US anti-war and pro-Palestine peace activists are targeted by the FBI for allegations of material support for terrorism.
by Jess Sundin
For ten years, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, have been used as a pretext for war – tens of thousands dead in Afghanistan, more than a million killed in Iraq and a campaign of repression at home, carried out against thousands of Arabs, Muslims, and now, even the peace movement.
The road from 9/11 led the FBI to my door, with an early morning raid on my home, and a secret grand jury investigating two dozen peace activists on terrorism charges.
When the Bush Administration used the events of September 11 to justify war against Afghanistan, I joined thousands to march against that war. How many of us knew it would become the longest war in US history? Costing tens of thousands of lives, and nearly $500bn, this war has lost the support of the majority of Americans.
Even so, the Obama Administration continues Bush’s war, making it their own. Under Obama’s command, the war has expanded into Pakistan, and the so-called “War on Terror” is still offered as justification for aggressive military policies across the globe.
After 9/11, a war was also launched on civil liberties inside the US. In an effort to clear the way for endless war abroad, the government created fear of an enemy within. I watched in shame as this unfolded first within Arab and Muslim communities – thousands of immigrants were rounded up and questioned, and many were detained or deported. This has become a permanent campaign of repression and it has now expanded beyond the Muslim immigrant community.
The PATRIOT Act, with 160 provisions, opened the door for unrestrained spying on US residents and citizens, authorising the FBI and other agencies to tap our phones, read our emails, and comb through our trash. It laid the groundwork for a network of undercover agents hiding within our own communities, from mosques to peace groups.
At the same time, we witnessed racial profiling on a mass scale, especially at airports, where Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and South Asians were questioned and searched, sometimes denied boarding onto flights they had paid for.
Under the guise of counter-terrorism, domestic spying mushroomed. There are now more than 164,000 suspicious activity reports maintained by the FBI without criminal cause, and a mounting list of so-called terror plots manufactured by the FBI and ensnaring individuals not suspected of involvement in any other criminal activities.
The dangers of collaboration between local, state, federal and private agencies are highlighted by last month’s shocking reports that the CIA is operating in violation of the law, to spy on Americans through the New York Police Department.
A legal campaign has targeted Arabs and Muslims engaged in political or charity work that runs counter to official US foreign policy.
Dr Sami Al Arian of Tampa, Florida, was an outspoken defender of civil liberties for Arabs and Muslims in the US, and worked for the cause of the Palestinian people. Since his very public arrest in February 2003, Dr. Al Arian has spent five and a half years in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement. He has now been under house arrest for 3 years.
All of this, while government prosecutors failed to win a single guilty verdict against him for charges stemming from his political organising.
In another important case, leaders of The Holy Land Foundation’s, the biggest Muslim charity in the US, were brought up on charges of material support to terrorism. They were convicted and sentenced to 15 to 65 years each, for the crimes of sending money, food, clothing, medical and school supplies to Palestinian charities.
Even while I was aware that some of this was happening, I never imagined that I could be next.
But at 7am on September 24, 2010, 8 FBI agents burst through the door of my home and spent 5 hours going through every room, searching for evidence that I had given material support to foreign terrorist organisations.
The search warrant entitled them to seize any property associated with my political activism, organisations I’ve worked with and anything about Colombia or Palestine – evidence of what I believe, what I say and who I know.
Before my phone was seized, I insisted on the right to call an attorney. He got the word out, and supporters began to gather outside my house.
I soon learned that coordinated raids were being carried out at 5 Minneapolis homes and the office of the Anti-War Committee, as well as two homes in Chicago. At the same time, agents from 5 different FBI district offices were trying to question political colleagues across the country, from Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Arizona and California.
Our family was stunned. My partner and daughter were still in their pajamas when the agents stormed in, and I was still upstairs in bed.
For hours, we couldn’t move freely in our home without being accompanied by an agent. As we got dressed, went to the bathroom or made our six-year old daughter’s breakfast, we were under constant guard. They said that we were not detained, but it seemed wrong to leave these strangers alone in our home, and our daughter’s school day did not start until 10am. So we tried to shelter her from them as much as we could, playing cards in the front yard with community members who came to stand with us.
Reporters came by, asking me to comment on the raid while it was under way. With my invaded home as a backdrop, I tried to explain.
It was clear that my anti-war activism was the target of the raid, especially my work in solidarity with the peoples of Colombia and Palestine. The search warrant zeroed in on international travel to these two war-ravaged nations, as well as the Anti-War Committee, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization.
Without a script, or any chance to speak with others whose homes were targeted that morning, I began the work of defending myself, the organisations I work in, and the movements I have helped to build. On one hand, I and my colleagues were well-known in our communities as leaders of the movements protesting US wars and militarism. On the other hand, local and national news reports named and pictured me, caught up in a high-profile terrorism investigation.
That Friday morning was a rude awakening that the war on terror had come to my home.
Before the FBI left my home with a truck full of my belongings, still not returned a year later, they left me with a subpoena to appear before a Chicago grand jury just a few weeks later.
To date, a total of 23 activists from Chicago, Grand Rapids and Minneapolis have been issued subpoenas for that grand jury, and in May the FBI initiated another raid on the home of a colleague from Los Angeles. All of us are standing up and speaking out against what is happening to us.
We have been standing up and speaking out in opposition to the “War on Terror” since the day it was launched. We have protested every US war and aggression. We have extended the hand of solidarity to the peoples targeted in these wars, and resisted the criminalisation of liberation struggles around the world.
It is this very work that put us in the crosshairs of a government investigation that has criminalised international solidarity as a whole. Like Dr Al Arian and the Holy Land Five, the government will claim that sending a few dollars to support kindergartens in Palestine is a crime, and that motive for our crimes can be found in our own words, when we have spoken out for the rights of people to resist war and demand justice.
Our political work in opposition to the aggressions of the US government has made us targets.
Just as has been the case with those targeted earlier on the home front of this war, we were spied on, infiltrated, and now we are being pursued for what we believe and who we know.
Like so many of them, we have now been placed on air travel watch lists and are subjected to pat downs and having our belongings rifled through every time we fly. While many of them had their immigration status threatened, I’ve had my passport seized.
And just like many of them, we have refused to help the government make its case against us or our friends.
Almost a year since our homes were raided, we still wait to hear what the government has planned for us. None of us has spoken to that secret grand jury in Chicago, and the prosecution has not yet brought charges against us.
But they have sent a clear message that we remain in the crosshairs: The prosecutor has told our attorneys that they are seeking multiple indictments (they won’t say against which of us). They have refused to return most of our property or our passports, no doubt holding it as evidence against us.
While the world remembers those who lost their lives on September 11, we must also mourn for the collateral damage created since then by the “War on Terror” – casualties of wars and the loss of freedoms. The case of 24 anti-war activists should be a wake up call to all of us: The casualties are still mounting.
Will our children lose their mothers and fathers to prison? Will our friends and colleagues be jailed and our movements crippled by fear and loss? Or will we be able to fight off this assault on our democratic rights and send a message of hope to the thousands who have been targeted by the “anti-terror” machine?
I will mark this September with gratitude for the thousands who have stood by us in the face of wrongful government persecution. Please join me in a renewed commitment to defend the individual activists targeted today, along with the rights of all of us to work for peace with justice.
Jess Sundin is a mother and activist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her home was one of those raided by the FBI in September 2010 as part of an investigation of anti-war and international solidarity activists for allegedly providing material support to terrorism. She refused to testify before a Chicago grand jury investigating the activists. She first became active as a high school senior in 1991, when she protested against the first Gulf War. Since that time, her work has included solidarity trips to Iraq and Colombia, and organising massive anti-war protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minnesota.
A version of this piece was originally published on OpEdNews.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
I was few minutes late for work on September 11, 2001. Just as I left the car the radio reported that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I commented that there must have been a mechanical failure of a plane landing at LaGuardia. That seems quaint in retrospect.
I watched, along with much of the country, people leap from the burning towers of the World Trade Center stunned and in shock. In the mid-afternoon I stopped watching. It was too much, both the casualties and the building drumbeat for vengeance from the TV networks and the Bush White House. Instead I talked with friends and fellow anti-war activists about the mounting death toll to come. We mourned the dead, were disgusted by the racism and feared how many would die in retaliation. We could not know then that we would become part of the collateral damage of September 11.
Under normal circumstances this essay would have talked about how October 7, 2001 is the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. I would have talked about handing our children billions of dollars in debt from endless war. I would have talked about the racism against Arab’s and Muslims so virulent it has it’s own name, Islamophobia. I probably would have made some mention of the roll back of our civil liberties.
In the current circumstance I have a lot more to say about civil liberties. This past year I have become part of the collateral damage of the war on terror. September 24, 2010 FBI agents raided my home and the homes of 7 friends and colleagues, seizing papers and computers which have yet to be returned. They served grand jury subpoenas on 23 anti-war and international solidarity activists. The raids claimed to be looking for evidence of “material support for terrorism”. What they wanted was evidence of what we think and who we know. Our civil liberties have taken a pretty heavy hit in the last ten years, wiretaps that used to be illegal now aren’t, library books are subject to subpoena and the courts have ruled that it is possible that what used to be considered free speech could be prosecuted as material support for terrorism (Holder vs Humanitarian Law Project). While I knew all of those things, I was shocked to be raided on September 24. For more information on my case visit www.stopfbi.net.
My colleagues and I are being targeted for political repression because we do not wrap ourselves in the flag, then or now. We are being targeted because we remember the first September 11, in 1973 when the CIA ushered in a decade long reign of terror in Chile. We are being targeted because we were listening and protesting in 1996, when Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared on ‘60 Minutes’ that the deaths 500,000 Iraqi children because of sanctions “worth the price”. We are targets because we helped organize people to march in the street when another million Iraqi’s died in Bush’s war over the same non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
On September 11, 2001, I watched tragedy unfold and i saw the same tragedy as when drones kill children gathering firewood in Afghanistan, or Iraq or Palestine. Some politicians tell us that we are to see Americans as exceptional and special with the right to rain down destruction without ever experiencing it. On 09/11 I will mourn for many things. I will mourn for the families of the 09/11/2001 victims. I will mourn that we are in danger of losing our rights to speak and organize. I will mourn because in 2011 it’s acceptable for Congressmen to have hearings that demonize an entire religion and too few object. I will mourn for my own child, who fears that her parents will be taken from her because we speak out and organize others to do the same. I will mourn on 09/11, but my sense of humanity and justice demands that I mourn for one million and three thousand — and not three thousand alone.
Steff Yorek has been active in the movements for peace and justice since she became involved in protests against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, as a student. Steff grew up in Little Falls, Minnesota and is a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota. She lives in South Minneapolis with her partner and their bright and charming six year old daughter. She loves to cook and reads cook books to relax. Her home was raided by the FBI on September 24, 2010 and she has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating anti-war and international solidarity activists.