The air felt heavy with heat and humidity, causing clothes to stick to skin and sweat to roll down faces and bodies. It was Labor Day, and while others were barbecuing, enjoying the West Indian Day parade festivities or returning from a long weekend spent out of town, more than 50 people, from toddlers in strollers to gray-haired activists, gathered across the street from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, the federal prison on the outskirts of Manhattan’s Chinatown. They weren’t there to grill or dance or celebrate. Instead, they had a much more somber reason for assembling.
Ten days before the anniversary of 9/11 — which prompted the declaration of the war on terror and its targeting of Muslims — family members, activists, advocates, musicians and formerly incarcerated people gathered in the shadow of MCC, and only mere blocks from the World Trade Center site, to bear witness to the systemic abuses committed in the name of this war under the banner “No Separate Justice.” Each of these monthly gatherings highlights a particular case to illustrate the systemic human rights abuses and civil rights violations against Muslim defendants. Family members come together with attorneys, organizers, educators and others outraged by these injustices. They speak about the effects of the war on terror on their incarcerated loved ones, connecting their individual experiences to the pattern of discriminatory prosecution of Muslims since 9/11. Spoken word artists lead songs, activists lead chants and, occasionally, an opera singer’s voice soars up into the sky penetrating the walls of the prison looming across the street.
The vigils originally began in 2009 to draw attention to the case of Fahad Hashmi, who had been arrested in England and extradited to the United States on charges of providing material support for Al-Qaeda. While imprisoned in England awaiting extradition, Hashmi had been allowed to mix with the general population with no problems. But once in the United States and imprisoned at MCC, he was placed in solitary confinement under “special administrative measures” — special restrictions imposed ostensibly to protect national security and to prevent the person from discussing classified information. A person under special administrative measures is allowed to communicate only with immediate family members and his attorney. He is not allowed to speak with other people and must take his meals and recreation in isolation. He is not allowed to read newspapers or magazines until they are 30 days old. Even then, certain articles can be excised before he is allowed to have the month-old publications.
In addition, these special administrative measures ban the person, his attorney and his family members from communicating about the policy to anyone else. (Readers may recall that activist attorney Lynne Stewart was arrested for violating this measure when she relayed a statement from her client Sheih Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was under these restrictions, to his supporters.) Under the special administrative measures, attorneys are not allowed to pass on messages, let alone release statements, from their clients in isolation to anyone else, including concerned friends and family members who have not been approved for direct communication. In essence, the person under special administrative measures is barred not only from knowing what’s happening outside his cell but is also unable to communicate about conditions or his own well-being inside.
Under these conditions, Hashmi spent three years awaiting trial. In the meantime, his family, along with academics involved with Educators for Civil Liberties, members of the Muslim Justice Initiative and Theaters Against the War, began organizing weekly vigils outside MCC. They were joined by Broadway actors, including Wallace Shawn, musicians, human rights advocates and activists. Most of the vigils included short skits depicting the absurdities of special administrative measures; in one skit, a newspaper that was 30 days old would be brought out and headlines read aloud. If Lindsey Lohan did something outrageous, that was fine. But if the news was about troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, out came a whistleblowing censor to halt the reading. It was a dramatic and compelling way to illustrate the isolation imposed by this measure.
Of course, people also spoke. Jeanne Theoharis, who had been Hashmi’s professor when he studied at Brooklyn College (and had been mine when I studied there a few years before him), often spoke, linking the injustices experienced by Hashmi with the struggles around civil and human rights that she taught to undergraduates. Others, including close friends, spoke about his case. His parents and older brother were in attendance at every vigil, seeing firsthand the support he was receiving even if he was unable to see it himself.
These vigils drew public attention, and ultimately the government offered him a plea bargain. In 2010, after spending three years in extreme isolation, Hashmi pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide material support. He was sentenced to 15 years and sent to ADX Florence, the federal supermax prison in Colorado. It was not the happy ending that everyone had wished would come true, but 15 years was better than the 40 years he most likely would have received if he had taken it to trial.
But the coming together didn’t stop with Hashmi’s sentencing and imprisonment. This past year, recognizing that the human rights abuses committed in the name of the war on terror reach beyond Hashmi, those involved with the first set of vigils launched the No Separate Justice campaign, holding monthly vigils outside MCC. Each vigil highlights a different person targeted by and imprisoned under the war on terror.
Monday’s vigil focused on Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was entrapped and arrested in August 2004. Siraj was 21 years old and working in his uncle’s bookstore when he met New York Police Department informant Osama Eldawoody in 2003. Eldawoody began showing Siraj — whom his sister described as having juvenile interests such as playing video games such as Pokémon — gruesome photos of abuse committed by Americans against Muslims. Eldawoody attempted to ensnare Siraj in a plot to bomb the 34th Street/Herald Square subway station in New York City. Although Siraj told Eldawoody that he would have to ask his mother before agreeing to do anything, he was arrested and charged with four counts of conspiring to attack a subway station. He was convicted and sent to the Communications Management Unit at Terre Haute, Ind. Upon arriving there, his first question was about access to Pokémon.
Wearing a t-shirt with her son’s face and name, Shahina Parteen, Siraj’s mother, spoke about his case as well as she and her daughter’s arrest and 11-day detention by ICE the day after his sentencing. Her husband, who is disabled, spent six months in detention and then was placed under house arrest from 2007 to 2014. In the meantime, her son was transferred to the Communications Management Unit, which Parteen called “a little Guantanamo Bay.”
Monday’s vigil connected the targeting of Muslims with the racial profiling and killing of black men by police, whether in Ferguson, Mo., or in New York City. Before the vigil began, volunteers handed out sunflower-colored pages with an account by Peace Poet Luke Nephew about his recent arrest in Ferguson protesting the shooting of Michael Brown. Nephew often performed, led songs and recited his pieces at the monthly No Separate Justice vigil and so was a familiar face and voice to many.
But the intersectional focus of the vigil also extended to the killing of young black men closer to home. Danette Chavis, whose 19-year-old son Gregory was killed by New York police in October 2004, also spoke at the vigil. She has been fighting against police brutality since her son’s death a decade ago. “In my 10 years of fighting police brutality, I’ve seen again and again the separate justice,” she stated. “The poor, the minorities, we don’t get justice under the law. We get punished under the law.”
A number of people at the vigil were members of Desis Rising Up and Moving, or DRUM, a South Asian grassroots group organizing around immigrant rights and against post-9/11 injustices. DRUM supported Siraj’s family during their detention by immigration officials. Using the Occupy-popularized method of the human mic, Fahd Ahmed, DRUM’s legal and policy director, linked the exploitation and oppression of Native Americans, blacks, undocumented immigrants and now Muslims. “The system is not meant to work for us,” he said. “And when we fight, they change the faces. Bush becomes Obama, Kelly becomes Bratton. We need to change the system.”
They also took the opportunity to start to build an action component. DRUM members circulated clipboards to gather contact information for vigil-goers willing to respond when a person inside faces abuse. “When something happens, the prisoner has no recourse. His family has no recourse,” Ahmed pointed out. Creating a response network begins to ensure that the families are not alone in demanding accountability for the mistreatment of their loved ones. It does not change the system, but it starts the process of holding the current one accountable for its egregious abuses.
Siraj’s sister, Sanya, wore a shirt with her brother’s photo and name and read a letter her brother had penned from the federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., where he is currently incarcerated. The end of his letter exhorted his family and supporters to recognize the connections between the targeting of Muslims and others. “You all should work together to make change because united we stand, divided we fall,” he wrote.