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Civil Liberties and Muslims in America

Julia Harumi Mass,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California
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April 9, 2010

San Francisco’s Police Chief George Gascón roundly offended many Muslim-Americans last month when he suggested that retrofitting San Francisco’s Hall of Justice had made the structure safe from both earthquakes and Yemeni or Afghan San Franciscans who might want to park a van in front of the building and blow it up.

Gascón’s subsequent apology to the city’s Middle Eastern communities provided some closure for a city government that likes to see itself above racial profiling. But though the memory of Gascón’s gaffe may soon fade for the general public, it underlines the extent to which racial profiling — in this case, assumed terrorist tendencies of Muslim-Americans and Americans from predominantly Muslim countries — is pervasive throughout American law enforcement.

When there are repeated and widespread reports of misguided intelligence sweeps that affect the lives of innocent Americans, the ACLU and other civil rights organizations must step in. The ACLU of Northern California — like many of our sister ACLU affiliates and allied civil rights organizations — is carefully monitoring racial profiling of Muslim communities. We recently joined with the Asian Law Caucus and San Francisco Bay Guardian in filing a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for records related to the surveillance of Muslim communities in Northern California.

The FBI, acknowledging the widespread media interest and public concern about relationships between these communities and American law enforcement, granted our request for expedited processing, and we are looking forward to receiving documentation on surveillance methods that may show whether and how race and religion are used to determine targets of investigations. We also hope to review aggregate data about criminal prosecutions and immigration proceedings that begin with terrorism investigations, with and without the use of undercover informants.

Muslim-Americans, like all citizens, play an important role in domestic intelligence investigations. Policies and investigative practices that focus on race or religion only are ineffective and ultimately could be dangerous for our country as a whole.

For this reason, the ACLU of Northern California is working with the Center on American-Islamic Relations and the Asian Law Caucus to present “Know Your Rights” information at mosques and community centers to help people understand their rights during ‘voluntary’ interviews with FBI agents.

Having represented several people who were contacted by the FBI for such interviews, it is clear to me that for many Muslim-Americans, interactions with law enforcement can seem both involuntary and deeply troubling. In order for our government to collect useful information that benefits us all, it is crucial for all people to have knowledge of their rights, and a representative or buffer with the government so that they can cooperate fully without fearing unjust prosecution. Stories of FBI infiltrators in mosques and Islamic centers who deliberately create divisions and act as agent provocateurs, as well as the FBI’s overt courting in local communities, justly fuel these fears.

Gascón is new to San Francisco, with a reputation for fairness and for rejecting biased policing against Latinos and blacks. His unwitting betrayal of bias can deepen the crisis in Muslim and Arab communities and increase the fear of law enforcement, or it can be used to ramp up effective and smart intelligence practices that truly promote public safety. The ACLU will continue to hold law enforcement agencies to the latter, higher, goal.

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