The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) and KhushDC are creating “checkpoints” in high-traffic areas of Washington, D.C., replicating the type of checkpoints people of color experience every day, which have increased since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The checkpoints taking place Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the attacks, were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement’s Black Brunch, which brought protests into upscale restaurants, and protests by Palestinian activists who created on-campus checkpoints to illustrate what apartheid looks like.
The idea, NQAPIA organizer Sasha W. told Rewire, is to help the mostly white, mostly affluent people in these pre-designated D.C. areas acknowledge the racist and Islamophobic policing Black and brown communities have been subjected to for the past decade and a half.
A team of four or five people will work at each location. The team members have been trained in how to engage the public and have been informed of their rights should law enforcement become involved in the action. Designated “interrogators” will engage shoppers and other passersby, interrupting their daily lives with questions about their dress and body language.
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NQAPIA board member Almas Haider told Rewire that part of the conversation will be explaining to people why they looked “suspicious.”
“What does ‘looking suspicious’ look like? For our communities, it can look like carrying a backpack or putting your hands in your pockets,” Haider said in an interview with Rewire. “We’re clearly stopped because we’re Black and brown, but the reasons why we’re told we’re stopped is because of our backpack, or because our hands are in our pockets, or because we were looking down instead of looking up, or because we were wearing a hoodie. These are the reasons we’re giving people we stop on the street, so we can have conversations on what it’s like to be profiled as dangerous or as a terrorist, the way Black and brown people are.”
Muslim communities have been forced to endure discriminatory policing, unfair trials, and draconian sentencing in the years since 9/11, as Rewire has reported. The National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) analyzed a list of the Department of Justice National Security Division’s unsealed terrorism cases, concluding that 72.4 percent of convictions in terrorism cases between 2001 and 2010 were based on suspicion of the defendant’s “perceived ideology,” rather than criminal behavior.
In 21.8 percent of cases, individuals’ non-terrorist criminal activity was “manipulated and inflated by the government to appear as though they were terrorists.”
“In these moments of national crisis, like 9/11, policies pass that may not have passed otherwise or that would have passed with a lot of opposition in another moment,” Sasha W. said. “Fear mongering is absolutely a tactic and when there’s an opportunity to really play on people’s fears, you get policies that expand the right to police, surveil, and persecute certain communities.”
Flying is one of the biggest fears expressed by many of the communities that work with NQAPIA. It is at airports and in interactions with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that so many LGBTQ Muslim, South Asian, and brown and Black community members report being profiled. Sunday’s checkpoints are intended to mirror the uncomfortable, often invasive experiences many community members experience with TSA.
“I’ve heard so many stories of people being physically violated by TSA, being taken aside without warning, being questioned for hours, detained, being forced to miss their flights, having their belongings searched. Someone described to me once having each of their credit cards picked up and examined individually. Others have had their computers and phones logged into,” Sasha W. said. “I have heard so many stories of the ways that what is supposed to be a routine security check becomes incredibly invasive if you are brown or Black or Muslim or deemed to be a threat in some way.”
The last time Sasha W. flew, they noticed there was a quadruple “S” printed on their boarding pass, which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, and anyone with this designation will receive additional security throughout their time at the airport. TSA claims this designation is not given based on a person’s appearance or political views. Sasha W. asserts that many Muslim, South Asian, and brown migrants have the code printed on their boarding passes for reasons they can’t explain.
“It basically verifies these negative assumptions people have about Muslims or those they read as Muslim,” she said. “If TSA is treating them as a threat, it verifies to others that they must be treated as a threat. It’s fear mongering. These policies have a wide-ranging impact on the perception of certain communities.”
Sasha W. said these dangerous assumptions extend far beyond the airport.
“If you regularly see TSA pull aside every brown person in the line and check them for 20 minutes, you feel justified when walking down the street doing the same kind of surveillance on brown people you see because it’s been so normalized,” the organizer said. “It’s seen as an affirmative step toward safety, as opposed to racism that makes our brown communities very unsafe.”
Around this time of year, Sasha W. told Rewire, they fear for their father, who is not Muslim, but who is South Asian, has a beard, and is often read as “threatening.”
“I get really nervous, and a lot of Muslim and South Asian people I know do too,” Sasha W. said. “There is a low level of fear every day, but we know that nationalism will run rampant on days like the anniversary of 9/11. I tell my dad that on this particular day, if someone accosts you, just walk away. If you get into an argument with someone over something minor, just let it go. You have to treat this day different than other days because something that would otherwise seem really minor can spiral out of control. On 9/11, there’s just this particular way people feel really primed for engaging in xenophobia and Islamophobia.”
The anniversary of 9/11 also generates anxiety for Haider, who like many people in her community, debates if it will be safe to leave the house that day. Living in an environment that has labeled her community as a threat while simultaneously ignoring the violence and abuse the community has been subjected to is “trauma on multiple levels,” she said.
The NQAPIA board member says she can vividly remember the aftermath of 9/11, when as an 11-year-old girl wearing a hijab, she was stared at, followed in cars, and harassed everywhere she went. The trauma of 9/11, she said, sticks with her. There is often an outpouring of solidarity and support for America on the anniversary of the attacks, but her community, she said, isn’t recognized as American or as victims of the racist, Islamophobic policies that emerged in the years since.
“The narrative of Muslim Americans has been completely dismissed and even considered illegitimate, though the treatment we’ve received is considered very legitimate,” Haider said. “For many, there is no differentiation between Muslims and people who commit violent acts. It’s not as if this racism and these stereotypes did not exist pre-9/11, but 9/11 definitely exacerbated it.”
Just as the violence against South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, and Black communities has been normalized, so has the communities’ pain, Sasha W. said. The organizer reports high levels of anxiety, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the communities they work with. Not only does it go undiagnosed, but unacknowledged.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Why bother organizing against this, this type of surveillance? It won’t change. It’s just what this country has decided is safety and we can’t change that.’ That feeling comes from this profiling and this pain being so normalized, and that’s why I believe actions like these are so necessary,” Sasha W. said.