This article was originally posted on Muslims for Liberty.
What my arrest a year ago taught me about America
Will I be made an example and get labeled a terrorist? Will I end up in Guantanamo? Will I lose my job and spend time in jail? These questions rushed into my mind when I was arrested at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on March 8 of last year, leading to two summonses, three court appearances, and almost a year on edge fearing the worst.
I was going to my office in Manhattan after a few weeks out of town on assignment. I parked my car at the New York Wheel Garage, took the shuttle bus, and then walked down the stairs with fellow passengers, entering the terminal shortly before 8 am.
As soon as I reached the bottom of the stairs, walking toward the waiting hall, I noticed an NYPD officer had his eyes on me; something I experienced quite often since 9/11. When I got close, he extended his arm briefly to stop me, and ordered me to their table outside the hall to search my backpack.
At least since 9/11, along with stop and frisk, the NYPD often sent officers to randomly search people. These are not fixed police posts or times; when the brass decides, they send the officers, with a folding table and a sign, to a subway station near you, or in this case, the ferry terminal.
I was dressed professionally; not that dressing otherwise is of itself a good reason for suspicion, but others around me were also carrying backpacks and purses. The way this happened and the officer’s body language made me feel I was being profiled.
I found myself responding to the officer by saying “no, thank you”. My response surprised the officer and I. “Sir, I’m not asking you”, the officer said, signaling that I must comply or else. I began to panic, fearing the repercussions of challenging an abusive authority. As an American Muslim activist who has been involved in combating civil rights abuses for over a decade, I am keenly aware of how my life can be ruined for challenging abuse of power, and how I can be portrayed negatively by the government and media. Adrenaline was gushing into my veins, and you would think I was shouting, but my knees were shaking when I replied to the officer, “No, thank you!”, followed by, “Why did you pick me? Why not this one, or that one?”, pointing at other people.
The other officers gathered, the wave of people coming in to take the boat ballooned, and it became a scene. After a few minutes, I was given a choice to either submit to the search and take the ferry, or leave the terminal. I stood my ground, refusing to be profiled and refusing this violation of my, and everyone’s, rights. They immediately put me in handcuffs, and the entire random search squad led me away to a corner of the terminal, where I was frisked and searched, my wallet and pockets emptied and the contents looked at and counted.
I have lived and worked in three countries, been to four continents, and was never arrested in my 46 years until that moment.
If this were about security, why was I given the option to leave the terminal without search? And why did they take down the table, stopping the random searches as soon as they arrested me, when the terminal was swarming with people with all kinds of backpacks, purses, and even suitcases? If I were a bad guy with a bomb, for example, I would have exploded it when I had a dozen officers and hundreds of people around me. Or I could have been a distraction to allow the real perpetrators to go unnoticed.
Random searches are a weak deterrent at best. It is a show of force, giving some people a false sense of security, while sacrificing the rights of others, and what the forefathers fought for and enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The concept of random searches is a direct violation of the text and spirit of the 4th Amendment. It is an example of what happens when governments use law enforcement to control the population and extort them through tickets and fines. This is not to serve and protect, and it is not about safety.
In addition, we all have internal biases that influence our decisions. We might not be aware of this influence, but when it comes to law enforcement, without strong mechanisms to minimize it, people’s lives can be ruined. I don’t believe the officer woke up that day and decided to profile people, but this random search policy allows biases to play a role.
In an airport, all passengers get screened, it is not random, and it is full time, not a temporary table set up and taken down at will. Yes, there are abuses in secondary screenings, but everyone gets that first screen.
To achieve true randomness, single file railings should be installed and maybe every fifth person should be picked for search. That would prove a complete waste in a short time when grandmothers and toddlers are the lucky number five.
Fear of terrorism is purposely inflated and turns most of us apathetic. But the fact is, in the United States, it is 400 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack. In other words, if you lose someone to a car accident every month, you lose someone to terrorism every 33 years. Is this really worth living in constant fear, under constant surveillance, going through checkpoints, and turning America into the Soviet Union?
Those who understand the consequences of allowing these violations to go unchecked usually swallow a great deal of abuse daily. We choose our battles so we don’t end up worse. But, on that day, I guess I finally snapped under pressure. Living in post-9/11 America, many law enforcement practices are police state tactics that we rail against when other countries engage in. Most Americans don’t understand why the forefathers included the 4th amendment, despite the dangers and threats to America back then. It was one year before America was born by gaining independence from King George’s abuses when Benjamin Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The two summonses I received were for trespassing and disorderly conduct. First time in my life as well, but think about that. Trespassing in a public area of a government-run travel facility? And disorderly conduct for standing up for my rights? To the officers’ credit, they did not mistreat me at any point. When I calmed down, the few remaining officers and I had a cordial discussion about the constitution, the 4th amendment, terrorism, and more. Before I left to take the 8:45 am boat, I embraced the officers and believe we left on good terms. I also let them know it was not personal, but the problem is some of the policies they implement, which infringes on people’s rights and are contrary to the founding documents.
Suspicion of a crime should be the basis to stop someone, but someone’s color or perceived ethnic or religious background is not. This random search policy is a waste and an infringement on people’s rights, violating the constitution. It must be abolished and replaced with good policing. In part two, I will explain how I was labeled a terrorist enabler and almost got myself convicted in court.
You can watch my video explaining what happened, with links to my other 3 posts about it here.