Democrats' Sit-in for 'Gun Control' Bill Would Expand Surveillance of Muslims

In staging a dramatic sit-in at the House Chamber this week, Democrats struck a tone of righteous protest for strong gun laws, with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) declaring, “I’m prepared to stand here until hell freezes over.” It did not take long for media outlets to begin drawing links to the civil rights movement, due in large part to the prominent participation of civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis. "Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most," President Barack Obama tweeted, while leading Democrats—including Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi—rushed to the action to show their solidarity. It was an effort of well-timed political theater, designed to maximize attention to GOP inaction on gun control, only days after the Orlando tragedy, the worst mass shooting in American history.


There's just one problem with what the House Dems pulled off. The common agenda that Democrats are uniting around is, in fact, deeply discriminatory against Muslims, Arabs and immigrants in general. That’s because the key proposal they are fighting for would expand the powers of the government to spy on people they suspect of "terrorism" and obstruct gun sales to people who have been placed on the federal terror watch-list, which is so staggeringly broad it includes thousands of innocent Muslims and even, at one point, a 7-month-old baby.

This is not the only demand issued by Democrats, who have also put forward calls for additional requirements for background checks and a ban on assault weapons. The urgency to do something about gun violence is entirely understandable in the aftermath of the horrific massacre at the Orlando LGBTQ Pulse club's Latin night. But as Reece Chenault, national coordinator for U.S. Labor Against the War, told AlterNet, "The overall strategy of Democrats putting these politics out there as the things they are willing to sit-in for is just not a good look. I think they come at it from this bizarre line of, 'This is what we can get.'"

In fact, the “no fly, no buy” slogan has emerged as the most prominent demand of the Democrats, and it is obvious why. In the midst of an election cycle defined by Islamophobic incitement, the baiting of Muslims has considerable political viability.

It is difficult to overstate the breadth of the dragnet watchlist that Democrats are invoking.

In 2014, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux of the Intercept reported that the the Obama administration “has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither ‘concrete facts’ nor ‘irrefutable’ evidence' to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist.” According to their assessment of leaked government materials, of the 680,000 people on the watchlist at the time, "more than 40 percent are described by the government has having 'no recognized terrorist group affiliation.'”

As recently as April, the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a class-action lawsuit charging that “Through extra‐judicial and secret means, the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watchlist that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals.”

The lawsuit claims that there have been more than 1.5 million nominations to the federal watchlist since 2009, a number that is on par with figures reported by the Associated Press. While the Department of Homeland Security was forced last year to make limited reforms to its No-Fly list policies, the class-action lawsuit charges that these reforms do not go far enough and that the government continues to rely on “mere guesses, hunches, and conjecture and even simply based on matters of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or the exercise of their constitutional rights.”

Many of the lawmakers spearheading the sit-in—including John Lewis—acknowledged the dangers of the list in a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security two years ago. The letter expressed concern that DHS provides "no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations. We also understand that nearly 24 Americans have been placed on watch lists while traveling abroad, inhibiting their return home. While never charged with a crime, these Americans found themselves temporarily stranded abroad.”

In fact, a CNN report from 2004 indicates that Lewis himself may have been placed on the no-fly list.

Inclusion on the list can have profoundly harmful consequences, leading to increased criminalization and obstructing family reunification.

While the watchlist is astoundingly broad, there is one person whose name was removed from it: Omar Mateen, the shooter whose mass murder at the LGBTQ Pulse nightclub touched off the Democrats’ demands for gun laws. In other words, the demand that Democrats are fighting for would not have stopped Mateen from obtaining a gun.

When Democrats pull off publicity stunts premised on a discriminatory and un-democratic "terror" watch list, they are laying the groundwork for expanded surveillance and further erosion of civil liberties for Muslim-Americans, Arabs and people of color. To do this in an election cycle where Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims from entering the country and a Muslim registry is playing with fire.

And then there is the issue of effectiveness. As Gawker’s Alex Pareene recently pointed out, “The vast majority of gun deaths—suicides as well as homicides—are caused by handguns, and the majority of people firing those guns are not suspected terrorists (which invariably refers, in contemporary discourse, to Muslims, and no other groups or individuals dedicated to political violence).”

Further, it seems hypocritical of Democratic leaders to call for stronger domestic gun laws while doing little to stop the Obama administration from flooding foreign markets with far more powerful weapons. As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed in February, from 2011 to 2015, the Obama administration oversaw the dramatic rise in weapons transfers, the global volume of which jumped a stunning 14 percent compared to levels seen during the previous five years.

The Republicans standing against this misguided demand have proven themselves willing to exploit public fear and rising anti-Muslim bigotry, and they are indeed beholden to the powerful National Rifle Association lobby. But Democrats have chosen to reinforce the GOP's Islamophobic appeals instead of taking serious action against weapons sales at home and abroad. With a majority of Americans clamoring for the kind of assault weapons ban that would have disarmed mass killers from Sandy Hook to Orlando, Democrats have chosen to agitate for far less, and to do so at the expense of Muslim-Americans already targeted by escalating political vitriol and a troubling spike in Islamophobic hate crimes.

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