Analysis Human Rights

Did an Indian Diplomat in the United States Mistreat Her Domestic Worker?

Sheila Bapat

At issue is a divide between the nations about how domestic workers ought to be treated.

People throughout India continue to be outraged at last month’s claims by a 39-year-old Indian diplomat that she was arrested and strip-searched by U.S. law enforcement. The arrest occurred in response to allegations that the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, obtained a fraudulent visa for her domestic worker in addition to refusing to pay the worker a minimum wage and forcing her to work longer than their agreed upon hours.

The arrest and alleged strip-search is fostering rancor between the governments of India and the United States. At issue is a divide between the nations about how domestic workers ought to be treated. Whether the alleged strip search was necessary in this case is a big question. But in general, U.S. law enforcement’s move toward taking allegations of worker abuse seriously is a positive reflection of how policy around domestic workers’ rights is evolving in the United States. Such enforcement can help improve working conditions for workers while they live in the United States and may eventually begin to improve how domestic workers are treated abroad.

While the story of what actually happened to Khobragade during her arrest as well as her treatment of her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, is still unfolding, we do know that Richard alleges she earned $3.31 per hour while working for Khobragade—far less than the U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to which she is legally entitled while working in the country. Some accounts also state Richard was forced to work longer than the hours she and Khobragade had agreed upon. Such claims by the workers of foreign diplomats are not uncommon. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report analyzing allegations of domestic worker abuse, between 2000 and 2008, and found 42 cases of abuse allegations by workers who served diplomats.

The GAO report expressed that many more workers who faced abusive situations were probably not coming forward, out of fear of losing their only source of income, being sent back to home countries to even more dangerous situations, or worse.

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According to Ivy Suriyopas, director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), New York and Washington, D.C., are “hotbeds for diplomatic and consular activity.” She told Rewire, We have identified a number of domestic workers trafficked into consular households. Manhattan is a stratified city but there is lots of wealth too, there are a number of families in need of domestic workers but who do not want to pay or follow basic standards.” Suriyopas has been an anti-trafficking advocate in New York City for nearly a decade.

Globally, the vulnerability of a domestic worker who lives with—and at the whims of—her affluent employer cannot be underestimated. Often times the money the worker earns supports her poor family in her home country. In some instances, other members of the worker’s own family also works for her affluent employer. The importance of maintaining the relationship with an employer thus extends far beyond the worker’s individual circumstance. Such a situation could preclude a worker from standing up for their rights—which is why the legal system and its advocates need to be a source of support.

Prosecution of diplomats who abuse their workers is particularly necessary, not only to hopefully improve conditions for a worker but because it may help jar an entire legal regime that has for decades enabled the protection of diplomats who abuse their workers. Diplomatic immunity, established by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations passed in 1969, protects foreign diplomats from being prosecuted under U.S. laws while they are serving as diplomats.

Some courts have found limitations to diplomatic immunity in cases of worker abuse, holding that if a diplomat is no longer serving in her official capacity as a diplomat, she is covered only by a “residual immunity” provision that does not protect her from prosecution.

But by and large, diplomatic immunity is a significant obstacle for a worker who wishes to obtain legal relief. The Indian government now seeks to transfer Khobragade to a position with the United Nations, a transfer that would grant her full diplomatic immunity. 

According to Suriyopas, “the Indian government’s efforts to change the officer’s position so she can obtain absolute diplomatic immunity is problematic because it is trying to protect Khobragade rather than allow the allegations be disputed in open court.”

In her 2010 essay, “Does Immunity Mean Impunity? The Legal and Political Battle of Household Workers Against Trafficking and Exploitation by their Foreign Diplomat Employers,” legal scholar Jennifer Hoover Kappus points out:

The U.S. can promote both the image of a society governed by the rule of law and the unalienable right of freedom for all by adopting a policy of declaring a diplomat persona non grata for human-trafficking offenses, similar to its policy regarding firearms offenses. International precedent for taking bolder action in declaring a diplomat persona non grata for drug trafficking offenses is already established by the actions by the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway, so it is not a far stretch to adopt a similar policy for human trafficking.

To be sure, it is not at all clear that Sangeeta Richard’s case would rise to the level of human trafficking, a much more serious offense requiring proof that the defendant “materially gained” from the labor performed. This is not something that denying wages or requiring longer hours necessarily speaks to. However, the point that Kappus makes is that U.S. policy can limit diplomatic immunity in cases of worker abuse—as evidenced by the fact that immunity is not a bar from prosecution from other offenses like firearms offenses.

How is it that a firearms offense is sufficient to pierce the shield of diplomatic immunity, but an abuse of other humans does not rise to the same level of scrutiny?

When the story of Richard’s abuse erupted, domestic worker advocates in the United States immediately rallied around her. Without repercussions to the diplomat, worker treatment is not likely to improve. In addition to such law enforcement, then, continued work by U.S. advocates to support workers who face abuse is critical. It is still rare for workers to receive monetary damages for abuse they suffer, but groups like Adhikaar in New York and other members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance have worked hard to secure their rights.

There is some concern about how increased prosecution of diplomats could affect relationships with key foreign countries. As the New York Times pointed out, “The continued hard feelings suggest that the dispute could have a long-term impact on a relationship both sides say is crucial.”

But domestic worker advocates are nonplussed. “While it’s true that prosecuting diplomats when they violate the law can cause tensions, I think there’s a point where as an international community we have to hold ourselves and our key allies to higher standards and find the honor in that,” Tiffany Williams, advocacy director of the Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Rewire. “Maybe that causes fallout, I am not a Diplomat or the president, but as an organizer my hope is that it could also spur a mutual commitment.”

Williams also notes that, beyond U.S. law, the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, which was enacted in 2013, sets an international standard for how workers ought to be treated.

In truth, there is likely a middle ground, with regard to policy, that urges an easing of immunity in cases of worker abuse, while also maintaining protections for diplomats in their official roles. But the domestic workers’ movement in the United States is changing how seriously the United States takes instances of worker abuse—and it is this shift in values that can, over time, change practices by employers of domestic workers in the United States and globally.

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.”

Analysis Violence

Drug War’s Impact on Black Women Comes to the Fore in Daniel Holtzclaw Trial

Kanya D’Almeida

Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.

Read more of our articles on the Daniel Holtzclaw trial here.

Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.

Holtzclaw reportedly preyed upon 12 Black women and one Black teenager in the low-income neighborhoods on the east side of Oklahoma City that served as his patrol area between December 2013 and June 2014, stopping those he suspected of being in possession of drugs and allegedly using this excuse to perform abusive body searches and to threaten or coerce women into sexual acts.

By Tuesday evening, which marked day 16 of the trial and saw the 13 accusers taking the stand against Holtzclaw in the Oklahoma County courthouse, a pattern of alleged abuse had emerged that not only highlighted Black women’s vulnerability to police brutality, but also called into question the ways in which the “war on drugs” has disproportionately impacted Black women.

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Since the trial began on November 2, local journalists have reported that the defense attorney led his cross-examinations by questioning witnesses about being under the influence of, or in possession of, either drugs or alcohol at the time of the assaults.

An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that one woman who claims to have been orally sodomized by Holtzclaw was handcuffed to a hospital bed throughout the incident; she’d been admitted to the medical facility while high on angel dust, or PCP.

Other accusers say the ex-officer fondled, groped, and even penetrated them under the guise of searching them for drugs. Some say he promised to make pending charges go away if they “cooperated with him,” or threatened them with jail time if they didn’t.

The sixth accuser who testified against Holtzclaw on November 18 was the second witness to take the stand while in the custody of Oklahoma County jail on drug-related charges. Shackled at the wrists and ankles, she wore an orange jumpsuit to the courtroom and told the all-white jury she was under the influence of crack cocaine when Holtzclaw allegedly stopped her on the street, drove her home, and raped her in her own bedroom.

Defense Attorney Scott Adams has seized upon some witnesses’ histories of substance dependency to cast doubt on the validity of their testimony, according to reporters with the Oklahoman and TV news channel KOCO 5.

In one incident that generated some buzz on social media, Adams aggressively questioned a witness on the stand until she said, “Before I came here I smoked some marijuana and a blunt stick laced with PCP.” Other accusers interviewed by the AP say that, haunted by the attack, they have since slipped even deeper into the use of substances like cocaine.

These repeated references to drug use by the alleged victims made their way into a BBC article on the case—one of the few pieces of coverage of a trial that has otherwise been completely ignored by the mainstream media—headlined, “Daniel Holtzclaw trial: Standing with ‘imperfect’ accusers.”

“I think this is absolutely disgusting,” Camille Landry, co-convener of an Oklahoma City group called Occupy the Corners, said in response to the BBC article, “to suggest that a victim has to have certain attributes or behaviors in order to not be blamed for an assault against her.”

“Exactly what would a perfect victim be?” she asked. “How does one become perfect in anticipation of being victimized so that one is not blamed for her victimization?”

“It doesn’t matter what they were doing or what their past might have beenthese women were sexually assaulted by a man who was charged with serving and protecting them and who instead became a predator against them,” Landry told Rewire.

A close look at the state’s policing of drug-related offenses offers some insight into the context surrounding the threats Holtzclaw is accused of making, and the systems in place that his alleged victims may have been up against at the time of their encounter with the officer.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Sociology found that the state has the highest female incarceration rate in the country, locking up 130 women per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 67 per 100,000 residents. About 1,000 women are admitted into Oklahoma’s prison system every year—half of them on drug-related charges.

“The number-one offense is possession,” Susan Sharp, a contributor to the study and author of the book Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, told Rewire in a phone interview.

“Women are low-hanging fruit, they are easy to detect and prosecute, and they seldom have enough information to plea bargain with. The war on drugs is what has driven the high rate of female incarceration in this state.”

She said harsh drug sentencing laws are largely to blame for the fact that 2,400 women are currently locked up in jails and prisons across Oklahoma.

“In Oklahoma you can be charged with drug trafficking for possession of five grams of crack or 20 grams of methamphetamine, both of which are fairly low quantities,” explained Sharp, who is also a professor in the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma. She said policies like the 85 percent rule—originally intended to ensure that violent criminals served 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole, but which has now been extended to some drug-related offenses—ensure lengthy sentences for minor crimes.

While all low-income women are caught up this dragnet, she said, Black women tend to be disproportionately impacted, a reality that is not limited to Oklahoma.

Across the United States, the “war on drugs” has torn apart communities of color at a far higher rate than white communities, despite the fact that the government has repeatedly documented similar rates of drug use across racial groups.

A recent fact sheet by the Drug Policy Alliance revealed that 80 percent of the roughly 1.5 million drug-related arrests that happened in 2013 were on simple charges of possession. Black people comprise 30 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and 40 percent of those imprisoned on drug-related charges, even though they account for just 13 percent of the population.

Statistics are even grimmer for women. Between 1980 and 2002 the number of incarcerated women in the United States jumped from 12,300 to 182,271. During that time, incarceration rates for drug offenders ballooned by 888 percent, with women of color disproportionately impacted by the increase; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that Black women are three times more likely to be locked up on drug charges than white women.

“In the last 20 years, Black women have comprised the largest group of people presenting in prisons, and much of that is driven by the war on drugs,” asha bandele, an author and senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Rewire.

A 2005 ACLU report titled Caught in the Net, the most recent comprehensive study on the impacts of the drug war on women, revealed that these racially lopsided numbers are not a coincidence. Rather they are the result of “racially targeted law enforcement practices, prosecutorial decisions, and sentencing policies,” which are exacerbated by “selective testing of pregnant women of color for drug use as well as heightened surveillance of poor mothers of color in the context of policing child abuse and neglect.”

Organizations like the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) have documented the ways in which Black women have borne the brunt of drug war policies like mandatory minimum sentencing laws “despite their peripheral involvement in the drug trade.”

A 2015 AAPF report highlighted how interactions with law enforcement personnel who regard Black women’s bodies as “vessels for drugs ingested, swallowed or concealed, or their homes as drug factories” have led to the deaths of Black girls as young as 7 and Black women as old as 92.

Hyper-policing of Black women under the guise of fighting the “war on drugs” also informs how women interact with the criminal justice system, legal experts say.

Citing a recent report on policing and domestic and sexual violence, Sandra Park, a senior attorney at the ACLU, told Rewire, “Survivors with criminal records or substance abuse issues, even if they have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, tend not to reach out to the police because they know they are vulnerable to arrest.”

She added, “That issue is compounded when you are talking about a police officer like Daniel Holtzclaw, someone who can use stringent drug laws to help perpetuate or commit sexual assault.”

As witnesses in the Holtzclaw trial have testified, this same cycle of fear held true when it came to reporting the police officer’s alleged abuse. Under aggressive questioning by Holtzclaw’s attorney, several women on the stand confessed that they didn’t lodge official complaints because they were afraid to reveal their own drug problems, didn’t think the authorities would believe the word of a Black woman, or simply saw no purpose in reporting a crime to the very same institution that the alleged perpetrator was part of.

“What kind of police do you call on the police?” the 13th and final accuser said on the stand on Tuesday.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights lawyer based in Tulsa who traveled to Oklahoma City together with National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump to witness the trial proceedings, said in an interview with NewsOne, “As Black men and lawyers, it was important that we attended the trial to both personally show solidarity.”

Asked about what he witnessed in the courtroom, Solomon-Simmons said, “Frankly, it was a surreal and disappointing scene that was more like 1915 than 2015 … while defendant Holtzclaw was allowed to attend the trial in a suit and free from handcuffs or restraints, some of the alleged victims were actually forced to testify while shackled and ‘dressed out’ in jail orange jumpsuits.”

He also noted his “disappointment” that the women did not appear to have adequate legal representation or the support they needed to navigate the complex proceedings.

In addition to a decades-long crackdown on narcotics, Oklahoma recently tightened regulations regarding the abuse of prescription drugs. The state ranks ninth nationally for overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers, or OPR, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, while local news reports suggest that the number of overdose deaths as a result of powerful prescription drugs has doubled in the past 12 years.

Last year the senate passed HB 2589, a bill that added morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and benzodiazepine to a list of controlled substances in Oklahoma’s Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act. Ostensibly aimed at curbing overdose deaths, the legislation imposes a ten-year minimum sentence on individuals found to be in possession of legally stipulated quantities of the four additional substances. However, criminal justice experts fear the law will do nothing except add to the state’s prison population by policing and prosecuting users, rather than, for instance, the drug manufacturers.

The bill could have especially serious ramifications for communities of color, who are disproportionately cut off from health services and are unable to seek treatments or care for dependence on controlled substances. The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that over 20 percent of the state’s African-American population is uninsured, suggesting that once again Black people are more likely to feel the most impact of a crackdown on “drugs.”

By putting a health issue into the hands of law enforcement personnel, the state has effectively widened the scope for police officers to conduct searches in the name of public safety. In fact, a common thread running through the testimony against Holtzclaw is the allegation that he instructed women to remove their shirts, “lift up their breasts,” and even pull down their pants so he could search them for drugs, in one case reportedly shining a flashlight between a 57-year-old woman’s legs to satisfy his suspicions.

So far the prosecution has called more than 40 witnesses, while the defense is expected to produce up to 75. With the trial expected to carry on well into the month of December, activists who have mobilized to pack the courtroom, demonstrate outside the courthouse, and otherwise show their support for the accusers say they are ready for the long haul.

“It is traumatic, seeing what has happened to these women in our own backyard and knowing it could have been us,” Landry said. “I am 65 years old and I have been accosted by the police just driving down the street. Other Black women have had similar experiences. Grandmothers, women with gray hair, have shared stories of being thrown up against the hood of their car and patted down with their grandchildren in the backseat, on their way home from church or school or the grocery store.”

“Even people who have had a hard time getting involved in this kind of activism have come out and said, ‘This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is where I draw the line. This is where I stand up and say, stop,'” she said.

As of Tuesday evening, all of the alleged victims had taken the stand, including one girl who was just 17 years old at the time of the assault and whose DNA was found on the inside and outside of the former policeman’s trousers, a lead detective testified this week. Holtzclaw has pleaded not guilty to all 36 charges against him, which include battery, stalking, and forcible oral sodomy.