Equal Justice at Work: September 2011
Remembering 9/11 ten years later
How can any of us forget the tragedy of 9/11? Like most people, I remember exactly where I was. I was leading a staff meeting when someone whispered in my ear that a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. Early reports suspected it was terrorism.
We adjourned our meeting and the staff crowded into the room with a TV where we watched in disbelief and horror as the towers collapsed. Some screamed, others cried, and we were all numb to what we had just witnessed. We closed the office and told the staff to avoid the Metro and other public places where many people gather for fear that those places might be the next target. I was concerned for their safety.
I was initially very sympathetic with the President to do whatever he could to prevent another attack by rounding up people who were suspected as being connected to the terrorists who were responsible for the attack. But in the days that followed, I realized that our nation's response was not targeted at the threat, but was abusing individual rights. We had one Fellow, Ahilan Arulanantham, who worked at the ACLU. He visited people who were locked up in the aftermath of the attacks, and discovered that people were being rounded up because they appeared Muslim, not because there was any connection to the attack. Racial profiling was rampant.
I remember attending a panel organized by the Constitution Project with liberals and conservatives calling for calm rational discussion rather than knee jerk extreme reactions. They cautioned against federal legislation authorizing extraordinary wiretapping and new law enforcement tactics. Their calls for rational discussion did not prevail in Congress and the President and the police were given extraordinary new powers.
Like many times before, Equal Justice Works did not sit by idly. At our annual conference and career fair that year, we held a panel at our annual conference and career fair explaining the new legislation and its implications. We also funded a new Fellow, Brittany Benowitz, who worked at the Center for National Security Studies to expose some of the abuses of the new legislation.
While working to address these national policy issues, we did not lose sight of the people who lost loved ones in the attacks, or those living in neighborhoods surrounding Ground Zero. Fellow Akira Arroyo began her fellowship at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Fund (City Bar Fund) on September 13, 2001 – just two days after the attacks of 9/11. In response to the crisis, the focus of Akira’s original project proposal changed and through the Small Business Initiative, she helped small businesses located in the vicinity of the World Trade Center secure pro bono counsel to address their legal issues. In her first year, Akira worked with over seven hundred small businesses.
The implications of 9/11 on personal freedoms and the impact of racial profiling remain with us to this day. Ten years after one of the most tragic events in our nation’s history, I am proud of the work our Fellows and Alum continue to do to protect the rights of all people.
Uncovering the veil of racial profiling post- 9/11
Equal Justice Works Fellow, Nina Farnia, knows the racial implications of living in a pre-9/11 world. Born Iranian-American, she recalled the impact of the Iran-U.S. Hostage Crisis of 1979. “There has always been a level of hostility towards Arabs and Iranians in America,” said Nina. But on September 11, 2001, Nina knew there would be immense backlash against those of Middle Eastern descent. On the day of the attacks, Nina was a student at the University of Chicago. She remembers the distinct sound of the telephone ringing nonstop. Family members were trying to contact Nina to inform her of the attack.
Like so many Americans on that day, Nina and her family were glued to their television. “There was no way of knowing what to expect next. I expected there would be hate crimes,” she said. That evening, Maya Angelou was a guest on Nightline. In response to the attacks, Angelou said, this is not a time of war or aggression. “At that moment, I knew our society was going to change,” Nina added. Before attending law school, Nina focused on activism to address racial profiling. “[After 9/11] the policing tactics changed,” she said. The political and social aftermath of 9/11 prompted Nina to pursue law school, equipping her with the tools she needed to advocate on behalf of minorities who are racially profiled.
As an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Impact Fund, Nina’s project empowers Arab, Iranian and other communities of color to challenge racial profiling and domestic surveillance practices, particularly government actions arising post -9/11. The need for her work was illustrated in a case where she provided legal assistance for an Iranian community leader. This leader founded a mosque in Southern California. The mosque was publicly known for being anti-war. The government indicted the community leader for tax issues and sought to denaturalize him. There were not many attorneys willing to take on such a case. As a result, he was convicted of all charges. In the appeals process, Nina helped him find new attorneys. While the decision was reviewed by the Ninth Circuit, the client was held in the Communications Management Unit, a new prison formed after 9/11 to heavily monitor the communications of Muslim inmates. With Nina’s help, the client was able to keep his citizenship, though the Ninth Circuit upheld the tax violations.
As heightened security has become a part of America’s new normal, Nina recognizes that the national security state is here to stay. “Heavy surveillance has become normalized and people think it’s necessary. The government has effectively acquired national consent to do anything it wants in the name of national security,” she shared.
As she wraps her fellowship, Nina plans to continue a career focused on racial profiling. She would like to write more to inform others about what is happening behind the mask of national security.
The day the world changed
September 11, 2001, was unsuspectingly beautiful. The skies were clear, the sun was shining- and it was a typical morning for Equal Justice Works alumnus Ahilan Arulanantham. Just after 8 a.m. he began making his way to the ACLU offices, located just south of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, by way of Grand Central Station. When the train conductor announced over the intercom that there would be delays because of an accident in the city, he thought nothing of it. “The conductor noted that he was making an extra stop to let passengers off, but only one person got off the train. No one thought this ‘accident’ was anything major,” said Ahilan. At 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the WTC. This was the perceived accident. As the train slowly began making its way into the city, details came in about what was really happening. Shortly after the first crash, United Airlines Flight 175 collided with the south tower. By 9 a.m., the world had changed.
Rather than return home and still unclear of exactly what was happening, Ahilan headed towards the office. “Grand Central Station was very surreal at around 9 a.m. People were running out of the station and there was panic everywhere," he recalled. When he realized that the phone systems at his office were not working, Ahilan decided to flee the city. He caught the last train out of Grand Central Station before authorities shut it down out of concern that it could be a target. “I remember crossing the George Washington Bridge on that last train. I looked back and saw that tower one had fallen. There was just smoke and debris where it used to be, and the second tower stood alone,” he said.
At the time of the 9/11 attack, Ahilan was in the middle of his Equal Justice Works Fellowship, focused on assisting detained refugees. His project sought to highlight problems with the 1996 immigration laws that had greatly harmed refugees, and to push for change through the passage of the Refugee Protection Act. But after that fateful morning and the drastic legislative changes that followed, Ahilan realized he needed to change his project to respond to the urgent need of many immigrant communities. Just a week after the attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft enacted an emergency regulation that gave him authority to detain immigrants indefinitely. In the following months, thousands of immigrants were detained for little or no reason and held in federal prisons for months before anyone could see them. In December of 2001, Ahilan visited some of the detainees. “What I saw was shocking. They were normal people -- from taxi drivers to professors – and it was clear that many of those people did not belong there. All of them were from the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia, and most (though not all) were Muslim,” Ahilan shared.
For the following year, Ahilan focused his fellowship on providing legal assistance for immigrants who were racially profiled as a result of 9/11. He watched as the rhetoric of national security was used to justify draconian anti-immigrant measures against people who posed no threat to our Nation’s security. Hundreds of detainees were held in deplorable conditions at detention centers and federal prisons and went months without legal assistance. “One day, while I was at a detention center in New Jersey interviewing immigrants caught in the 9/11 dragnet, I saw the security guards bring dogs through the detention center. I asked the man I was interviewing what the dog was for, and he told me that the guards would take the dogs through the cell areas to keep the detainees in line,” said Ahilan. In the face of these conditions, often the best he could do for his clients was get them deported to their original countries – in the face of such awful conditions, many of them just wanted to go home. In the post-9/11 world, having people uprooted from the lives they established in America was deemed a victory.
Ten years after the fatal event, Ahilan expressed disappointment that so little has changed in the legislative arena. There is still heavy use of national security rhetoric to justify immigration detention in the name of protecting the homeland. The government continues to target and surveillance of Muslim communities. Nonetheless, Ahilan noted that there have been some improvements. “Ten years ago we often couldn’t even make the case that it was wrong to detain immigrants in violation of their civil rights. It would have seemed very un-American. Now we can make that case,” he expressed.
After reflecting over all that has taken place in the last decade and this most significant change in American culture, Ahilan shared this, “The American value of being a freedom-loving nation has been gravely threatened. We must find a way to go back.”
Ahilan is the Deputy Legal Director at the ACLU of Southern California. To learn more about Ahilan’s work please visit, www.aclu-sc.org.
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