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White Supremacy in the Courtroom: Why I Was Booted From a Hearing on Guantánamo

As the only visible Muslim in the room, I was thrown out for having the wrong “attitude.”

On July 11, the US District Court for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments in the case of Al Bihani v. Trump, a case arguing against the indefinite detention of 11 prisoners per Trump’s proclamation that no prisoners be released, regardless of the context. The case was brought forward by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the UK-based human rights organization Reprieve, which provides legal representation for Guantánamo prisoners and victims of drone strikes in addition to advocating on other human rights issues. As a Muslim who has long advocated for the closure of the prison, I was looking forward to attending the hearing because it was one of the few times where a call for justice would be heard for Muslim prisoners of the war on terror who have been detained offshore and outside the purview of the few US laws that exist to protect those in detention. Guantánamo has always served as a place of deep dehumanization for the Muslims incarcerated there and a lingering threat for other Muslims. In this way, the legacy of Guantánamo extends far beyond its walls.

As the only visible Muslim in the room, I recognized that my presence would immediately invite scrutiny. The hearing was about to begin, so I quickly sat in the front row. However, a courtroom security officer told me I had to move because that row was reserved for attorneys. After I moved, the surveillance didn’t stop, and he then told me I needed to put my phone away, which I promptly did, though with some frustration. As a result, and after sitting in the courtroom for less than five minutes, I was escorted out, and once outside, the officer told me that when he gave me orders, I had to listen without giving him attitude. Then he told me I wouldn’t be let back in to observe the hearing. In other words, I was kicked out because I had an “attitude,” not because I failed to comply with his instructions. This was a reminder not only about how state violence operates, but also about how people of color are intentionally and specifically targeted because they don’t follow the “rules” — even if these rules are selectively enforced.

Courtroom “Civility”

My removal from the courtroom was indicative of a larger conversation in the mainstream — that of “civility.” This concept of “civility” means that showing “attitude” is considered more offensive than the actual acts of state violence that such “attitude” is responding to. That’s why the officer couldn’t recognize the absurdity in kicking me out of a courtroom for a subjective assessment of my behavior, while the system he’s upholding is detaining, torturing and murdering Muslims. Civility in this context therefore means making state violence seem less egregious by focusing on the least egregious act that happened in that courtroom.

The only laws and rules that the state is committed to enforcing are those that barred individuals like me from attending a public hearing, and not those that remedy long-standing and rampant human rights abuses.

But what happened to me wasn’t about the “rules,” it was about the way the state enforces subservience of already marginalized communities. In this case, I, a visible Muslim woman seeking to show solidarity with Muslim prisoners, was blocked from doing so. In other words, the state reserves the right to abuse Muslims and to bar other Muslims from coming to their defense.

Maintaining White Supremacy

My expulsion from the courtroom reminded me of the symbolic barriers in doing this work — work that I have done as a visible and vocal Muslim woman for more than a decade now. It was a reminder that in my attempt to bear witness to the struggles of other Muslims, I was also putting myself in harm’s way — something that has always been a looming threat for many of us doing this work. Furthermore, it was yet another experience in which others — particularly those that are vested in preserving the state’s violent apparatus — get to adjudicate whether or not the treatment one receives is discriminatory.

It was also a reminder that selective enforcement and targeting are the realities that many communities of color face from law enforcement. Do I know for a fact that I was targeted because I was Muslim? No. But do I believe that, in a hearing on Muslim prisoners, my visible identity as a Muslim played a fundamental role in why and how I was kicked out. One hundred percent.

This experience was about something larger: the daily indignities and dehumanization that I face as a Muslim. These daily indignities, occurring within a specific context, are critical — in this case, to ensuring that the collective impact of these indignities combined will lead to resignation or a collapse of morale. As I stood outside the courtroom with the door shut in my face, I had two thoughts: leave without making any noise or complain to as many people as possible.

I chose to complain to multiple officers in the court house. But it’s almost impossible to find this cathartic in a system that is designed to protect its own. The officer who forced me to leave the courtroom (an officer of color) was not just there to enforce the “rules,” but also to protect the state. He effectively helped the institution maintain white supremacy by leveraging his non-white identity to diminish claims of discrimination and erase my legitimate frustration with a system that is fundamentally designed to target those like me. This was about using small technical policies to enforce state violence.

Ultimately, this entire interaction was about the war on terror apparatus and the Islamophobia from which it stems, which treats Muslims solely as national security subjects, under perpetual surveillance and subject to being targeted. It’s no mistake that I was singled out during a hearing on Muslim prisoners being singled out for violent treatment.

Those who fail to recognize this context may ask why more Muslims and impacted communities weren’t present at the courtroom that day or engaged in various challenges to national security. But, as my experience demonstrates, being in these spaces means subjecting oneself to hostility from the state precisely because of one’s identity and affinities. White people showing up for communities of color isn’t a threat, but communities of color showing up for their own communities, is. But this is only a surprise for those who ignore what the US has always been — a country rooted in white supremacy that is only safe for those who are white and for those who uphold this system of oppression.

My experience was painful, humiliating and enraging, but it won’t stop me from challenging state violence in the future. I attempted to show solidarity with Muslim prisoners, and though I was unable to physically be in the courtroom, my heart will always be with these individuals. Our strength is often tested in ways that remind us of what we are fighting for, but our fight continues because nothing short of liberation is at stake.

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