Being a queer mama of color, in all of the ways that we are queer mamas of color, means that we have to talk about race, immigration, disability, class, gender, gender identity, and sexuality. We have to name these things because they shape how, where, when, and why we parent.
I love being a queer mama of color. I love parenting, co-parenting, and being a tia/auntie and an integral part of raising the children that have been in my life at various times and for various reasons over the years. Being a queer mama of color, in all of the ways that we are queer mamas of color, means that we have to talk about race, immigration, disability, class, gender, gender identity, and sexuality. We have to name these things because they shape how, where, when, and why we parent. Issues of privilege and oppression affect the choices we have and our access to everything from economic resources to community spaces and resources.
As a household of queer and straight women of color, all of whom have either birthed and/or raised children, it is our experience that parenting must be a collective undertaking because of institutional oppression. It’s a multi-generational and interdependent endeavor where economic resources, access, labor, support, and engagement with young people must be shared. Together, my partner and I parent in the context of community, biological family, and chosen family. Each experience is different, but each experience has been quintessentially queer, feminist, and people-of-color centered.
Ten years ago, my partner and I moved to Silver Spring, MD. We were intentional about choosing a neighborhood that was multiracial, multi-generational, mixed class, and not a gentrified gayborhood. When we moved to our neighborhood we were the only out queer family on a street lined with town houses and mixed income apartment buildings.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Over the course of our 14-year relationship, my partner and I have always been very open about our queerness, mostly because we have had the privilege of living in urban and progressive places. Our move to Silver Spring was no different. We were open about being a couple when curious neighbors would ask if we were sisters or roommates. For quite some time, many of the kids in the neighborhood thought that we were mother and daughter because I often refer to my partner as Mami, a term of endearment that can have two meanings in Spanish. In addition to actually meaning mother, it can also be used lovingly among friends and family.
To say the least, we have had some interesting conversations with the under-ten crowd in the neighborhood about the fact that we are not mother and daughter but that we are a family. Those conversations provided us with some great teachable moments with young people about how all families are different and that there is no one way to be a family. Many of the young people in our neighborhood live in multi-generational immigrant families, so this became an opportunity for us to talk about all of the ways that people make family right where we live.
The young people around here seem to intuitively get how we roll at Hotel Silver Spring! Over the years, we have become the house that all of the parents and grandparents tell the young people to go to if they have lost their keys or skinned their knees. We have opened the door on many occasions to a young person who had just fallen off their bike and was bleeding. The first thing out of their mouth is usually something like, “Abuela told me to go to your house if there was something wrong and she was still at work.” Of course each skinned knee is bandaged with care and each young person is sent back out in the world to do it all over again! Over the years, our home has turned into a community center for many of our neighbors, as well as for progressive activists in the Metro DC area and around the country. We not-so-jokingly call our home “Hotel Silver Spring,” because it’s a place where multi-generational, multiracial, genderqueer, cross-disability, and mixed-class people come to be whoever they are in the world. Yet there is always one overarching guiding principle to how we live, love, build, and organize in this space: while the door is always open and ready to receive all who pass through it, discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated here. Hotel Silver Spring is a space for listening, learning, engaging, and reaching a deeper understanding of oneself and the world around us.
Within our Middle Eastern, Latina, mixed faith, mixed class, biological family with a range of experiences around class, immigration, and disability, queerness has opened up the possibility for young people to understand family, love, community, and commitment in bigger and more complex ways. For example, last year my partner and I took a vacation with her immediate family. This is something that we have done in the past, but now my nieces are getting old enough to really articulate what family means to them. On the second day of our trip our eight-year-old niece engaged me in a conversation that went exactly like this:
Niece: “Titi Lisa…are you gay with Titi Lisbeth?” Me: “Yes, for almost the past 14 years.” Niece: “Some people think that is weird.” Me: “So what do you think about that?” Niece: “I think that everyone should be able to love who they love.” Me: “I couldn’t agree with you more mi amor.”
After I almost melted over the way she asked the question, “Are you gay with Titi Lisbeth?” I reflected upon the fact that my nieces only have LGBT aunts and uncles. My sister-in-law’s only sibling is a gay man who lives in New York. Queerness is a very intimate and real part of my nieces’ lives. It’s something they knew even before they could articulate it in words. The best part of this particular conversation is that my niece is now at an age where she is asking questions and expressing her own opinions in very loving and conscious ways. Homo/bi/transphobia is intolerable to her because she knows that she is deeply loved by the queer people in her life.
As we know, parenting doesn’t always happen in the context of biological family. Over the past 12 years, my partner and I have co-parented our godson who just turned 14 years of age. Our godson and his mother are chosen family which means that none of us are related by blood. Also, none of us have, in any configuration, been partnered in the past. Since the age of four or five, our godson has been steadfast in his insistence that he has three moms. As a matter of fact, this assertion became abundantly clear at an early age.
At age four we were in the supermarket and happened to run into a friend from kindergarten. I introduced myself as a friend of the family. He had a meltdown in the grocery store right there in aisle six! Until we got home and I was able to calm him down, I didn’t understand through all of the tears that he was pissed that I referred to myself as a friend. He told my partner and I directly that we were his moms — and more specifically his godmothers — and that he didn’t want to hear the word friend in reference to us again. It’s been like this for the last 12 years.
It is true that queer people of color often play an important role in our families, communities, and neighborhoods—as connectors, mentors, support systems, leaders, and active participants in the life of our communities. We have long histories of building bridges of understanding by making sure that no one gets left behind. We open our doors, our hearts, our lives, and our love in the name of justice and beloved community. We are often a fundamental part of the fabric of our communities — and in whatever ways we are out or not — we bring all of who we are to making our communities stronger and more interconnected. There is so much of our collective histories and legacies as queer people of color that tell this story so beautifully and powerfully in communities all across the country. Just ask the elders in each neighborhood and inevitably they will be able to bring forward the names of queer people of color who are making a difference block by block, neighbor by neighbor.
Even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased. Omar Mateen's actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.
The thumbnail image of a news piece posted on my Facebook timeline was just a Puerto Rican flag. As soon as I saw it, I knew what the headline would be: “Over half of the dead in Orlando were Puerto Rican.” Upon seeing what I was looking at, my partner wordlessly swaddled me in one of her best hugs, the kind that could keep the whole world at bay, breaking upon her strong back like a tide. Though Latinxs are often stereotyped as uniquely patriarchal, we nurse large and thriving queer communities in the tenement houses, projects, and barrios of this nation, in the shadows of broader stereotypes about who LGBTQ people are and what we look like.
Until I came out, I never knew that my old aunt Iris had several trans woman friends who often came to her home to drink, laugh, and smoke. Her acceptance of me was mirrored by much of my wider family, the same people who might seem gauche to middle-class whites who imagine themselves so much more tolerant and might pity me for my ancestry. When I think about the fact that it was precisely Latinx LGBTQ people—those often hidden by the mainstream—who fell to Omar Mateen’s bullets, numbness takes hold. Its grip tightens when I see that even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased, save for a few comprehensive news reports sprinkled amidst the unending grind of rolling news’ speculations and non-updates.
What leaves me without breath is when that erasure is the first part of a larger gesture that asks us to lay this crime at the feet of the whole of Islam and anyone who might be thought to belong to it. In the wake of this demand, Mateen’s actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.
This tragedy joins many others that have taken place over the last decades. What these crimes all share is less a religious motive than a hateful, fearful one, which manifests in the profound violation of open, welcoming spaces that model a pluralistic society.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
How these acts of mass violence are framed says a lot. I needn’t cite any examples of Omar Mateen being called a terrorist; the word has become like the air we now breathe, inescapable in its consensus usage. From random tweets to the words of powerful leaders and writers, Orlando has become an act of “terrorism” by dint of the shooter’s name alone, in the midst of a discourse where the appellation “terror” is only applied to the political violence of self-professed Islamists.
But what is terrorism if not politically motivated violence? Why, then, is Thomas Mair, who was arrested for the murder of Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox just last week, already being painted as a “loner,” with the word “terrorism” conspicuous by its absence? The lips of the British elite seem unable to pronounce it, suddenly. Eyewitnesses suggest the handgun Mair allegedly wielded looked homemade—a craft he might have learned from a handbook he purchased from the neo-Nazi National Alliance, of which he was a longtime supporter.
If we are to take the concern trolls at their word and have a “serious conversation” about Islam in the wake of this massacre, then we should critically examine how knowledgeable and pious Mateen actually appeared to be.
Mateen committed his killing during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when observant Muslims typically refrain from even uttering swear words, much less killing; there is no evidence he was fasting in observance of Ramadan, either; Pulse patrons say Mateen was a drunkard who became belligerent and had to be ejected more than once, but alcohol is forbidden to practicing Muslims.
Mateen’s motivations seem to have been, based on available evidence, garden-variety self-loathing and prejudice inflected by violent, masculine, and homophobic demands placed upon him. A former colleague described Mateen as making so many racist and homophobic remarks that he complained to his superiors about the matter—who promptly did absolutely nothing.
Perhaps Mateen felt hatred and envy for those who appeared to live without the internal conflicts he had; perhaps his own noted racism against other people of color played into his choice of target. What seems clear, from his time in a police academy, to his love of NYPD shirts, to the fact that his job at the time of the shooting was working as an armed security guard for G4S, is that Mateen sought to affiliate himself with entities that often demonstrate strength and inspire fear, as a way of making up for his own inadequacies and quashing any self-loathing over his sexuality. His pledge to Daesh in his final moments appears to have been, then, less a statement of religious belief than his final way of pathetically latching himself onto another gaggle of armed strongmen in an attempt to make himself seem more frightening, more manly. His boast about having known the Boston Marathon bombers, which the FBI later found to be empty, can be understood in the same way.
All the same, the portrait of Mateen as a pathetic wannabe-badass-cum-possible-closet-case should not individuate his crime. He was born and raised in the same United States that brings the homophobia and transphobia of many violent men to a boil. None of the people who have literally threatened gun violence against trans women using washrooms this year were Muslim (many were ostentatiously Christian, as it happens). This is, after all, the year of North Carolina’s HB 2; that is part of the context in which this mass killing must be understood, in which this murder has now become a one-word threat issued by plenty of non-Muslim homophobes. Take, for example, this man in New York who, upon being kicked out of a gay club promised “I’m going to come back Orlando-style!” The cultural issue here is not Islam as a faith, but men who feel that any slight must be avenged by mass violence.
Yet beyond this, we must return to the streets of Britain, where makeshift memorials for Jo Cox are blossoming as I write this. She was killed as she was leaving her constituency surgery—a kind of public, face-to-face meeting with the people she represents that is both a requirement and tradition of MPs in the UK. All and sundry could come to her and discuss their views, grievances, and problems. Such events are free and open to the public, lightly guarded, and easily accessible by design.
They appear to be the polite, respectable mirror image of a gay club’s beats and grinds, but both sites speak to something about our aspirations as a liberal democratic society: pluralism and openness. Much has been written about gay bars and clubs as shelters from a hateful world; they are our little utopias amidst the chaos of our times, a brief flash of what we would like to see and feel everywhere: safe, accepted, in community, loved as ourselves. The constituency surgery, meanwhile, is an attempt at correcting the signature failing of representative democracy, providing a forum for people to speak directly to their elected officials and influence their government.
Each in its way is an innovation athwart darker times and darker impulses, a way of building community through trust and openness. This, too, was at the heart of Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the prayer meeting that welcomed in a young and listless white stranger a year ago this month; the people Dylann Roof killed had accepted him into their spiritual home for prayer and healing, had placed their trust in a stranger, and invited him to join them, unguarded and without fear.
All three places—the surgery, the church, and the gay nightclub—were paragons of openness and trust, open to all who observed only a most basic compact of decency and tolerance. All three were shattered by the overflowing hatred of men who needed to write their will in someone else’s blood.
It is actually true that our democratic societies face a mortal threat, but it does not come from Islam. It overwhelmingly comes from within: the unchecked entitlement and easily stoked rage of rudderless men who keep being told that women, people of color, and queers are taking something away from them that they need to violently reclaim. They believe they are entitled to a birthright that immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people and religious minorities, are pilfering from them.
We should open society further in response. For instance, we can do that by eliminating these divisive and prejudicial bathroom bills and allowing LGBTQ people to fully participate in society by protecting them from discrimination in all areas. Or, for that matter, increasing support for victims of domestic violence while identifying and rehabilitating abusers before they do worse might also go a long way toward preventing this from happening again.
The open and pluralistic society that many of us dream of is under threat from men with guns who feel that violence is the only way to solve their problems, making a public tragedy of their internal traumas. If we allow our focus to drift to Islam, we shall only hasten that demise: a dramatically upscaled version of the bigot’s extroverted suicide that must claim the lives of innocents even as we destroy our own.
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.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
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.
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 Rewirecovered 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 likeProject 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.”