Last year, the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, with a minuscule staff and budget, worked relentlessly to pass the Green Jobs Act in Congress-a bill that if authorized will direct $125 million to green the nation's workforce and train 35,000 people each year for "green-collar jobs." That summer, Ella Baker Center and the Oakland Alliance also secured $250,000 from the city to build the Oakland Green Jobs Corp, a training program that promises to explicitly serve what is probably the most underutilized resource of Oakland: young workingclass men and women of color.
In these efforts lay a hopeful vision-that the crises-ridden worlds of economics and environmentalism would converge to address the other huge crisis-racism in the United States. It is what some of its advocates call a potential paradigm shift that, necessitated by the earth's climate crisis, can point the way out of "gray capitalism" and into a green, more equitable economy. The engine of this model is driven by the young and proactive leadership of people of color who intend to build a different solution for communities of color.
Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center, talks about how earlier waves of economic flourishes didn't much impact Black communities. "When the dotcom boom went bust, you didn't see no Black man lose his shirt," he points out, only half joking. "Black people were the least invested in it."
Climate change is the 21st century's wake-up call to not just rethink but radically redo our economies. Ninety percent of scientists agree that we are headed toward a climate crisis, and that, indeed, it has already started. With the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, the clean energy economy is poised to grow enormously. This sector includes anything that meets our energy needs without contributing to carbon emissions or that reduces carbon emissions; it encompasses building retrofitting, horticulture infrastructure (tree pruning and urban gardening), food security, biofuels and other renewable energy sources, and more.
It's becoming clear that investing in clean energy has the potential to create good jobs, many of them located in urban areas as state and city governments are increasingly adopting public policies designed to improve urban environmental quality in areas such as solar energy, waste reduction, materials reuse, public transit infrastructures, green building, energy and water efficiency, and alternative fuels.
According to recent research by Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of urban studies at San Francisco State University, green jobs have an enormous potential to reverse the decades-long trend of unemployment rates that are higher for people of color than whites. In Berkeley, California, for example, unemployment of people of color is between 1.5 and 3.5 times that of white people, and the per capita income of people of color is once again between 40 to 70 percent of that of white people.
Pinderhughes defines green-collar jobs as manual labor jobs in businesses whose goods and services directly improve environmental quality. These jobs are typically located in large and small for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, and public and private institutions. Most importantly, these jobs offer training, an entry level that usually requires only a high school diploma, and decent wages and benefits, as well as a potential career path in a growing industry.
Yet, though green economics present a great opportunity to lift millions of unemployed, underemployed or displaced workers-many of them people of color-out of poverty, the challenge lies in defining an equitable and workable development model that would actually secure good jobs for marginalized communities.
"Green economics needs to be eventually policy-driven. If not, the greening of towns and cities will definitely set in motion the wheels of gentrification," Pinderhughes adds. "Without a set of policies that explicitly ensures checks and measures to prevent gentrification, green economics cannot be a panacea for the ills of the current economy that actively displaces and marginalizes people of color, while requiring their cheap labor and participation as exploited consumers."
What remains to be seen is how green economics will transition out of current prevalent models of ownership and control. A greener version of capitalism could possibly address some of the repercussions of a consumption economy and the enormous waste it generates. But critics and activists also worry that a "replacement mindset" is largely driving the optimism and energy of greening our industries and jobs. Hybrid cars replace conventional cars, and organic ingredients are promised in a wide variety of products from hand creams to protein bars. Many mainstream environmental festivals like the popular Green Festival held in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, have yet to embrace a democratic diversity. Peddling wonderful green products and services that will reduce your ecological footprint, they are accessible, alas, only to elite classes that are predominantly white.
"An authentic green economics system is one that would mark the end of capitalism," notes B. Jess Clarke, editor of Race, Poverty and the Environment. And one that would ensure labor rights and organizing, collective ownership and equality are all at the heart of it, he adds. "The real green movement has not started yet."
A movement toward economic justice requires the mobilizing and organizing of the poorest people for greater economic and political power. A good green economic model would surely be one where poor people's labor has considerable economic leverage. "Wal-Mart putting solar panels on its store roofs is not a solution," says Clarke. "We need real solutions and strong measures-carbon taxes on imports from China would considerably reduce the incentive of cheap imports and make a push to produce locally."
"Green economics can create a momentum-a political moment akin to the civil rights movement. But unless workers are organized, any success is likely to be marginal. So the key problem is in organizing a political base," adds Clarke. Green economics, then, is not just a green version of current economic models but a fundamental transformation, outlines Brian Milani, a Canadian academic and environmental expert who has written extensively on green economics. He writes in his book Designing the Green Economy: "Green economics is the economics of the real world-the world of work, human needs, the earth's materials, and how they mesh together most harmoniously. It is primarily about 'use value,' not 'exchange value' or money. It is about quality, not quantity, for the sake of it. It is about regeneration-of individuals, communities, and ecosystems-not about accumulation, of either money or material."
The $125 million promised through the Green Jobs Act is admittedly a drop in the bucket as far as the amount of financing and infrastructure needed to implement green jobs, activists say. Among the Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom have proposals for clean energy investment, talk has run into the billions of dollars for green economic stimulus.
So who will pay to get the green economy going and train a green workforce?
Throughout history we have freely released carbon and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and not had to pay a penny for the privilege. Industrial polluters and utilities may face fines for toxic emissions or releasing hazardous waste, but there has been no cost for emitting carbon as a part of day-to-day business. However, we have come to find that the atmosphere is a limited resource, and it's getting used up fast.
By limiting the total amount of carbon that can be released, and making industries pay for their pollution, global warming policies finally recognize that the atmosphere has value and must be protected. The policy with the most momentum in the U.S. and around the world is to "cap and trade" the amount of carbon that can be emitted every year. With this policy, the government sets a hard target for CO2 emissions, and then companies have to trade credits to get back the right to emit that carbon, no longer for free.
One often overlooked fact, though, is that under a "cap and trade" policy, a tremendous amount of money could change hands-the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new value created by such a policy ranges from $50 -- $300 billion each year. So far, public debate has focused on setting targets and caps, but the question of who will benefit from those credits has largely been ignored. In fact, many proposals have simply given these valuable new property rights away to polluters for them to sell to each other, because they were the ones who were polluting to begin with.
Under an important variant of the "cap and trade" policy called "cap and auction," the government not only limits the total carbon emissions, but it also captures the value of those carbon credits for public purposes by requiring that all polluters must bid for and buy back the right to emit. A 100-percent auction of permits would give the public ready access to the ongoing funds we will need to reinvest in social equity and bring down poor people's energy bills, or to support new research, or to launch new projects that not only establish training for green jobs, but create those jobs themselves, rebuilding the infrastructure of our communities for a clean energy economy.
However, there can be a lot of slippage between the green economy and green jobs that actually go to workers of color, especially in today's anti-affirmative action context. In one pilot program, nearly two dozen young people of color were trained to install solar panels, but only one got a job. Ultimately, employers can't be told who to hire, though there are some ideas about providing incentives, like requiring companies to show they hire locally and diversely before public institutions will invest their assets there.
"Green for All," the campaign launched in September 2007 by the Ella Baker Center and other partners like Sustainable South Bronx and the Apollo Alliance, is currently among the leading advocates pushing for policy that would ensure a racially just framework for green economics to grow and flourish, without which, green economics can end up being just a greening consumption. With a goal to bring green-collar jobs to urban areas, this campaign positions itself as an effort to provide a viable policy framework for emerging grassroots, green economic models. The campaign's long-term goal is to secure $1 billion by 2012 to create "green pathways out of poverty" for 250,000 people by greatly expanding federal government and private sector commitments to green-collar jobs.
"A big chunk of the African-American community is economically stranded," Van Jones said in The New York Times last fall as the campaign began. "The blue-collar, stepping-stone, manufacturing jobs are leaving. And they're not being replaced by anything. So you have this whole generation of young Blacks who are basically in economic free fall."
The challenge of making the green economy racially equitable means addressing the question of how to build an infrastructure that includes not just training programs but also the development of actual good jobs and the hiring policies that make them accessible. How can we guarantee that all these new green jobs will go to local residents? As one activist admitted, "There's just no good answer to this so far."
Many of the answers will have to come in the doing, and the details, as green industry continues to take shape. There are plenty of ideas about how to create equitable policies, as outlined in the report "Community Jobs in the Green Economy" by the Apollo Alliance and Urban Habitat. They include requiring employers who receive public subsidies to set aside a number of jobs for local residents and partner with workforce intermediaries to hire them. Some cities are already requiring developers to reserve 50 percent of their construction jobs for local businesses and residents. Cities can also attach wage standards to their deals with private companies that are pegged to a living wage. In Milwaukee, after two freeway ramps were destroyed downtown, a coalition of community activists and unions won a community benefits agreement from the city to require that the new development include mass transit, green building and living wages for those jobs.
As we have learned in many progressive struggles, communities need to be mobilized and actively involved in generating inclusive policies and pushing policymakers to ensure that green economic development will be just and equitable. Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, says the green economy movement is still in its early stages of building public support. "There is not yet an organized constituency representing the human face of what it means to face climate change. There is an urgent need for a human face, an equity constituency, to enter into the national debate on climate change."
Omar Freilla, founder of Green Worker Cooperative, an organization that actively promotes worker-owned and ecofriendly manufacturing jobs to the South Bronx, is convinced that democracy begins at the workplace where many of us as workers and employees spend most of our time. "The environmental justice movement has been about people taking control of their own communities," he says. "Those most impacted by a problem are also the ones leading the hunt for a solution."
Environmental racism is rooted in a dirty energy economy, a reckless linear model that terminates with the dumping of toxins and wastes in poor communities of color that have the least access to political power to change this linear path to destruction.
Defining and then refining green economics as a way to steer it toward bigger change is at the root of understanding the socio-political and economic possibilities of this moment.
Van Jones calls for a historic approach, one that considers the world economy in stages of refinement. "Green capitalism is not the final stage of human development, any more than gray capitalism was. There will be other models and other advances-but only if we survive as a species. But we have to recognize that we are at a particular stage of history, where the choices are not capitalism versus socialism, but green/eco-capitalism versus gray/suicide capitalism. The first industrial revolution hurt both people and the planet, very badly. Today, we do have a chance to create a second 'green' industrial revolution, one that will produce much better ecological outcomes. Our task is to ensure that this green revolution succeeds-and to ensure that the new model also generates much better social outcomes. I don't know what will replace eco-capitalism. But I do know that no one will be here to find out, if we don't first replace gray capitalism."
The people most affected by the injustices of the polluting economy are already helping to lead the way, and it's business at its most unusual.
In March 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ban Al-Wardi's parents received a phone call from the Los Angeles police. The LAPD wanted to set up an interview for the Iraqi-American family with the FBI. A few days later, without notice, agents appeared at their door asking for Al-Wardi's father. Her mother asked the agents to meet him at his office instead, where he was a doctor in private practice. When she offered to give them the address, the agents said not to bother, they already had it.
Al-Wardi went to her father's office to tell him the men were coming, but they were already there. Two men with tape recorders introduced themselves as FBI agents and said that they were there to help. During times of war, unfortunately, they said, some communities are targeted. They wanted the Al-Wardis to know that they could call on the FBI for protection.
"Then they pulled out this file on my father. It had his picture, his immigration documents," Ban Al-Wardi recalled.
The agents pulled out pages and pages of what turned out to be a list of questions. Where were you born? What was your father's name? And your grandfather's name? Do you own weapons? Do you own weapons of mass destruction? Like chemical poison or lethal gas? Do you know anyone with access to weapons like this? Have you ever taken flight school courses or have you ever flown a plane? Do you know any Iraqi Americans living in the U.S. now who do fly planes? When was the last time you went to Iraq? Do you consider Iraq your home? Where is home for you? Would you bear arms to fight for this country?
They produced a map of Iraq and taped it to the wall, asking Al-Wardi's father to point out cities where he thought it would be possible for weapons of mass destruction to be hidden. The interview lasted two hours.
"My parents used to be very active, they used to go to all the demonstrations against the war. They had protested the Afghanistan invasion and they've been very vocal. But since that time, my mom doesn't go to any demonstrations. My father goes but he doesn't want to bring attention to himself. He even disguises himself," she said, with a short laugh. "He wears a baseball cap and sunglasses, and turns up his collar. He doesn't want people taking pictures of him."
The FBI visited up to 11,000 Iraqi Americans as the war in Iraq began, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Billed as "voluntary interviews," they were part of a series of such visits that had begun in November 2001. The first phase involved 5,000 men from countries suspected of having Al-Qaeda presence; a second phase began in March 2002 with interviews of 3,000 more men. A year later, the General Accounting Office found that none of the information from these interviews had been analyzed, while about 20 of the interviewees had been arrested for immigration charges.
As an immigration attorney, Ban Al-Wardi was no stranger to the consequences of FBI surveillance. She represented two Muslim leaders from Anaheim's large Arab community whose cases symbolized the growing dangers of "guilt by association." One was a well-known Egyptian cleric, Imam Wagdy Mohamed Ghoneim of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, who was arrested in November 2004 and charged with overstaying his religious-worker visa. After having a heart attack in the San Pedro detention facility, Ghoneim chose deportation.
The other case involved Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, the Palestinian founder of an Anaheim mosque. Hamdan was arrested in July 2004 for his association with the Holy Land Foundation. He had worked as a fundraiser for the Dallas-based charity, which became the first to be shut down by the government in 2001 for alleged ties to Hamas. In 2002, Hamdan agreed to travel to Dallas at the request of the FBI to answer questions about Holy Land. Soon after he agreed, agents knocked at his door at four in the morning. He was brought to San Pedro's Terminal Island, and kept there on the basis of a Patriot Act provision that allows indefinite detention if the government can show "reasonable grounds" of a threat to national security.
"They took two big symbols, well-loved symbols in the community and really humiliated them," Al-Wardi said. "So it was a very strong message, and people got it."
Along with the arrest of influential figures, the FBI was also cultivating a more "user-friendly approach," as Al-Wardi put it, to its intelligence-gathering within Muslim communities as a whole. Regular meetings took place between FBI liaisons and Arab and Muslim organizations, where cultural sensitivity trainings and information about the Patriot Act, from the point of view of law enforcement, were exchanged. As a result of this sensitizing, FBI agents began showing up on their early-morning visits bearing extra head scarves for the women of the house, to save them time as they got ready to be questioned and searched.
Muslim communities from San Diego to Chicago to Minneapolis felt pressed into a precarious relationship with law enforcement. They were being urged to cooperate with the authorities in order to prevent another terrorist attacks, and yet the cooperation still carried repercussions.
"We don't assume when we contact someone they're a terrorist or are going to be supporting terrorists or espousing radical views," an FBI official in San Diego said. "We're there to ferret it out and seek their assistance. If it escalates into something that gives us cause to believe they may be involved, then that's a different story."
In 2003, the Bureau ominously ordered all its supervisors to count the number of mosques and Muslims in their field divisions as part of their anti-terrorism work. A congressional briefing leaked to the New York Times revealed that the tally was being used to "establish a yardstick" for how many investigations and intelligence warrants an office could be expected to produce.
"It's become a cooperation test," Al-Wardi said. "For community groups, the impression is that we have nothing to hide, we might as well engage these agencies and act as a buffer zone, so we can ask questions and they can respond to us and maybe that will alleviate some of the assaults on our community members...Unfortunately, it hasn't translated into that at all."
Hamid Khan, director of the South Asian Network in Southern California, said his organization was immediately wary of collaborating with FBI officials. "Just the basic definition of how they are defining a terrorist, how they are defining counterterrorism-based on their approach, there are terrorists in an ethnic community and you use a broad brush to render the whole community suspect," he said.
Instead of sitting down with community relations representatives, Khan and others wanted to meet with the regional officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and "raise questions to really challenge the ongoing policies that impact us." But for more than a year, their requests had been denied.
In early 2005, two developments hit Los Angeles that mirrored changes in immigration law throughout the country. First the Sheriff's Department began a pilot program where its officers would enforce immigration law. They would determine the legal status of immigrants held in county jails. Sheriffs would then issue notices to appear for deportation. This new agreement, advocates saw, was a first step for local agencies to take on federal immigration authority. It countered the city's longstanding policy of prohibiting LAPD officers from questioning people about their immigration status, known as Special Order 40.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was a real defeat for us,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Al-Wardi. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The effect on immigrant communities was devastating.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Then, in March 2005, months of rumblings among law enforcement and immigration authorities about getting tough on human trafficking and drug smuggling in the Southwest finally erupted into a full-scale nationwide crackdown. Operation Community Shield, a joint task force of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, began on March 14 with the arrests of 103 members of Salvadoran gang members.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, emerged from Los Angeles during the 1980s and now reportedly had thousands of members across the U.S. and in Central America. After years of urban warfare between rival gangs and with police gang units, and an increasingly violent homecoming in Central America, the MS-13 was now portrayed as the latest "homeland security risk."
In Los Angeles, federal agents used gang databases collected by local police to arrest 17 suspected gang leaders. The operation followed a precedent set during the roundups of Muslim suspects after September 11-use administrative immigration violations in pursuit of a criminal investigation. Speculation circulated in the media of a connection between Mara Salvatrucha and Al Qaeda, though Department of Homeland Security officials admitted they had no evidence and that such an alliance was improbable.
"Once the idea of a connection is out there, the damage is done," said Alex Sanchez, the program director of Homies Unidos, a gang prevention program based in Los Angeles and San Salvador. At their office in Pico-Union, the same streets where Mara Salvatrucha originated, Sanchez spoke urgently just days after the new crackdown was launched.
"Mara Salvatrucha is a gang basically composed of many immigrants that have issues regarding themselves and the way they view their lives, and they get it out through this type of violence against other gang members. They're not focusing on the community, on civilians, their focus is to fight other gangs. But the way they're portrayed now is this vicious gang that's out to get anybody, and that is unfounded."
Sanchez should know, he had been a member of Mara Salvatrucha throughout his youth in Los Angeles. He was also deported to El Salvador in 1994, for a car theft conviction, and managed to return the following year to rejoin his family. His time in El Salvador opened his eyes to the violence wrought from decades of death squads and human rights atrocities.
"Down there, what they're doing is instead of beating somebody up with a baton, they're actually killing them," he said. "What we experienced as immigrants getting deported was a violence we had never seen before. You also experience the difference between being poor here and being poor down there, which is a big difference. My aunty had a store, and I saw people go in and buy one egg and four people eating out of that one egg with four tortillas. So what I saw of poverty down there, it's real poverty."
According to Sanchez, targeting the MS-13 as a homeland security threat masks a different problem that had nothing to do with international terrorism and everything to do with urban disinvestment in the U.S. and decades of violence in Central America. The MS-13 members came from a world of three strikes laws, gang injunctions and adult sentencing for juveniles. They came from a place of death squads paid by the Salvadoran government to kill union organizers, guerillas, and later on, criminal deportees. Gangs were indeed a problem, Sanchez said, but the solution didn't lie in painting them as "urban terrorists."
When the police crack down on gangs, a lot of innocent people get swept up in the process, Sanchez explained. The police cast a wide net that includes not just gang members but those who knew them, were related to them, had other immigration violations or drug charges, or just simply looked like a suspect.
"I see more violence coming from this. I see people forced to move, more kids without fathers or mothers, more families on welfare," Sanchez said.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to get any sympathy for gang members though when even the law-abiding immigrants faced harsh measures. That divide was the biggest problem, Sanchez believed, for those who opposed the spread of more repressive enforcement policies. The gang members, after all, were the children of the refugee and immigrant families who had survived tangled, brutal histories of violence and poverty.
"It's all a circle, you know," he reflected. "Who are they targeting next? If we don't see the bigger picture, we're going to have the government in our community snatching people out of their homes, at night, at dawn, any time of the day, from their work, in front of their children. Who's gonna be next? It's not just the hard core criminal, 'cause they already went after him."
With the live broadcasts of the 9/11 commission hearings over the past few months, the nation has finally begun to see a serious reckoning of the Bush Administration's counterterrorism policy. As important as it is, the debate stirred by Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice's testimony has only scratched the surface of national security issues. The commission issued a long-overdue criticism April 16 of the government's targeting of immigrants in national security policies, saying that the roundups and registrations of Arabs and Muslims failed to apprehend any actual terrorists or contribute to national security.
This was the commission's first admission that cracking down on immigrants doesn't make any of us safer.
Now that the 9/11 commission has touched on one of the worst abuses of the Bush response to Sept. 11, it is up to the rest of us to crack open this debate by connecting the dots between the government's mishandling of the war on terrorism abroad and at home.
The post-Sept. 11 treatment of immigrants and communities of color is not simply a passing phenomenon. It is a sustained reality that can be named. When an entity uses policies and procedures to justify discriminatory treatment based on race, that's called institutional racism. But what is more insidious is that this racism has been normalized and legitimized through national security policies.
The damage done to immigrant communities continues, and the public still does not know the context and scale of the problem. Since these policies were implemented, up to 13,000 immigrants have been ordered deported. The majority are economic migrants and refugees, yet they are being prosecuted as public enemy number one in the domestic war against terror.
These policies are based on the idea that immigrants' interests are opposed to those of the native-born. But immigrants have a right to safety and security as well. As Mohsin Zaheer, a Pakistani resident of Brooklyn, NY, put it, "I live here with my family, so the security of this country is as dear to me as anyone. I want my kids to be safe."
Since the advent of "special registration," an estimated 20,000 Pakistanis have fled Brooklyn in order to avoid detention. In New Jersey, which has a large Muslim and Arab population, the FBI has questioned nearly 60,000 people since Sept. 11, according to agency spokesman Steven Kodak. Jersey City's immigrant community is so heavily scrutinized by law enforcement that local residents and even several mainstream newspapers call it "Terror Town."
In Texas, immigrants have been denied housing because some landlords and apartment associations are encouraged to screen applicants for potential terrorists. Latino and Asian immigrants have been raided and fired from airport security and service jobs. And across the board, immigrants of color have been increasingly subjected to a sustained climate of fear, harassment and surveillance.
Scapegoating provides no real security for anyone but has raised levels of intolerance and discrimination. This tone was set at the very top. Bush Administration policies of military trials, indefinite detentions and collective punishment of immigrant communities gave a green light to the states, cities and hatemongers to do the same. As the body count climbs in Iraq, we are likely to see in increase in hate crimes at home.
This April 13, Asa Hutchinson, the Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security, announced major changes to the department's immigration detention policy resulting from last year's Justice Department report chronicling widespread abuse and racial profiling. These changes are a step in the right direction, but America also needs a full accounting of the impact that post-911 policies had on immigrant communities.
In truth, a counterterrorism strategy based on fear and racial profiling has undermined security at home. Not only did immigrant Americans lose a measure of security, but all Americans were deprived of the truth about Sept. 11 under cover of an anti-immigrant frenzy.
Tram Nguyen is the Executive Editor of Colorlines Magazine, a national magazine of race, culture and action.
Maria, a single mother, had supported her family by cleaning office buildings in San Jose ever since she arrived in the U.S. 11 years ago from Mexico. But after 9/11, she was fired for being undocumented. "This did not matter to them before," she explained. "They hired me and paid me $12 an hour for a decade. But I lost my job and couldn't find another one for nine months."
During that time, the family relied on help from their neighbors, and eventually had to ask for food from churches.
"Soon everyone around me was out of work. Everyone tried to help one another, but with so many people in trouble, it was impossible," Maria recalled. "I was so depressed and I still am, because I feel my dignity was taken away. My family's safety was taken away."
Maria (who asked not to reveal her last name) was one of nine immigrant speakers who shared their experiences during a community forum Sept. 25, held at a local mosque in Santa Clara, CA. The forum brought out local public officials, including state Assemblyman Manny Diaz (D-San Jose) and the district director for Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), along with more than 150 community members to witness personal testimonies of racial profiling, economic hardship, and harassment post-9/11.
"These are not isolated incidents, but a glimpse into what's happened to thousands of people. Let's make their stories our stories -- a part of the public record," said Gina Acebo, a program director at the Applied Research Center, which organized the event as part of half a dozen "Public's Truth" forums being held around the country.
Jaime Escober, 69, worked for four years as a baggage screener while his wife Lilia worked as a pre-boarding screener at San Jose's airport. After the Federal Aviation Authority made citizenship a requirement for all airport security workers in November 2001, both Escober and his wife lost their jobs. They have been unable to find work and have lost their homes and cars.
"We have not been able to send money anymore to our children (in the Philippines)," Escober said. "This is an injustice. We were doing our job well."
Kavneet Singh Alag, a Bay Area activist, described the shootings of Sikh cab drivers and store owners whose turbans have made them one of the most targeted groups for racial backlash. After two murders in Arizona, and three cab drivers shot in Northern California in the last 11 weeks, Singh said, the Sikh community is wondering "not what's going to happen next, but really, when is it going to happen?
Another speaker related the story of Mr. "B," an Iranian who was in the process of updating his immigration status when he showed up for "special registration." The policy, begun toward the end of 2002, required non-citizens from 25 countries to submit to photographing and fingerprinting at federal immigration facilities.
As a result of coming forward, Mr. "B" was interrogated, shackled, and moved around jail cells in San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado, Bakersfield, and San Diego before he was released on bond to await a deportation hearing. During the special registration process thousands of other non-citizens have been deported.
Kathy Takeda, a member of the Japanese American Citizen's League, spoke for her father, Ed Takeda, who recalled watching his father being taken from their San Jose home by FBI agents at the start of World War II. The rest of the family soon afterward was interned at Gila River in Arizona, with no word of their father's whereabouts for five months.
Takeda said that the comparisons of September 11 to Pearl Harbor brought back traumatic memories to his father. "It really got to Dad. He said, 'Here we go again. They'll be hauled off to jail.' It's so eerie that he knew exactly what would happen-because it had happened to him and his family."
An Indian American, Ms. "A," shared an experience of racial profiling and brutality at the hands of police in nearby Mountain View. Stopped for a broken taillight, Ms. "A" was asked "Are you a Muslim? Do you celebrate Ramadan?" When she replied that she was a Hindu, the officers grabbed her arm and pushed her against the car, leaving large bruises. She was later accused of resisting arrest and detained in a San Jose jail.
"I've lost my job, now I can't find another job," she said. "I don't drive 10 miles outside my house because I'm frightened of the police."
Rev. Juan Saavedra, a pastor at La Trinidad United Methodist Church, is Native American but has "spent my whole life being treated as an immigrant" because of his Spanish-speaking background. Saavedra read from Jewish Scriptures as he led the closing reflection to the event.
"Do not take advantage of an alien, a foreigner. Pay him his wages each day for he is worthy," Saavedra read. "Give a man or woman his or her dignity. Don't steal it from them."
Abdul Hatifie hosts a weekly radio show broadcast to the Afghan community in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Along with announcements of community events and discussions of Afghan culture, the Alameda doctor tries to talk about discrimination and anti-immigrant scapegoating.
"(Listeners) hear me talk of people's stories and politics and they ask, 'Why do you say these things? Why can't you just stay quiet?'" I try to explain to them that to say the truth is not a crime," Hatifie said. "I am a person who has the right to speak, but now, in this country, we are taking out the Constitution, we are taking away our rights. The U.S. is not supposed to be like this."
Hatifie was one of 14 immigrants who shared their stories during a public hearing May 10 hosted at Buena Vista United Methodist Church, a Japanese American congregation in Alameda, California. Organized by the Applied Research Center, the testimonials were the first in a series of "Public's Truth" forums planned around the country to highlight the impact of the "war on terrorism" and national security on the lives of immigrants, refugees, and communities of color.
At least 1,200 immigrants have been secretly detained in the last two years, and the federal government still hasn't released any information on their names and whereabouts. Thousands more deported or forced to flee "special registration" requirements, FBI interrogations, and INS raids. More than 10,000 immigrant workers have lost their jobs as a result of Operation Tarmac raids at airports, citizenship requirements for screeners, and social security "no-match letters" used to fire workers.
Despite widespread fear in their communities, participants at the forum were outspoken in condemning the policies and practices that have unjustly targeted them.
"Why is it acceptable for our government to tear families apart?" asked Theresa Allyn, a student at UC Berkeley whose mother was deported to the Philippines after 30 years in the U.S. Allyn's mother, a teacher, fell "out of status" with immigration authorities after she lost her green card during a 1999 robbery. Complications over replacing her green card status eventually led to her deportation in January 2003.
Other speakers related stories of attacks across a spectrum of ethnic communities and social sectors. Marwa Rifahie, an 18-year-old Egyptian American, described harassment at her high school from a teacher who called her a "Nazi." Former airport worker Erlinda Valencia recalled English-proficiency tests and citizenship requirements that resulted in her lay-off after 14 years as a screener at San Francisco airport. Community activists Kawal Ulanday and Rebecca Gordon described government scrutiny of their political activities--being visited by the FBI and put on a "no-fly" list for profiling at airports, respectively--that pointed to a larger "clamping down on all our freedoms."
The setting of the hearing, in a Japanese American Methodist church, held particular significance for audience members as Rev. Michael Yoshii drew parallels between the post-9/11 climate and the climate that led to World War II internment. This hearing, along with its antecedent held by the Hate Free Zone of Seattle last year, is modeled after national hearings held during the Japanese American redress movement during the 1980s.
One of the Public's Truth testimonials belonged to Alba Witkin, an 83-year-old resident of Berkeley, Calif. who worked with American Friends' Service Committee during the 1940s to help Japanese American internees eligible to leave the camps for placement at colleges and universities.
"I know that it is hard to understand why people didn't seem to react to the Japanese internment. A lot of people ask me how could average citizens sit back and let that happen," she recalled. "But a lot of people didn't know the full extent of what was happening. The press didn't report it. I think that is a commentary on the media in 1942 as well as the media today. I still don't think we're getting all the stories."
Future Public's Truth forums are planned for San Jose, Los Angeles, and other cities nationwide.
According to Rev. Yoshii, "We need to establish a public record of these egregious violations and take action to protect the civil liberties and human rights of all families, regardless of their race, religion, or country of origin."
Tram Nguyen is the editor of ColorLines magazine.