Monica Terazzi admits that, a year after the terrorist attacks, Arab Americans in New York are no longer subjected to the threats and harassment that many of them underwent in the immediate aftermath. "We have experienced a lot fewer incidents of violent crimes," said Terazzi, the New York director of the American Arab Discrimination Committee. Indeed, the City Commission on Human Rights has not seen many complaints by Arab Americans of their civil liberties being violated.
But 9/11 still holds a special threat to the civil liberties of Arab-Americans in New York -- as well as to that of the rest of New Yorkers.
"We are still seeing a lot of workplace discrimination and incidents of police harassment. " Terazzi said. She is especially concerned that the government is detaining Arab immigrants and holding them for months on end for such infractions as overstaying their visas. "A Palestinian man with Jordanian citizenship was recently deported for not reporting an address change," she said. "This had never previously been a deportable offense... Everyone knows someone who has been harassed or detained. It is pretty scary, the notion that police can swoop down on your house and disappear with your husband."
Air travel poses special problems for those of Middle Eastern descent. "Many Arab Americans have been pulled out of line at airports," she said, despite assurances from United States Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that there would be no such racial profiling. "Arab American passengers have been ejected from flights after going through security. I have spoken to lots of people who have faced so much harassment that they say, 'I'm not traveling again.'"
It is true that most of the incidents that Terazzi talks about are "anecdotal" -- they are not listed in official statistics, such as complaints registered with the City Commission on Human Rights. "People don't want to draw attention to themselves," Terazzi explained. "There is a fear of anything associated with the government." Her group held a town meeting in Bay Ridge with local and federal government agencies represented and the reaction from the crowd was "we don't want to go there; it's the government."
Staff members of the human rights commission are conscious of this reluctance, and have been speaking to small groups of Arab Americans, encouraging them to make reports and reminding them that they do not have to be citizens to do so. But few have come forward, despite an assurance from Commissioner Patricia L. Gatling that "discrimination has no place in this city -- not today, not tomorrow, and not on the anniversary of the attack on our nation at the hands of terrorists." She said that the city human rights law "is one of the most comprehensive in the nation" and that she and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are committed to "the vigorous enforcement of the law that protect these rights. And that protection extends to all New Yorkers, not just some of them."
Indeed, all New Yorkers should be concerned about the threats to their civil rights, says Donna Lieberman, the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "In September and October of last year," she said, "I didn't dare contemplate how bad things would get. Some of the measures that the government has adopted have seriously eroded our fundamental civil rights and cry out for reversal." One example is the TIPS program, the Bush plan to recruit millions of volunteers to do domestic surveillance. Another is the "facial recognition technology" which is being employed at the Statue of Liberty, which is "about as accurate as heads or tails" in identifying evil-doers, while creating "a Big Brother-type of encroachment."
"What's heartening," Lieberman said, "is that...the American people have resisted to a certain extent. That's why we have not seen a proliferation of military trials. That's why TIPS has been met with resistance."
In New York, Lieberman said, the state legislators "enacted tough anti-terrorism legislation without debate or thoughtful consideration in an effort that was designed more to attain political capital than protect security. It increased death penalty application and defined terrorism in a vague and chilling way." Despite the rush to pass the law last year, "we haven't seen any prosecutions." She believes the law would not hold up in court.
The New York City Department of Education has a whole page of resources for administrators and teachers on how to help students cope with the traumatic effects of September 11, but there is scant acknowledgement in the school system's special materials on the stigmatization to which many students of Middle East origin or descent have been subjected. The resource page does, however, promote a special post 9/11 series on PBS-TV's "In the Mix" called "The New Normal" that focuses on dealing with ethnic, racial, and other human differences. And the "9/11 as History" program cited from the Families and Work Institute does include a lesson plan that deals with "compassion and diversity."
New Yorkers concerned about human rights should know about two events timed to the one-year anniversary. Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization of family members of those who perished on 9/11, is sponsoring a march across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 10. And on September 11 at 6 PM, a candlelight vigil will begin at Atlantic and Court Streets in Brooklyn, the heart of the Arab American community in New York, to gather for "remembrance, prayer, reflection, and unity," according to Terazzi.
New Human Rights Commissioners to be Named This Month
Mayor Bloomberg is finally getting around to filling twelve vacancies on what is supposed to be the 15-member City Commission on Human Rights. An announcement is expected in mid-September.
The beleaguered agency, which lost 75 percent of its funding under Mayor Giuliani while ironically gaining Charter status, got a new chairperson, Patricia L. Gatling, back in February. She is the only paid member of the Commission and directs the staff. But only two of the non-salaried commissioners are left-Marta Varela, who chaired the agency under Giuliani, and Derek Bryson Park. This minimum of three commissioners is required to make final determinations on cases. When all fifteen commissioners are on board, rotating panels of three review decisions and make recommendations to the full commission.
Gay Rights Continue to Advance in Wake of 9/11
In June, I wrote an Issue of the Week on "The Rights of Same-Sex Partners" and how they had advanced after the public saw how domestic partner survivors of the victims of 9/11 received second class treatment. While most of these are state and federal issues, the City Council is doing what it can to bring about spousal equivalency for domestic partners, gay and straight. In August, it passed Intro 114 by a vote of 34 to 7, with four abstentions. In it, New York City recognizes domestic partnerships or same-sex marriages contracted in other jurisdictions under our domestic partners law. In other words, the couples will not have to register again in the city just as married couples don't have to get married here to have their union acknowledged. Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill on August 27 and it went into effect immediately.