the pandemic rather than the “fall guy” of minimal bail reform. It is imperative to reject this alarmist rhetoric, which obscures the racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic realities of police violence in the United States.

Even communities we may perceive to be one step removed from the harms of police-perpetrated violence can be targeted by it, and should speak out against so-called “toughoncrime” approaches.

As an Arab American who has witnessed the chilling effect of surveillance on my community, three factors have inspired me to stand with the movement to defund the police.

First — as organizations like Chicago’s Arab American Action Network and San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), the Abolishing the War on Terror movement, the Arabs for Black Lives Collective, and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights exemplifyArab Americans have a responsibility to stand with Black (including Black Arab), migrant and Indigenous social movements challenging oppressive policing systems.

Middle-class Arab immigrant communities should especially be engaged in these matters, as some of us have benefited from anti-Blackness, the theft of Native land, and the exploitation of working-class migrants perhaps not as directly as white people, but by virtue of living on stolen Indigenous land, or because our families have gained economic privileges related to anti-Black systemic racism.

We should be challenging the privileges we do hold in relation to oppressive systems. The forms of state violence Arab and Black communities face are not the same, but solidarity is both our responsibility and a means to acknowledging accountability to those upon whose backs this country was built and continues to operate.

Second, the racist structures targeting Arab and Muslim migrant communities including airport profiling and government surveillance are part of the U.S.’s increasingly broad systems of policing and incarceration. Therefore, we should be in coalition with communities striving to end systems of policing.

U.S. policing systems are broad and work through many forms of containment and punishment, such as racist neighborhood policing, as well as surveillance like police use of gang databases and terrorist databases. Both rely on racial profiling, which civil rights groups assert is unconstitutional because the practice infringes on privacy rights.

Furthermore, the “war on terror” normalizes the militarization of the police while the military and police are increasingly pushed to share strategies, technologies and trainings to intensify repression of social justice movements and poor communities.

This is evident in military surplus equipment and gear going to police, including armored vehicles and high-powered rifles. After the police-perpetrated killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police in combat gear made communities look like war zones. There is no evidence that this reduces crime, but the practice raises profound concerns about what we want public safety to look like and whether we are being primed to accept a more militaristic and authoritarian future. (When President Donald Trump renewed a military surplus program reformed by the Barack Obama administration and spoke with amusement about police not roughing people up too much, this sent a clear signal to police and endangered communities of color.)

Across the country, communities have been expressing concerns about how cops target people who they perceive to be Muslim, including Arab Americans who may or may not be Muslim, in Islamophobic rhetoric and actions. The well-known New York Police Department spying campaign, confirmed in 2011, entailed wholesale surveillance of Arabs and Muslims in the New York City area — from “terrorism” investigations of mosques to attempts to infiltrate the board of directors at the Arab American Association of New York.

In May 2022, Chicago’s Arab American Action Network (AAAN) released a report demanding the abolition of “Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR).” They evidence how the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something Say Something” campaign encourages police officers and “the entire population to report…seeing something that they find suspicious.” They found these reports focus on suspicions “about people who are or are assumed to be Arab, Muslim, or from the Middle East” for benign activities termed “suspicious” and “promote information sharing that can enable multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct their own follow-up investigations.” Overall, the AAAN explains, they have the effect of repressing dissent and surveilling and criminalizing Arabs and Muslims while reinforcing white supremacy.

In this sense, scholars and activists working with Chicago’s working-class Arab immigrant communities have helped expand how we define policing and the communities we refer to as those targeted by policing.

Along similar lines, across the U.S., the “Countering Violent Extremism” program seeks to enlist Muslim leaders as active participants in spying on their own communities, destroying trust and dividing and undermining those very communities.

“The U.S. empire’s surveillance, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency have been imported from the global war into policing practices domestically and have always had an import/export approach to their carceral strategies,said University of Illinois Chicago doctoral candidate Sangeetha Ravichandran. This creates a dangerous reality for communities of color, who are subjected to a violent, high-tech, white supremacist policing culture in need of abolition.

For many Arab Americans, mistrust in the police is not new. In 1993, Arab Americans filed damage claims against Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego police for sharing confidential information with the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League after hundreds of Arab Americans were notified that their names were included in files sent to them. After 9/11, FBI agents collaborated with police to gather intelligence about Arab Americans.

The third reason why we should support defunding the police is made clear by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy’s report on the Status of Racial Justice for Arab Americans, which found that, although Arab Americans are targeted by police in different ways and to different degrees than Black and other communities of color, they are direct targets nonetheless. It is not only terrorism-related surveillance that entails harmful racial profiling practices impacting Arab and Muslim migrant communities, but the direct violence of police rather than just the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

We found that some Arab Americans face police officers that cite their experience fighting in the so-called war on terror to justify threatening Arab immigrants. One research participant recalled a police officer making racist assumptions about the interviewee’s Muslim faith and said the cop intimidated him by referencing the war on terror. An officer saying, “I was crushing skulls in Iraq,” is intimidating to a Muslim and conveys more than a hint of violent intent.

Another interviewee called the police to protect them against hate speech. Rather than defend him against slurs like “camel jockey,” the cop defended the perpetrator by saying, “You have to understand, he is a veteran.”

In the context of Arab American life, radicalized veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with supercharged racist views who interact with Muslims and Arabs as police cannot be viewed as a “few bad apples.” The entire policing system promotes racism and Islamophobia.

As a result of such disturbing interactions including a cop jokingly asking an Arab woman if she was hiding a bomb under her hijab — many Arab Americans have lost faith in the police.

Two recent Michigan lawsuits, one involving officers who forced a Muslim woman to remove her hijab and another, where officers held three Arab Muslim men for nearly three days without charges, further illustrate this problem. The men had called the police for help. Caught on a police body camera, the cops said, “the Muslims lie a lot” and tried to arrest them by fabricating information about them, according to the lawsuit.

In San Francisco, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center report, “Build the Block, Alternatives to Policing,” explains that day-to-day interactions with law enforcement among youth in schools coupled with the infiltration of organizations “necessitate a deeper understanding of surveillance, policing, sentencing and imprisonment… We need ways to respond to harm and fear that do not make us rely on law enforcement or on the criminalization of other communities.”

Their report reminds us of how Arab Americans have been drawn into U.S. systems of policing. One Arab family has a parent that was a political prisoner in Palestine. They also had the FBI visit their home in the Bay Area and witnessed their son incarcerated through the same system that criminalizes young Black and Brown men and their activist daughter and her friends living with the ongoing fear of surveillance.

As more and more Arab Americans lose trust in the cops, Arab American social movements are expanding the basis of our solidarity with Black liberation movements. For decades, U.S. police departments’ collaboration with Israeli settler-colonial occupation forces has helped foster Arab American (and specifically Palestinian diasporic) resistance to policing, igniting Palestinian solidarity with Black struggle. Today, long-standing ties between Arab and Black liberation struggles remind us that it is time to depart from outdated activist frameworks that reduce “ Arab and Muslim struggle” to Palestine and the war on terror on the one hand, and “Black struggle” to defunding the police on the other. Police violence harms working class Arab migrants and refugees right here in the U.S. First and foremost though, it is crucial to affirm and resist the disproportionate impact of police violence on Black communities. At the same time, organizing from the standpoint that the struggle to free Palestine, abolish the war on terror, and abolish the police are conjoined, or more broadly, that policing is a foundational strategy of the U.S. nation-state to further its many agendas — from the prison-industrial complex, to settlercolonialism, the control of borders, and war — can go a long way in freeing more and more people.

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