Commentary Violence

What Topeka Tells Us: When the Budget Cuts Come, It’s Women and Children First

Jodi Jacobson

This week's power struggle over who would pay for prosecuting domestic violence crimes in Shawnee County, Kansas is both a reflection and a foreshadowing of how anti-tax, anti-government, religiously ideological leaders see their states and our country going. In short, when it comes to making cuts, it's women and children first.

This week, a power struggle ensued between Shawnee County, Kansas and Topeka city officials over who would prosecute domestic abuse cases revealing just how far anti-tax, anti-government ideology is apt to go, and just who it leaves most vulnerable.

It all started when the Shawnee County Commission cut the budget of county District Attorney Chad Taylor, which, Taylor argued, left him without sufficient resources to carry out his job. Taylor, in turn, said he would no longer prosecute cases of domestic violence occuring within the city limits of Topeka because he didn’t have the staff and it was the city’s job to take care of these cases. But Topeka’s mayor and city council disagreed so they repealed the city’s ordinance against domestic violence, leaving it to the discretion of Taylor as to whether, when and how many instances of abuse to prosecute.

This, of course, left women victims of violence unprotected and threatened the release of abusers onto the streets of Kansas’ capital city.

Today, after a huge public outcry both from within and outside of Kansas, led in large part by Kansas NOW, Taylor announced his office will again “commence the review and filing of misdemeanors decriminalized by the City of Topeka.”

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This is a partial victory–the discretion of what cases and how many to prosecute remains in Taylor’s hands with a much-reduced budget, forcing Taylor, in his words, to work with “less staff, less resources, and severe constraints on our ability to effectively seek justice.”

To a large extent, Taylor is not to blame. According to the Topeka City-Journal:

Taylor originally announced that his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanors committed within Topeka after the Shawnee County Commission cut his 2012 budget by nearly $350,000. Taylor said the budget cut would limit his staff to prosecuting all felonies and those misdemeanor crimes committed in Shawnee County outside of the Topeka city limits.

“Over the past three years, my office has consistently demonstrated through actions our commitment to public safety,” Taylor said in a statement.

“When I assumed office as the Shawnee County District Attorney I inherited a backlog of over 4,000 unfiled, unreviewed cases. Within a year this backlog had been reviewed and over 500 new cases were filed.

But with an increase in criminal cases, including a 25 percent increase in adult criminal case filings, the gap between staff and budget just kept growing. Still, he maintains, “our office has worked diligently to combat domestic battery. Over the past three years, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office has increased misdemeanor domestic battery filings by over 80 percent and convictions by over 50 percent. All these changes were accomplished without any additional county budget funds and with a reduction in staff.”

That, however, obviously became untenable with this latest round of cuts.

“This situation should be recognized by any government that is considering cutting essential government services,” said Kari Ann Rinker, State Director of Kansas NOW. “It seems more often than not that the first area to be cut focuses on the most vulnerable.”

In Kansas,” she continued, “funding for women’s basic health needs has been attacked at the state level by our governor, and now locally in Topeka, at the same time that we are nationally fighting laws that would decimate federal funding for reproductive and sexual health care and fighting a bill, H.R. 358, that would let pregnant women in need of abortion die.”

This, sisters, is our future under the right-wing GOP/Tea Party leadership that governs so many states.  To be clear, several of those who voted to repeal the domestic violence ordinance in Topeka are Democrats.  But the state is controlled by–and the dire budget circumstances created by–the GOP-Tea Party dominated state legislature, led by Brownback, whose budgets have slashed everything from school funding, to psychatric care for children in need to women’s health clinics and beyond.

As I wrote in July, Kansas under Governor Sam Brownback is hardly the “heaven on earth” portrayed in the vision sold by anti-tax, anti-government religiously-ideological extremists of the kind Brownback exemplifies.

Kansans, for example, are becoming poorer. A U.S. Census Bureau study found that the rate of growth in poverty in Kansas outpaced that of the nation writ large.  In 2009, poverty in the state rose 3 percent, as opposed to 1 percent nationwide.  More than 365,000 Kansans live in poverty.

The share of Kansans living in extreme poverty also outpaced the national average, increasing by 1.1. percent as opposed to 0.7 percent for the nation as a whole.  The Census Bureau found there were 153,756 Kansans–5.6 percent of the population–living in extreme poverty in 2009.

The rate of increase in child poverty in Kansas was nearly double that of the United States as a whole. The share of children in Kansas living in poverty increased from 14 percent in 2008 to 17.2 percent in 2009, putting the number of Kansas children living in poverty at 118,029 in 2009. By contrast, child poverty rose 1.9 percent that same year across the country as a whole.

This week’s power play over who will be responsible for prosecuting abusers is but one example of what women and their children in every state are facing as budgets for child nutrition, child health, women’s health, police, teachers, and basic functions of government are cut to the bone so that billionaires like the Koch Brothers can keep that chump change they’d otherwise pay in taxes.

Rinker, like others, is simultaneously both tracking and fighting the onslaught of cuts at the state and local levels in Kansas and underscores that “it will be up to women’s advocates to do this monitoring because similar cuts are being made more and more often at the local level.”

“Grassroots activists,” she argues, “must make a lot of noise about this to protect our rights.” In fact, public officials admit having been overwhelmed by the number of complaints that came in from Kansas and across the country, telling Rinker that she and her colleagues could take full credit for the resumption of prosecutions by Taylor that came about in response to efforts by both the state and national offices of the National Organization for Women, along with CHANGE.org and others.

“We made them do what they are supposed to be doing,” Rinker said.  “Protecting people.”

So one answer is that advocacy works and that the collective advocacy of women and men throughout this country can promote social justice and ensure government accountability, at least to a certain extent.

Still, it is only a partial win. The state is governed by an anti-tax governor and legislature, the city of Topeka has not reversed its repeal of its domestic violence law, and Taylor still has too few resources to do his job.

The more important therefore question is: Why, in a country in which Presidential candidates constantly beat their chests about “exceptionalism” are we allowing a dangerous politico-religious ideology to undermine the fundamental rights and protections of our own citizens?

*******

Follow Jodi on Twitter: @jljacobson

News Family

Arizona Drops 1,500 Needy Children With First-in-Nation Cash Assistance Cap

Nicole Knight Shine

Critics have called the cap "an aggressive and intentional effort to undermine support for vulnerable families.”

At the beginning of this month, around 1,500 children and 1,000 adults living in poverty in Arizona lost cash assistance and now are permanently barred from the state’s welfare program.

Arizona is the first state in the country to end welfare benefits after one year, meaning that a family—typically a parent or a relative with at least one dependent child—who has already used 12 months of cash assistance will be cut off permanently.

The approximately 2,500 individuals who lost benefits July 1 represent roughly 10 percent of the children and one-quarter of the adults who receive Arizona’s funds from a federal block-grant program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). They may, however, still qualify for benefits like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, Medicaid, and other assistance.

Arizona had previously provided two years of cash assistance, but Arizona lawmakers and the state’s Republican governor recently agreed to cut the time limit in half to help plug a projected $534 million budget hole in 2016 and shift the money to state child welfare programs. The state expects to save $3.9 million annually with the 12-month limit, according to a spokesperson from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which runs TANF.

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Supporters of Arizona’s new one-year limit, such as former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R-Lake Havasu City), who’s challenging incumbent Sen. John McCain (R) in the August primarysaid the cut will “encourage the able-bodied to treat welfare like a safety net rather than a hammock.”

Critics have called it “an aggressive and intentional effort to undermine support for vulnerable families,” as Cynthia Zwick, executive director for the Arizona Community Action Association, put it for the Arizona Republic.

The average Arizona family in the program received $201 in May 2016, according to a state report, an amount that is less than half of the nationwide average monthly benefit of $429. To qualify in Arizona, a family of four generally cannot earn more than $2,584 a month, although that varies and is based on multiple factors.

In May 2016, before the new time limit kicked in, 15,581 children and 4,139 adults in Arizona received cash assistance, totaling $1,841,672.

A federal block-grant program, TANF was enacted under former President Bill Clinton in 1996 with the aim of “end[ing] welfare as we know it.” TANF allows up to five years of benefits, but gives states wide latitude with those benefits, as long as their TANF spending meets at least one of four official goals: providing cash aid to needy families; promoting job training, work, and marriage; reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and increasing the number of two-parent families.

In the 20 years since the program’s enactment, what’s happened is a marked and ongoing plunge in cash assistance to families in poverty, as states, like Arizona, spent TANF money elsewhere.

Arizona, for example, has shifted TANF money to its underfunded child welfare programs, as the Phoenix-based Morrison Institute for Public Policy noted in its 2015 report. Ohio funds faith-based crisis pregnancy centers with TANF dollars, with the ostensible goal of reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Oklahoma, meanwhile, spends TANF dollars on marriage counseling.

Roughly 55 percent of impoverished Arizona families received TANF benefits in 1994-95, a number that plunged to 9 percent in 2013, as the Morrison Institute noted in its 2015 report. Arizona’s latest reduction is the fourth since 2009, as the report noted.

Anticipating the cuts, representatives from the state DES said recently in a statement that state contractors have found jobs for more than 1,500 individuals who were in danger of losing benefits because of the new one-year cap.

Arizona outsources its job training and placement to two private companies, MAXIMUS and Arbor/ResCare Workforce Services. The DES also reported that an additional 245 individuals have gained work experience, and more than 450 have participated in community service activities with employers.

DES Director Tim Jeffries described gainful employment as “the true American dream.”

The agency, he noted, acting as “good stewards of taxpayer’s money, should work to assist individuals in becoming self-sufficient, with the goal that one day they will no longer need benefits.”

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Decade of Resistance

Kanya D’Almeida

This small women-led movement has taken on the impossible challenge of fighting extreme religious intolerance with interfaith unity.

This is the third and final article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

In the early hours of May 21, 2009, Alicia McWilliams was woken by a frantic phone call from her sister, saying that the FBI had just raided their other sister Elizabeth’s home. In an interview with Rewire, McWilliams says she couldn’t decipher her sister’s hysterical words, and so switched on the local news, which was blowing up with the alleged ”Bronx Terror Plot,” flashing scenes of her nephew, David Williams—Elizabeth’s son—being led away in handcuffs on terrorism charges.

McWilliams says she knew right away that there was something wrong with that picture, suspicions that only deepened as she learned the details of how an FBI informant had befriended her nephew and three other low-income Black Muslim men and involved them in a convoluted scheme that would include attacking synagogues in New York City and an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York.

She tells Rewire on the phone her first thought was that the entire plot smacked of the days of COINTELPRO—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s counterintelligence program that spied on and infiltrated various political groups throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Ushered into existence in 1956 to squash the Communist Party, the program quickly turned its attention to groups like the Black Panther Party in order to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the Black Liberation Movement.

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Feeling a sense of déjà vu during the early days of her nephew’s arrest, she watched as the government and the media spun a narrative of four violent extremists plotting to blow up Jewish houses of worship in the name of jihad, obscuring the vulnerability and desperation of the men involved and the active role played by the informant.

The plot was so outrageous that even Judge Colleen McMahon, who presided over the Newburgh Four trial and ultimately sentenced them to decades in prison after a jury returned a guilty verdict, concluded:

Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie [one of the defendants in the case], whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope … I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

But for McWilliams, who was “scared to death” at the time, simply acknowledging the injustice of the government’s counterterrorism tactics was not enough. She felt compelled to fight back. The two-month-long trial surrounding the “Bronx Terror Plot” saw her either sitting in the courtroom or standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, protesting the war on terror in both its domestic and foreign manifestations.

She talked to the press. She marched in the streets. Even after the trial ended in a guilty verdict, she did not let up: Every waking moment was spent fighting with her sister Elizabeth on David’s behalf.

Before long, she connected with other advocates and began speaking on panels alongside the family members of hundreds of Muslims who have been incarcerated on terrorism charges since 9/11.

She remembers a time when she was the only Black woman and non-Muslim in those organizing spaces. “It was new for me,” she tells Rewire. “I was different: I’m very outspoken, I cuss a lot. But they accepted me as a sister. Because I was saying and doing what they all wanted to—I was standing up and cussing out the government for taking our boys away.”

In the third part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we talk to some of the families and activists who have spent the past decade and a half fighting to expose religiously biased federal policies that have fanned the flames of Islamophobia and torn hundreds of American families apart.

At the heart of their struggle is a campaign called No Separate Justice, a nationwide effort to unite groups fighting on multiple fronts and across various marginalized populations to highlight the criminalization of Muslims in the United States.

Humble Beginnings

This past January Zurata Duka, an ethnic Albanian immigrant whose story Rewire reported on previously, entered a Philadelphia prison where three of her four sons were being held pending a court hearing. There, for the first time in eight years, she held them in her arms.

Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka had been arrested in 2007, in connection with an alleged plot to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. The plot turned out to be manufactured by the FBI with the help of confidential informants, who worked for months to try and record evidence of the Dukas’ involvement in the plan.

Though the prosecution was unable to establish proof that the brothers had agreed to the plot, and despite the fact that the FBI’s own informant testified that the brothers were ignorant of the plan, a jury found them guilty and sentenced all three to life in prison, with an additional 30-year sentence for the youngest, Eljvir.

Imprisoned far from home—in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Colorado—the three brothers almost never see their parents, siblings, or the children that both Dritan and Eljvir left behind. For years they were even cut off from physical contact with their family as the government shuffled them between multiple high-security federal detention centers, where they were held for long periods in isolation. To this day Eljvir remains in solitary confinement.

The fact that Zurata Duka was able to embrace her sons after nearly a decade was thanks in large part to a coalition of individuals and organizations who have worked for years to keep alive the case of the Fort Dix Five, as the Duka brothers and their two co-defendants came to be known in the media.

Under legal and social pressure, New Jersey District Judge Robert B. Kugler—the same man who presided over the original trial and sentenced the brothers back in 2009—agreed in 2015 to hear a motion for retrial, based on the contention that the brothers had received ineffective counsel. At the time of writing, he had yet to issue a ruling.

A few months ahead of that hearing, a woman named Lynne Jackson drove down to the Camden courthouse in New Jersey along with several other activists and unfurled a huge banner that read ”Free the Fort Dix 5.”

It was a freezing November day, she tells Rewire in a phone interview, but the members of the Fort Dix Five Family Support Committee clustered together, passing out leaflets about the Duka brothers’ case, which had captured national headlines back in 2009.

At one point, Jackson says, two courthouse officials came outside to ask what the protesters were doing.

“I think they were surprised that people hadn’t forgotten about the Dukas, that two months before they were scheduled to appear their supporters were standing around in the freezing cold behind a massive banner,” Jackson says. “How could we forget such an injustice? It keeps me awake at night. So this is what we do: We try to keep these cases alive.”

Jackson’s support for Muslim Americans’ rights dates back to 2007, when she and several other concerned citizens came together around the cases of Yassin Aref, an Iraqi Kurdish refugee, and Mohammed M. Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant, who were convicted in 2006 on terrorism charges.

Both men were residents of Albany, New York. Aref had been a well-known imam, and Hossain the owner of a struggling local pizzeria, when an undercover FBI informant named Shahed Hussain showed up in the community with gifts, promises of cash loans, and stories of his involvement with a Pakistani terrorist group, according to court testimony, the New York Times reported.

For months the informant attempted to engage Hossain in discussions about terrorist activity. One such conversation, which was caught on tape and subsequently played at trial, the Times reported, involves the informant claiming that the $50,000 loan he had promised to the pizzeria owner came from the sale of a missile launcher that would eventually be used to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York.

Ultimately, the defendants were tried and convicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist network.

As Rewire has reported previously, the federal government has used material support statutes to incarcerate hundreds of Muslims since 9/11. Legal scholars contend that while the laws originally sought to prohibit citizens from providing fiscal support, weapons, or intelligence to designated terrorist groups, courts have interpreted the statutes far more broadly in the decade since September 11, convicting individuals whose faith or ideology supposedly “predispose” them to violence.

According to the complaint filed against the two Albany men, Hossain’s only “crime” was to accept a loan from the FBI informant, while Aref did nothing but witness that loan in his capacity as an imam, as per Islamic custom—actions that the prosecution charged amounted to money laundering in the service of a terrorist organization.

Shocked by the extent to which the government had gone to infiltrate their community and ensnare two Muslim men in a bogus scheme, residents like Jackson began to mobilize. She joined the Muslim Solidarity Committee, which had sprung up in 2006 as a kind of hub for supporters of Aref and Hossain.

Activists quickly realized that, far from being an aberration unfolding in their town, the Aref and Hossain case represented a pattern in which federal law enforcement practices were eviscerating the rights and liberties of many Muslim residents, Jackson tells Rewire. Faced with what was clearly a nationwide trend, the committee folded into a larger effort known as Project SALAM (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims), becoming just one of several chapters around the country.

Project SALAM now falls under an even broader umbrella group, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF). The coalition’s legal director, Kathy Manley, tells Rewire in a phone interview: “We work with rights groups and families to defend Muslim residents who are being—or might be—prosecuted, not for something they did, but because of what the government fears they might do.”

She referred to this legal strategy of prosecuting individuals who have not committed a crime as preemptive prosecution. It is a term that neatly sums up the FBI’s post-9/11 counterterrorism program, whose most controversial feature has been the widespread use of confidential informants to involve Muslim residents in government-manufactured terrorist plots.

As of 2014, counterterrorism operations accounted for 40 percent of the bureau’s $3.3 billion operating budget, according to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch. Informants likely account for a significant portion of those funds: as of 2007 the FBI had about 15,000 confidential informants on its payroll, up from 1,500 in the 1970s.

Families and organizers with the No Separate Justice campaign are all too familiar with this tactic and—in some cases—with the informants themselves.

The Newburgh Four: Sowing the Seeds of Solidarity

In the spring of 2008, Shahed Hussain, the same informant who targeted Aref and Hossain in Albany, showed up in the economically depressed town of Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City.

Over several months, he set about infiltrating eateries and houses of worship, including the Masjid Al-Ikhlas, whose congregation counted many Black American Muslims.

As the mosque’s imam, Salahuddin Muhammad, noted in the 2014 HBO documentary The Newburgh Sting, most of the congregation was put off by Hussain’s extremist views, including his conservative attitude toward women and his talk of jihad. But one man, James Cromitie, was taken in by Hussain’s flashy car and promises of money, and the two struck up a friendship.

Over time, Hussain convinced Cromitie and three other men to participate in a plan that involved attacking synagogues in the Bronx and firing missiles at a U.S. air base in Newburgh. Hussain offered the men $250,000 for their efforts. One of the men lured by this extravagant promise was Alicia McWilliams’ nephew, David Williams, a young Black Muslim convert who’d grown up in Brooklyn but had returned to Newburgh in 2009 to help care for his young brother Lord. According to reports, Lord had recently been diagnosed with a terminal liver disease.

As Anjali Kamat reported for Democracy Now! in 2010, Lord needed a liver transplant in order to survive, a medical procedure the Williams family could not afford. In fact, all of the men ensnared in Hussain’s plan were struggling financially. They had also served time in prison, and one of them, a Haitian-born immigrant named Laguerre Payen, was a paranoid schizophrenic.

Kamat added, “[Payen] lived in a one-room occupancy in Newburgh’s crack alley. When he was arrested, there were open containers of urine [in] his room, because he was too afraid to walk down the hall to use the restroom. This man, we’re supposed to believe, is a terrorist.”

On May 20, 2009, as they attempted to carry out the fake operation, all four men were apprehended and three of them, including Cromitie and Williams, were subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States. At least two of the defendants maintain that they had planned to foil the plot all along.

After receiving that fateful call from her sister following the arrest, Alicia McWilliams began connecting with advocates from Project SALAM and NCPCF and speaking out against the policies put into place since 9/11 that were explicitly targeting Muslim Americans.

But organizing around domestic terror cases is no easy task. Family members have told Rewire that the stigma of the word alone has pitched them into poverty and isolation, as relatives, religious communities, and prospective employers disappear from their lives, fearing guilt by association.

McWilliams says that back in 2009 many of the women she met—women who are now at the forefront of the No Separate Justice movement—were still in the shadows, silent for fear of being retaliated against.

“I told them, ‘You gotta come out and let people know you won’t be quiet,’” she tells Rewire.

Two women in particular were deeply affected by McWilliams’ words: Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has reported on previously.

In multiple interviews with Rewire, Parveen explains that McWilliams often gave her the courage to speak out in public—something she had never done prior to her son, Matin, being targeted by an informant and sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of providing material support to terrorism. Parveen says she and McWilliams have sat by each other during the most challenging times. A devout Muslim, Parveen once even accompanied McWilliams to church.

“Now Mama Shahina is out there doing her thing,” McWilliams says, referring to the monthly vigils that the No Separate Justice campaign hosts outside the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan, where Parveen can often be heard advocating on behalf of Muslim prisoners.

McWilliams lives too far away to attend the vigils, but she says she remains connected to her “sisters.”

“These are beautiful women,” McWilliams tells Rewire, “And we love each other unconditionally.”

Fighting on Multiple Fronts

McWilliams, who often refers to her nephew’s case as “COINTELPRO all over again,” was not the only person Rewire interviewed for this series to draw parallels between the current counterterrorism effort and the counterintelligence operations of old.

Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner who was incarcerated for 15 years in connection with the Resistance Conspiracy—actions undertaken by white anti-imperialists in 1985—recalls speaking about the history of COINTELPRO at one of the earliest conferences of families affected by terrorism prosecutions, back in October of 2011.

“I talked about the number of incarcerated Black Panthers who are still in jail, about the murder of Fred Hampton [a member of the Panther Party], which was engineered by the FBI and carried out by the Chicago police, and about how COINTELPRO framed, arrested, and assassinated so many people who were part of militant movements in the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” Whitehorn tells Rewire. “Afterwards some of the women, the mothers who had not yet become as active in the movement, came up to me with tears in their eyes, two of them speaking to me through a translator, and said, ‘We never knew that your government did this.’”

She says the No Separate Justice vigils have provided a space for unity between populations that have historically been incarcerated for so-called radicalism—including Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and white anti-imperial activists—and the Muslims who are now being targeted by the federal government.

The monthly gatherings outside the MCC draw an eclectic crowd, with each case attracting activists from across the political spectrum. Vigils held in honor of the Holy Land Five, for instance—a group of Palestinian men whose charitable contributions to local Palestinian communities was deemed a form of “material support” for Hamas, the governing authority of the Gaza Strip—drew scores of Palestinian rights groups and anti-Zionist Jewish activists, including members of Adalah-NY and Al-Awda NY.

When Shahina Parveen or other South Asian immigrants have been in the spotlight, members of the youth and worker-led Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) have turned out in large numbers.

Meanwhile, cases like that of Shifa Sadequee, a Bangladeshi American who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2009 and whose story Rewire covered at length earlier in this series, has drawn support from queer activists and groups organizing around political prisoners. According to Shifa’s sister Sonali, supporters of U.S. political prisoners were among the few people who stood by the Sadequee family when Shifa was arrested back in 2006.

“Large parts of the immigrant Muslim community in Atlanta [where the family lived at the time] were completely hands off,” Sonali tells Rewire in a phone interview. “It was heartbreaking: No one wanted to deal with the issue, they didn’t even want to touch it, to come close to it.”

Their support came instead from Black activists, including those involved with the Jericho Movement, a nationwide effort to free political prisoners in the United States. Both sisters had rallied with folks from Jericho, particularly around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black journalist and author who has spent over 30 years in prison, almost all of them on death row. While ostensibly convicted for the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer, advocates believe that Abu-Jamal was incarcerated for his radical views on Black liberation and his outspokenness as a reporter and radio personality.

The sisters had also participated in efforts to free imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, when he was chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A resident of Atlanta, Georgia, Al-Amin has been a “target of the government due to his radical beliefs,” according to reports. His supporters claim he was framed for the shooting deaths of two sheriff’s deputies in 2000.

“There was a powerful Black Muslim community already in place that understood the issues we were dealing with, that took up Shifa’s case and basically gave us whatever support we needed,” says Sonali. As Shifa’s case unfolded, it became clear to his family and his supporters that he, like many Black activists, had been targeted largely for his political views. His sisters say the prosecution relied heavily on Shifa’s religious teachings, his political opinions and his work as a translator of Arabic texts when pressing their case to the jury. The framework within which movements for political prisoners have organized for years became a crucial one for understanding Shifa’s situation, they say.

Activists from Atlanta’s queer community, as well local groups like Project South, also stood behind the family from day one—even when members of their own Bangladeshi Muslim community shunned them.

“It was such a blessing, such a relief, to have this politically conscious community in place,” Sonali tells Rewire. “They kept us going.”

And yet, while echoes of COINTELPRO shimmer in the current landscape, some say the situation Muslim residents face today is unique.

“Back then the FBI mostly targeted political activity,” Whitehorn tells Rewire. “Now they seem more interested in building a fake narrative that citizens of the United States are at risk of, or endangered by, Muslims—even those without political leanings.”

She points to politicians like Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, whose inflammatory rhetoric—including his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States—appears to have fanned Islamophobic sentiment. Since the 2016 presidential election campaigns began, there has been a documented uptick in anti-Muslim violence, from 154 reported incidents between January and December of 2014, to 174 by the end of 2015.

But while families and advocates are alarmed by right-wing rhetoric, they are quick to highlight prevailing policies that have, over the past 15 years, pitched hundreds of families and whole communities into fear and despair.

“If Trump becomes the definition of what Islamophobia looks like, more ‘polite’ or legalized forms of injustice might be made more acceptable in the process ” Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ movement, tells Rewire, pointing to controversial counterterrorism tactics that have unfolded, unchecked, under the Obama administration.

“I am heartened by the rising movements pushing back against Trump and Islamophobia but I worry about the ways in which our attention to Republican candidates’ extremism gives a pass to what has already happened, and continues to happen, to many Muslim families in this country,” she says.

In the last two years alone, which saw the November 2015 Paris attacks and the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, 85 individuals in the United States have been arrested on charges relating to involvement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to an April 2016 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The average age of those arrested is 26, and 54 percent of the cases involved an informant or undercover agent.

So the national security apparatus grinds on. The only thing standing between it and scores of Muslim American families under surveillance is this small women-led movement that has taken on the impossible challenge of fighting extreme religious intolerance with interfaith unity.

As Alicia McWilliams says to Rewire: “We’re making some progress but we gotta do more. People need to start showing up for us, speaking out for us. My Muslim sisters and I, we’re fighting—but we can’t do this alone.”