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Bastille New Jersey

Just west of the Hudson, looking hard at lower Manhattan’s now achingly blinded skyline, is that stretch of metropolitan New Jersey tourism experts call America’s “Gateway”. Named to remind us of New Jersey’s historic role as launching point for immigrant journeys westward into the heart and hinterlands of the nation, it also highlights Lady Liberty’s famous welcome, for only hundreds of feet from this shoreline, on her own little island, stands our world-famous symbol of safe-haven and deliverance.

The mockery here can now be felt not just by newcomers but by many of those who’d begun the process of settling long before the 9/11 attacks. And yet few Americans are aware of this further irony: how inexorably “Gateway New Jersey” has become “Dungeon” or better, “Bastille New Jersey” for those the government has deemed politically undesireable or threatening.

For nearly two years now, this is where it has “detained,” or more precisely, dumped, thousands of them–almost regardless of reason or the need to produce any–into two immigration detention centers and five County jails, the memory holes we and the INS have complacently and complicitly created out of a mindless fear that extends beyond “terrorists” to the strangers in our own neighborhoods.

Paterson is my “neighborhood”, third among the state’s three largest cities, all of them within the “Gateway”. It is also where the Passaic County Jail is located, and proximity has taught me over the past six months just how mindless that fear is, however calculated the official repression it is used to justify. Not just because the “detainees” aren’t the terrorist suspects most “patriotic” Americans think them in order to sleep at night. But because we’ve hardly known enough about them to say how many they are, let alone who, or why they’ve been held.

As of this writing, not one has had a credible terrorism-related rap laid on him. Until recently, it was possible to say that only a handful had even been charged with anything. I suspect that if we generalized from the few we know something about to the entire cohort (is it 1200? 2000? 5000? 10,000?), we wouldn’t be far off. It would certainly be as mad a mix of men as any who ever stumbled into a government net or suddenly found themselves trapped in it, running the gamut from boys to men to old men, from the hapless to the reckless and feckless, from retail workers to intellectuals, taxi drivers to computer programmers to the serially unemployed, from illegal immigrants and petty criminals to students and minor visa violators.

We would find a spectrum of nationalities from East Asia to Latin America, of beliefs from devout Muslims to marxists. Among those who haven’t yet been deported many have already been imprisoned for a year or more. Others only months or weeks, caught up in the terrifying sweeps of the new registration regs as tens of thousands were “called-in” from the infamous “twenty-five countries” and then snatched into custody.

One thing most have in common is poverty, otherwise they might have pulled some savvy legal strings or maybe still be awaiting disposition on the outside. They differ in this and other respects from Paterson’s infamous Muhammed El-Atriss, the Egyptian-American who’d already made a small fortune in the sale of phony documents to illegals when in a seizure of bad karma he sold them to two of the 9/11 hijackers. El-Atriss is a naturalized US citizen, a factor key to his legal standing. But the relative speed with which his case came to judgment (February-March 2003), as well as the success of his plea-bargain, also represent a return on investment in aggressive and expensive lawyers. Prosecutors could not prove El-Atriss knew the intentions of his customers, so Judge Marilyn Clark gave him only time served (169 days) and 5 years probation, expressing outrage at how little law she had to throw at him.

And yet at the behest of federal prosecutors and in defiance of normal standards of due process, she ordered the bail hearing closed to the public and court transcripts of the proceedings sealed. (In a suit brought by the North Jersey Media Group, representing two local newspapers, she has since reversed herself, declaring it proper and in the public interest to open these again. Stay tuned.)

Ironically, El-Atriss spent his time inside in Paterson’s own Passaic County Jail with (at any given time) from 15 to 500 other “detainees,” so-called–that familiar apartheid euphemism for political prisoners. He has since said he felt ashamed that the American public thought of him as a terrorist–presumably like them–though he’s been spared certain of the degradations some of them still suffer, being “disappeared” among them. His fellow prisoners were and are chargeable with much lesser offenses in the scheme of things. They are also theoretically protected by the same Bill of Rights, which, until John Ashcroft’s highhanded (and as yet unreversed) reinterpretation, guaranteed due process to all “persons” without regard to citizenship, including the right to be charged, to be heard, and to be defended.

Worse yet, a few of the men El-Atriss left behind had lawyers who took up front whatever their families could cobble together, promised the moon, and then never showed up again. Now, not just deprived of constitutional rights but abandoned to the wretched prison conditions and various levels of official thuggery in “Gateway” jails, they face a hardened racism newly hardened by patriotism run amok. The recent Inspector General’s Report has just confirmed the allegations of abusive conditions. It even mentions the jail as having held at one time the largest number of post 9/11 detainees in the country; and while it placed the jail second after the Brooklyn Municipal Detention Center in a pattern of abuse, it failed to indicate that the conditions are unrelenting.

Eyewitness civil liberties lawyers have (for instance) described the Passaic County Jail as one of the worst in the country, a “dungeon” by any other name. Two prisoners are now on hunger strike there, protesting abusive conditions among other things. One of them, Hemnauth Mohabir, a legal permanent resident originally from Guyana, has cited foul latrine smells, broken showers, damp, moulding ceiling plaster that drops down on him as he eats and sleeps, swarming roaches and rats. A Christian and vegetarian, he had until his strike spared himself the atrocities of the routine menu, only to be offered peanut butter at every meal, and then beaten for the insubordination of demanding better.

Over the months since April 2002 that have now stretched beyond a year in both Middlesex and Passaic County jails, Hemnauth shared time with fellow-prisoner Farouk Abdel-Muhti, a Palestinian native and leftist intellectual, considered “stateless” and difficult to deport. But Farouk is also a powerful organizer who’d established a wide circle of progressive friends before his arrest, which occurred in early 2002, just after he actively brokered live reports from the Intifada to Free Speech Radio at WBAI. Once Inside, he again made himself a threat, not just by speaking his mind but by speaking it in several languages, including the Spanish he acquired from years in Latin America. This past January he persuaded five other inmates to join him in a hunger strike, then got Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman to give him telephone airtime to talk about it.

I first chanced on Farouk’s voice in January as he made one of these amazing reports from the belly of the beast, my awareness sharpened by an assignment to moderate a panel at a National Writer’s Union conference–“Writing for Our Rights”–which eventually drew hundreds to Rutgers/ Newark on the weekend of January 25-26. The overarching theme of this conference was the the anger–and fear–felt by Middle Eastern writers and activists since 2001. But the event inevitably drew detainee rights into its orbit. Conference organizer Jeannette Gabriel (who’d recruited me) was also a long-time friend of Farouk’s, already working for months to rescue him. She later admitted that the horror of the detentions hadn’t actually come home to her till his arrest. “It completely radicalized me on this issue,” she has since told me guiltily. “I shouldn’t have needed to lose a friend to feel this way.”

In a world overwhelmed with rights abuses, where it can be a life’s work to confront any one of them authentically, we may all need a flashpoint . Mine was hearing Farouk’s voice over breakfast. It wasn’t just that it took victims of the national paranoia of 9/11out of some imaginary moated stone bastion somewhere and put them here, in the same jail where I’d once visited a babysitter-friend who’d shot her ex in a fit of dementia; my participation in earlier demos had already done that. It was the realization that they too were–or could be–political resisters, direct-line descendants of the radical anarchists and unruly strikers I knew as a Paterson historian, the people who’d stirred things up in these parts a century ago when industrial Paterson was “Red City” and the authorities were as likely (if not more so) to be stuffing you in the slammer for your politics as your morals.

Jeannette and her partner Eric Lerner (an NWU stalwart and dissident physicist from Lawrenceville) had already helped create a “detainees committee” out of an alliance of other writers union members and a New York “Free Farouk Committee” with progressive students in the state colleges and the New Jersey Action Network. Despite the small turnout at two demos at the Passaic County jail in the fall, the presence of several body-pierced anarchists at the one i attended in October, as well as clear attempts of the city and county police to disrupt it, made it feisty and reportable. Word that prisoners were being beaten in retaliation produced some flap in the press, particularly in the local paper of record, the North Jersey Herald News, which had already mounted a class action suit to have facts about the detainees publicly released, and was fairly aggressively telling the story.

A key demographic reality here, of course, is that South Paterson is home to the second largest Arab-American community in the US, Dearborn/Detroit being the first. Paterson’s tends to be more Palestinian and recently immigrated, and more on the political qui-vive. This makes local police understandably skittish. It has also drawn us some unwelcome national attention obviously heightened by the case of the two hijackers who passed through El-Atriss’s mill, assuring that we are regularly dissed by New York shock-radio as “Al Qaeda West.” The demos brought out few South Paterson locals, who understandably feared visibility. A small well-behaved cohort came to the October demo with a local Muslim leader, a man clearly suspicious of “outsiders” and a little too visibly proud of his good relations with the police. He didn’t come back.

Meanwhile, conference-organizing was proving a further recruiting tool. As some of the earlier group veered off the detainees issue in the run-up to the war, a newly committed coalition emerged, known at first only by its email address (writersactivists@yahoo.com), our activist profile and our consciousness both raised by the courage of Farouk’s hunger strike. Participation by some within the targeted communities assured our rising sensitivity to the people of South Paterson and their sometimes vocal and nervous awareness of being caught between us and the police, expressing solidarity yet fearing being identified with making waves.

“Writersactivists@” did some bootstrap actions, organizing a letter-writing campaign to the Sheriff and the local INS director as well as Farouk himself, to keep his heart up. Then another small demo at the jail in early February. This time the Sheriff’s men banished us to the other side of Main Street, in front of St. John’s Cathedral, where after our initial frustration we actually found our posters reading “Free the Detainees” and “Hunger for Freedom” even more visible to passing traffic, and where two brave hijabbed women–wives left to struggle at home without breadwinners–pushed baby strollers up and down the sidewalk before the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of the diocese.

Heightening the pressure, the group began plans for a major new rally, a “March Against Fear” to be held at the corner of Gould and Main Streets on Saturday, March 29, in the heart of the South Paterson community: the notion was that if they wouldn’t or couldn’t come down to the jail, we’d come to them, in as full a display of mutual solidarity as we could muster. Then the news hit that Sheriff Jerry Speziale, Passaic County’s recently-elected and rather swaggering guardian, a veteran NYPD surveillance expert, had cooperated with federal authorities to ship Farouk’s fellow-strikers off to two other county jails, Hudson and Middlesex, and then silently decamped the “troublemaker” himself to the York (PA) Detention Center,150 miles farther away from lawyers, family and friends.

There Farouk was placed in solitary, in 23-hour lockdown in an iron cage, shackled hand and foot,* as the writers-activists he’d helped to galvanize faced off against the combined forces of the Paterson and County police and mounted a rally that would became a local cause celebre and make it to the national press. [*It should be noted that the Report of the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice has since characterized this kind of 23-hour lockdown as a human rights abuse. Also that the report, completed literally months ago, had been kept under wraps until a number of Senators (including New Jersey’s Jon Corzine) asked for its release. As of the date of this writing, two weeks since it appeared, the brutalizing treatment of Farouk Abdel-Muhti, in defiance of the IGO’s official rebuke, continues unchecked.]

The late-breaking news is that there are two detainees here in Paterson hunger striking (fluids-fasting) for 53 and 41 days respectively. The strike is still ongoing for both men, as far as we know, but we’re in a blackout regarding the condition of Nigel Maccado, the Indian national who’s been striking longer and was described as extremely ill several days ago by a member of our committee who saw him. The other is Hemnauth Mohabir, the Guyanese national I mentioned i. He has been able to phone us periodically.

FLAVIA ALAYA, educator turned full time writer-activist, lives in
Paterson, NJ, and (as local officials can attest) pays attention. Her memoir of love and politics in the 60s, Under the Rose (Feminist Press, 1999), has just been published in a new Irish edition (New Island Press). She can be reached at: flavia@bigplanet.com

 

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