The pending reauthorization of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan
for AIDS Relief, commonly called PEPFAR, is a clear challenge for our
government to demonstrate its commitment to human dignity and life.
PEPFAR would be expanded dramatically by legislation, S 2731,
now before the Senate and already passed by the U.S. House of
Representatives (and with the long name of "The Tom Lantos and Henry J.
Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis,
and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008, H.R. 5501").
Funding would be tripled to $50 billion over the next five years.
While the increased funding is a tremendous step forward, the House
version also contains ideological restrictions that will prevent the
funds from most effectively containing the spread of HIV by blocking
the participation of family planning programs.
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The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
and our partners in the interfaith community are urging the Senate to
hear the voices of people of faith on the issue of AIDS relief. These
are people from diverse traditions who share common principles of
justice and compassion and the belief that we have a moral responsibility
to help the vulnerable and the sick to the full extent of our ability.
Simply put, we want PEPFAR to be reauthorized and we welcome the
increased funds — but we want language restricting the participation
of family planning organizations to be removed.
This language requires that organizations must comply with the
global gag rule — the requirement that foreign organizations receiving
U.S. funding must not provide abortion counseling or services or
conduct advocacy on abortion policy. We believe that an ethical policy
will support the best and most flexible approaches possible to contain
the spread of HIV. Experience shows that involving family planning
organizations will ensure the greatest level of access to information
and services for women and girls.
We also are concerned by an onerous reporting provision in the bill
that would require Congress to be informed when countries with
generalized epidemics fall below 50 percent of funds spent on
abstinence and fidelity programs. Instead of promoting programs that
allow for flexibility and are tailored to the needs of individual
communities, the new reporting policy will restrict delivery of
comprehensive and integrated information.
Those involved in our community response on PEPFAR include 26
Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, ecumenical and
interfaith agencies and bodies. We are actively reaching out to our constituencies to underscore that this issue involves our faith commitments, including our commitment to action for social justice.
HIV and AIDS have had devastating consequences throughout the
developing world – consequences that can be prevented by empowering the
most vulnerable populations with proven prevention strategies.
The United States launched PEPFAR in 2003 as the largest investment
ever made by any nation to combat a single disease. PEPFAR has
successfully brought AIDS treatment, care and HIV prevention to
millions of people who would not otherwise have had services. But
constraints on prevention and care are contrary to the authentic moral
concerns of the American public for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. The
religious and religiously affiliated organizations opposing these
constraints have pointed out that they directly affect women, youth,
and socially marginalized groups – those who increasingly bear the
greatest burden of this pandemic and who often receive medical care
mainly or only from family planning organizations.
It is our moral duty to challenge our government to adopt the most
effective, humane and just policy to contain the HIV/AIDS pandemic,
without ideological restrictions and constraints.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.
Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.
In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”
When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.
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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.
A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.
Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures
Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:
Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.
While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.
As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]
In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.
Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.
In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.
March wrote in the Times:
As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.
March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.
Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.
From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.
Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.
He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Timesarticle that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.
Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.
Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.
“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.
At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.
Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.
From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence
Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.
In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.
Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.
It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.
Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.
At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.
Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.
Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.
In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.
“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.
“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”
They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.
The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.
“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”
They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”
CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”
Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.
This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.
Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.
CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.
“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.
CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.
“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.
“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.
In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.
In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.
“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.
The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement
The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.
Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.
“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”
Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.
His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.
Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”
Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.
In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.
Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:
My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?
“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”
Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.
“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.
Last Wednesday, midway through a private fundraiser in South Carolina for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a 23-year-old Black Lives Matter activist quietly made her way to the front of the crowd and unfurled a banner that read: “We have to bring them to heel.”
In the exchange that followed, captured on video, Ashley Williams asked Clinton to apologize to the Black community for a speech she made in 1996 celebrating a sweeping new crime bill, during which she referred to “gangs of kids” as “super predators: no conscience, no empathy.”
“We can talk about why they ended up that way,” Clinton continued in the speech, “but first we have to bring them to heel.”
The video made national headlines, and is amplifying a conversation among voters about Clinton’s role in the expansion of racial profiling and mass incarceration in the United States, and her ability—if elected—to deal with the school-to-prison pipeline. (The school-to-prison pipeline is shorthand for the disproportionate rate at which students of color are policed, punished, and funneled out of their classrooms into contact with the criminal justice system.)
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The conversation gained steam in February when Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, penned a piece in the Nation titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” In her essay, Alexander explored the ways in which then-President Bill Clinton championed a federal “three strikes” law to impose life sentences without parole for offenders convicted of certain crimes, and signed a $30 billion crime bill that created scores of new federal capital crimes and significantly expanded the police force—policies for which Alexander claims Hillary Clinton actively advocated.
While Clinton’s 1996 speech, referenced by Williams in South Carolina, did not explicitly refer to these “super predators” as young people of color, her statement is widely perceived as a highly racialized one, given the disproportionate impact of the Clinton administration’s policies on Black and brown youth.
Clinton acknowledged on Thursday in a statement to the Washington Post, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
Her statement came more than a week after unveiling her $125 billion Breaking Every Barrier Agenda that promises, among other things, to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
Her proposal includes an allocation of $2 billion to school districts to incentivize reform of harsh disciplinary practices, which have been followed by soaring suspension and arrest rates: School suspensions shot up from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000, “and have been most dramatic for children of color,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Clinton’s proposal also calls attention to an “ineffective culture of zero-tolerance,” and highlights the over-reliance on “school resource officers”—police personnel deployed in schools who numbered 9,000 as of 2008—as being emblematic of “overly punitive atmospheres that often disproportionately criminalize and stigmatize students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBT.”
The agenda also hits out at legislation that allows some states to punish even minor disciplinary infractions—including talking in class or playing on a cellphone—with jail time, such as South Carolina’s Disturbing Schools Law, which resulted in over 1,100 students being referred to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice for “disturbing their schools” in 2013-2014.
Citing data from the Department of Education, Clinton’s website notes that these laws disproportionately affect students of color, with Black students comprising 27 percent of all referrals to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subject to school-related arrests in 2014—despite representing just 16 percent of public school enrollment.
“I think this proposal is Clinton’s attempt to be responsive to the demands of movement advocates and activists across the country who’ve been pressing both candidates on the Democratic side to respond to racial inequality, mass incarceration, and police violence,” Priscilla Ocen, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Rewire.
“I don’t think it’s accidental that the plan was announced just a few days before [the Democratic primary in] South Carolina—it gives her something to talk to African-American voters about, and it is certainly pragmatic election campaigning,” Ocen said in a phone interview last Thursday. This pragmatic campaigning paid off last Saturday with Clinton’s resounding success in South Carolina, where she secured 86 percent of Black votes, compared to just 14 percent for Bernie Sanders.
Still, some juvenile justice experts and educators feel Clinton’s agendafalls short, landing somewhere along the spectrum from “incomplete” to “disingenuous.”
“I can’t help but feel that if this was genuinely something at the top of Clinton’s agenda, she would have done something about it when she was First Lady … Instead she simply followed the same ‘tough on crime’ line as so many other politicians,” Cynthia Pong, a former public defender with the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, and now a consultant for nonprofit social justice organizations at Embrace Change Consulting, told Rewire in a phone interview.
“Throughout the decade of the ’90s and beyond, [Hillary Clinton] and her husband played a huge role in upholding and expanding systematic mass incarceration of people of color in this country. In 1994 she was using some of the most disgusting racist rhetoric about young men of color I have ever heard. After all that, for her now to be saying she is committed to dismantling mass incarceration is disingenuous and even a little suspicious,” said Pong, who has defended clients at various stages of entanglement in the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Accepting money from entities that profit from locking people up, while saying you’re going to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, sends a completely inconsistent message,” Pong said.
Mishi Faruqee, national field director of the Youth First Initiative, shares a similar sentiment.
“I think it’s very important that the Clinton campaign completely repudiate all donations from lobbyists for the private prison industry, just as the [Bernie] Sanders campaign has done,” Faruqee told Rewire.
Faruqee also said she wants to see and hear more about how candidates intend to address the sprawling juvenile justice system, which incarcerates an estimated 54,000 young people on any given day, according to Youth First. As Rewire has previously reported, youth of color are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, with Black kids experiencing a youth incarceration rate of 605 per 100,000 population, five times higher than the youth incarceration rate of their white peers, which is just 127 per 100,000. In 2013, Black children comprised 21,550 of an estimated 54,148 kids locked up in juvenile detention.
Last Thursday, nine national juvenile justice organizations distributed a letter to all presidential candidates, outlining their shared vision for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system. At publication time, none of the campaigns had responded to the letter, but Faruqee said she hopes Clinton’s agenda will begin to reflect some of the recommendations contained in the joint platform such as closing youth prisons, and reallocating funds towards community-based, family-centered alternatives to incarceration.
Others say the problem runs deeper than Clinton’s agenda suggests.
Clinton’s proposal promises to expend $200 million annually to dispatch “school climate support teams” into districts and schools with high suspension and arrest rates, with the purpose of tackling implicit bias—the subconscious ways in which perceptions based on race, gender, religion, or any number of characteristics feed negative stereotypes—and training educators in de-escalation tactics. But some educators say this proposal fails to closely look at implicit bias and the trauma it creates in classrooms across the country.
“In my experience working in historically and systemically disenfranchised communities of color, in which 99 percent of students are at or below the poverty line, what I see most frequently is a lot of trauma,” said Brittney Elyse Sampson-Thompson, a longtime educator who is currently serving middle school students at a charter school in Philadelphia.
“In schools where there is a large police presence or leaders who are quick to call the police on their students I’ve seen crazy things. When fifth-grade girls are led out of school in handcuffs my first thought is about the incredible ripple effect that will have, not only in the life of that young lady and her family, but also for every other child in the building who witnessed it,” she told Rewire.
“For the child herself it means that the idea of being arrested, of being in a cop car, of waiting in a precinct for her parents to arrive is no longer foreign—it becomes a true experience that she has lived. Add to that the fact that it happened while the child was in school—where she should be safe, not only physically but also emotionally and mentally safe to take risks and to explore and to be a child—and the situation becomes frankly tragic,” Sampson-Thompson added. “We serve in communities that have experienced generations of trauma and if we aren’t actively working against it, we add to it.”
Those whose work has focused closely on the intersections of race and gender in the school-to-prison pipeline also feel the proposal has some glaring gaps.
“Clinton ought to have an intersectional framework for understanding the gender dynamics of racial inequality that make girls vulnerable to both public and private expressions of violence,” said Ocen, co-author of a report on the disproportionate impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on Black girls, which found that they are six times as likely to be suspended as their white counterparts.
“She needs to be attentive to the gendered pathways that lead Black girls to being disproportionately incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities, and to be attentive to the fact that not only are girls and women among the fastest growing populations in prison, but also that the vast majority of them had been victims of physical or sexual abuse prior to being incarcerated,” Ocen said.
“Clinton will continue to have an incomplete understanding of racial justice and an incomplete racial justice platform until she attends to the specific vulnerabilities of girls and women of color,” Ocen added. “Both candidates ought to be listening to the people who are most affected by these policies, listening to their stories, their calls for transformation and their suggestions for what actually works.”