Post–9-11 Civil Rights

If You're Black, Who's Got Your Back?

Early this month, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson attacked the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for not being aggressive enough in dealing with the Republicans in an interview with the NNPA news service. Senator Trent Lott obliged black politicians by making an offensive remark that invited them to ask for his hide. This is a service to the race to be sure, and if Lott were somehow moved to retire altogether, the Democratic Party would be in their debt. Incoming CBC chair, Representative Elijah Cummings jumped in the fray and tried indicate they will change, but we'll see. The excitement has actually been refreshing, not just for reminding us of Dixiecrat history but because black leadership has been curiously quiet during a period in which civil liberties have been under siege and war looms.

Since 9-11, the government has moved to revive the legal mechanisms that gave us domestic spying under COINTELPRO in the 1960s, and last month, Roy Innis, the conservative head of the Congress of Racial Equality, and one of the two men Lott thinks he needs to sit down with now, suggested that the Department of Justice needs to investigate domestic Muslim groups for terrorists looking to recruit African Americans.

Innis may have taken his inspiration from several events: the July arrest of African American James Ujaama in Seattle; the October arrest of the Portland Six—also African Americans—in connection with alleged terrorist charges; and reports that D.C. sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad had been in the Nation of Islam. The sniper case in particular set off a frenzy of right-wing slander of African American Muslims. A search for published responses to this anti-black backlash yielded mostly opinions from African American columnists.

Reverend Al Sharpton, National Action Network president, responding through a spokesperson, said little was heard from leaders on the West Coast arrests "because, in general, 'black leaders' have lost their voice on most critical issues impacting people of color, and most politicos have moved so far to the center that they do not voice opposition to such issues."

Over the past two weeks the Voicecalled Sharpton and 11 other African American leaders to find out their concerns about the impact of such events on black communities. The questions dealt with the use of the USA Patriot Act (the 2001 anti-terrorism law that gives law enforcement broader authority to conduct electronic surveillance, search homes and offices, and provide grand jury information to intelligence organizations); the arrests of African Americans in connection with terrorist charges; and the possible need for a united black leadership to speak out against the racial profiling of African American Muslims.

In his statement, Sharpton said the USA Patriot Act "is currently impacting Muslims everywhere, including Brooklyn and Harlem," and he has previously "stated vehemently that he is against the USA Patriot Act because it is used to profile people of color," and that he "strongly feels that it will continue to victimize innocent people." Sharpton said he has connected with James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute, and others to discuss how blacks with Islamic surnames are being targeted and that he is "very concerned about the escalating problem of racial profiling in the war against terror." Sharpton also testified on the act at a special House Judiciary Committee forum called by Representative John Conyers.

One man who has been obliged to deal with the profiling of American Muslims is Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Following the arrest of John Allen Muhammad, Farrakhan spoke about the sniper suspect's NOI ties. After sharing his grief for the victims, according to the October 31 Final Call, Farrakhan said, "With the name Muhammad, many Muslims in the country already hurt, already damaged, stigmatized by the horrific events of September 11 and the aftermath of that, now to have a sniper, an alleged suspect named Muhammad, then all Muslims feel the pain again of such stigma attached to the religion of Islam."

At the press conference he said NOI teachings could not be connected to such violence: "The FBI knows us better than most of you, and they've been watching us very, very, closely for many, many, many years. They know our teachings sometimes better than the ministers who teach it." Farrakhan could not be reached for comment this week.

Asked about reaction among his constituents, Congressman Danny Davis of Chicago echoed Farrakhan's points. "The communities were already alarmed," said Davis. "People in places like Chicago and people who are concerned about civil liberties protection were already on the edge in terms of feeling that the USA Patriot Act went much too far, and that ordinary citizens would be vulnerable to all kinds of usurpations of individual rights. There is still a great deal of concern in relationship to being stigmatized. I think now people are feeling that unless they come out of it, the repercussions can be so severe. Are you willing to give up the freedoms that you have, risk internal protections in order to fight an external threat?"

Davis added, "I'm not sure that the information about what is going on has been made available, or that there has been enough widespread dissemination of the information. We make mistakes when we don't keep the link connected where young people can understand some of the past transgressions that have occurred which cause us to be leery of actions taking place today. This leeriness is based on something. McCarthyism was real. The police spying on innocuous organizations and citizens and activist-oriented groups [in the '60s]—that was real. It was not imaginary, and our young people need to have a better understanding of it. And the only way they can get it is that we give it."

Three African American Democrats in Congress sit on the Judiciary Committee and were there through the passage last year of the USA Patriot Act: Conyers (the ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the act), and representatives Maxine Waters and Robert Scott. As Nat Hentoff has reported, Waters, and Representative Barney Frank, "put some elements of the Bill of Rights back" into the original draft of the USA Patriot Act. After another version of the act suddenly emerged from some backroom maneuvering (see Hentoff, November 20, 2001), House members Conyers, Waters, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Cynthia McKinney, among others, voted against it. Conyers, Scott, Waters, Jackson, McKinney, and outgoing CBC chair Eddie Bernice Johnson did not respond to Voice calls and/or questions.

Last June 13, House Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. and Conyers, acting in their oversight capacity, sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding a full accounting of how the USA Patriot Act has been implemented. They asked about its use of grand juries; electronic, wire, and oral intercept information; search warrants; the obtaining of records from libraries, bookstores, and newspapers; civil rights abuses; and other issues. There were questions regarding legal foundations for practices such as lengthy detentions, and procedures to ensure First Amendment rights protection. This fall four response letters came from Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant, declaring some answers to be classified, and material for public release did not contain a great deal of detail. Clearly, though, Conyers struggles on at the heart of the problem. NAACP president Kwesi Mfume was unavailable for comment; attempts to reach Minister Kevin Muhammad of Harlem's Temple #7 and Imam Siraj Wahhaj of the Al-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn were unsuccessful.

The Trent Lott tempest is unfortunately a reminder that the black public is still unaware of any leaders, organization, or coalition proposing an African American agenda for the 21st century. Maybe improving the representation from Mississippi should be on it. We are still stuck in a cycle of reaction that is often all about sound bites and seldom about jobs, education, shelter, and constitutional rights.

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