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Peace activists learn their rights

By Kimberlee Bortfeld, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 19, 2001

FBI agents beware. Leeza Vinogradov knows she doesn’t have to talk to you, and she plans to inform others. Mum is the word.  

Vinogradov, a self-described peace activist, was one of nearly 200 people who gathered at St. Joseph the Worker Church on Wednesday night to learn about what to do if the FBI or Immigration and Naturalization Service comes knocking at the door.  

Vinogradov said her ex-husband, who is Muslim and originally from India, feels vulnerable.  

“He keeps saying to me: ‘My name is Ali. My name is Ali. It’s a common Islamic name,’” Vinogradov said. “Actually, it’s ironic. When he first came to the U.S., it was during the Iran hostage crisis, and he wasn’t frightened at all. Back then, he was young and looked a lot like the people on the front pages of the newspapers. But nowadays, he’s beside himself with worry and concern.”  

He has good reason.  

Nancy Hormachea, one of the speakers at the event and an immigration attorney who represents Iranian, Afghan and South Asian clients, said since Sept. 11, many of her clients have been accosted by government agencies.  

“The FBI is calling people at home or just showing up at their doors,” Hormachea said. “They say: ‘I just have a few questions to ask you.’ And people are really intimidated by them and let them in.”  

But Hormachea said people can and should refuse to let them into their homes.  

“They need an arrest warrant to detain you,” she said. “And they need a search warrant to enter your home or office. If they have the warrant, ask for it, read it, then follow them and monitor the search. The search must be specific and limited only to the items listed in the warrant.”  

Hormachea also urged citizens and non-citizens to stay quiet until lawyers arrive.  

“Start exercising the right to remain silent,” she said. “Any information you give them can be used against you. And if you lie to an agent, the penalties are severe. So don’t talk. Just say: ‘I don’t have anything to say. What is your name? I’ll have my attorney call you.’”  

Elizabeth Fink, a New York criminal lawyer, agreed.  

“Never talk to government without a lawyer,” said Fink. “It is always a mistake. It’s more dangerous to talk to the FBI than it is to give testimony in a courtroom. In a courtroom, a court reporter takes down what is said. But with the FBI, it’s your word against his. You don’t want to be in the steelyard with this enormous bully.”  

While most in the diverse audience could only picture such confrontations with law enforcement, many speakers had wells of personal experience to draw from. Sponsors of the event included the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, Middle East Children's Alliance, National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco Women in Black and the School of Unity and Liberation. 

Yuri Kochiyama, a spirited octogenarian, was 20 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and she was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans taken from their homes and interned during World War II. 

“Within three months of the bombing, the headlines of the papers were ‘Japs get out,’” she said. “Even Chinese and Koreans, because they couldn’t tell us Asians apart, were being attacked. They started wearing buttons that read: ‘We’re not Japs.’”  

“The wartime years were rough because racism, hysteria and mistrust,” said Kochiyama. “These same things are happening today when we look at Muslim and Arab-Americans. I hope social awareness today is higher than in yesteryears. The world cannot be controlled by one country. It belongs to the people.”  

Nancy Delaney, who was introduced to Arab culture about 20 years through a UC Berkeley class on Palestine, said she is also worried about the possible backlash on Arab-Americans.  

“The American public, like me 20 years ago, have no idea or understanding of Arab people,” she said. “They have targeted a whole race of people and demonized them. We need to learn how to treat each other as equals. If you don’t know how to relate to others as individuals, peace isn’t going to happen.”  

But for Michel Shehadeh and other Arab-American activists, the level of social awareness and understanding of Arab culture is not high enough.  

Shehadeh, the western regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a member of the LA8 – a group of seven Palestinian-Americans and one Kenyan American who were detained in 1987 and threatened with deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Services for their political activism – said he struggles to get his message heard.  

“After Sept. 11, people were searching for reasons why they hate us,” Shehadeh said. “But they don’t hate us. They hate our foreign policy. We need to start to discuss deeply the reasons why our foreign policy perpetuates pain in the Middle East. But every time Arab-Americans try to advocate a debate about foreign policy, we are either ignored, accused of justifying or condoning terrorism or silenced. The U.S. does not exist in a vacuum. We live in an environment, and if that environment is diseased or sick we have to deal with it.”  

Shehadeh and others believe part of the problem lies in the absolutism of the Bush administration.  

“Nothing justifies polarizing the world into two camps: One that is absolute good and one that is absolute evil,” he said. “There’s no difference between Bush saying: ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us,’ and Bin Laden saying: ‘You’re either a believer or an infidel.’” 

Osama Qasem, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, said the only way to uproot terrorism is to have a fair and equitable foreign policy.  

“The Bush administration has been claiming that this is not a war against Islam, but at the same time it is creating a dichotomy and making Muslims and Arab feel like the ‘others,’” he said. “The government is exploiting fear and uncertainty to infringe on civil liberties and to embroil us in a military action campaign that does not have defined goals and will inevitably cause civilians casualties in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”  

During the two-and-a-half-hour event, anti-war sentiment ran high. Many speakers expressed, criticism and frustration with the government. All warned audience members to be outright mistrustful.  

Kate Raphael of the San Francisco Women of Black, a co-sponsor of the event, said she was called by the FBI last month and asked who she might know in the Middle East.  

“Since I know no one who would fly planes into buildings, I know no one whose name I’ll turn over,” she said, explaining her decision to keep quiet. “Now is the time to guard freedom and democracy. We cannot be silent, except to the FBI”.  

Donations collected at the event will go to the National Lawyers Guild, a conglomeration of law students, lawyers and legal workers committed to promoting civil rights.  

For more information or to report government harassment or seek legal advice, call the guild’s 24-hour legal hotline at 415-285-1055.