The Importance of Our Image

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“Please step forward to the spot marked on the ground. Look forward at the camera and state your name clearly for the recording. Remember, don’t be nervous; you’ll do just fine”. These were the comforting words, along with a warm smile, that I received from one of the assistants of the casting director for my audition.

Almost five years ago today, I was one of the many people to turn out for the open casting call held in Minneapolis for the film Captain Phillips, a film depicting the events that took place off the coast of Somalia where pirates overtook a cargo ship captained by an American. Out of the hundreds that attended the first open call, I found myself among the dozens that received a callback for the second round. I didn’t find my path to Hollywood, but Somalis had found themselves a place in cinema, reaching a global stage. However, the concern now was if it was to our benefit or detriment.

The Brian Coyle Community Center that held the casting call years ago put on a free screening to the community this past Saturday of a new film making its way in the festival circuit. The film, A Stray, is critically acclaimed, winning awards at local film festivals such as the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival where I heard of it as a volunteer and South by Southwest Film Festival where it first premiered. The lead actor for the film, Barkhad Abdirahman, was also a star in Phillips. He acted alongside Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (who also is from the Minneapolis Somali community).

The film was a great representation not only of the local scenes and landmarks of the Twin Cities, but it also did a phenomenal job portraying of Somalis living in Minnesota. The film brings the scenes of a family’s home to the forefront, consisting of hardworking mothers and older siblings taking care of their younger sisters and brothers. Images of the Somali malls come across the screen and give a familiar atmosphere of the local shops where Somalis purchase clothing and goods from. To an outside audience, these scenes invite them into an intimate experience that may seem foreign to them. The use of language in the film was elaborate, tastefully mixing Somali and English including subtitles. Luckily, the film stayed authentic to the Somali viewer, like myself, who appreciate the cultural and linguistic subtleties.

Films like A Stray have a great benefit to the communities they depict, as well as a responsibility. The director, Musa Syeed, is an accomplished filmmaker that has won awards for past projects at Sundance and other distinguished festivals. His inclusive approach to his latest film has prioritized local talent and shaped the narrative around cultural identities juxtaposing with an urban environment in Minneapolis. The story is centered on the life of a young Somali man going through a hard time with family, friends and his own personal struggle. This is a theme many young Somali men can relate to. Much of the youth face disadvantages for employment, education and economic mobility, which the film poignantly touched on. Although there is a need for authentic stories positively portraying the Somali community of Minnesota, much of the financing and attention is focused on larger productions that fall short.

Somali-Canadian artist and musician, K’Naan has come to Minneapolis along with an HBO production team to film their proposed pilot for the show, “Mogadishu, Minnesota”. The series takes place in the largest Somali community of the diaspora and focuses on the struggles of the average family, including their efforts to adapt to a new country. Information leaked about this production about a year ago with the working title, “The Recruiters”. This gave many people the impression that the series would focus on Minnesota’s history of terror recruitment years ago with the disappearance of many youths suspected of joining the Somalia-based terror group Al-Shabaab.

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Recently the fears around radicalization and recruitment have rekindled due to concerns of ISIS abroad. Nine young men from Minnesota have recently been charged with conspiracy to join a terrorist group, and three of them have been found guilty after pleading innocent and are currently awaiting sentencing.

Many in the community see this production as opportunist for those involved, including trying to hijack a situation the community has been facing and amplify it as a commodity. Not only do Somalis face the challenge of countering narratives from news pundits, but they also have to combat the stories told without their voices considered.

The opposition to the production has manifested into protests and public meetings where residents are vocal on why they see this production as harmful and erodes the work they have tirelessly done in order to preserve the Somali image. During a West Bank Block Party (an annual gathering organized by the West Bank Community Coalition), K’Naan appeared as a special guest to perform some of his well-known songs. Soon after he took the stage, many in the crowd protested the performer, which I documented in a video posted last month. Some held up signs against his affiliation in the HBO project and ties to Kathryn Bigelow, who was at one point the executive producer of the production. The block party ended with a few arrests, and many in the crowd got pepper-sprayed.

Bigelow’s involvement is controversial because of her past films, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, where she gained great recognition. However, her fame was at the expense of promoting demeaning images of the Muslim community. Having her name tied to the production made many people hesitant to have any enthusiasm for this proposed series and some even organized efforts to block its launch.

In their path to seek rights to film at the iconic Cedar-Riverside high-rise neighborhoods, the production team was struck down with a unanimous decision from the Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council, which is an independent nonprofit group that represents the residents of the area in question. Although the team is allowed to take external shots of the buildings on Cedar Avenue, they have to go elsewhere for any interior shots.

The pilot has a large budget of $5.5 million for its initial production and if the series is picked up, it could lead to a ten-episode season with each episode estimating to be around $5 million. Local officials, such as Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and City Councilor Abdi Warsame, expressed support for the productions and highlighted its benefits to the local economy and job prospects for residents. It isn’t clear how the money would go into the community by distorting their depiction to a larger audience and to what degree residents would benefit financially after years of hardship. Filming has begun and is scheduled to continue until the end of the month.

The community feels the effects of the continued stereotyping of Somalis as potential radicals. The recent mall attack in Saint Cloud has increased this concern for the state’s community of Somalis, as others face backlash and discrimination. There is also a surge of hate crimes against Muslims around the country.

A few young men were shot at over the summer, and bullets struck some of them. This took place during the month of Ramadan, which implies that it happened solely from their appearance and faith. Somalis are also facing cases of discrimination from law enforcement through surveillance and profiling which pairs their ethnic background and religious faith as identifiers of potential radicalization.

The Countering Violent Extremism initiative has had a foothold in the Somali community of Minnesota by financing social services to private groups for their community in partnership with law enforcement agencies. This partnership has left many concerned. After much debate and pushback, there has been transparency in the funding so it no longer tied to law enforcement. Funds have since been allocated to the Department of Employment and Economic Development of Minnesota as a part of the Equity Fund that Governor Mark Dayton had signed into law to help assist those in our state’s community that are facing disparities (such as Somali and immigrant youth, those with disabilities and veterans). I, along with others, am a part of the review panel assisting DEED in their assessment of proposals for grants given by this fund. With the organizations involved we hope to stimulate changes in our community at large.

As our narrative grows and more people hear about individual stories from the Somali diaspora in the Twin Cities, the hope is that they hear authentic stories originating close to home. Communities such as these have been exploited and commoditized for entertainment with the news cycle and Hollywood scripts centering their fear-driven stories to the masses. Somalis as Black, Muslim, immigrants and refugees find themselves at the crossroads of apathy. The broader communities feel complacent with their mistreatment because images stemming from the media induce a kind of reluctance to our experiences. This is why positive narratives of our image have to be circulated, and others that grasp at the negative should be scrutinized and cautious in their attempts to depict a multilayered and nuanced group of people. We have a lot to share, just like any group of people that make up this great state.

The Spying Has Already Begun With More Surveillance to Come

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Senator Ted Cruz of Texas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

 

How Ted Cruz’s Constitutional Hypocrisy Shields the Left of Its Complicity

Former Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz made a public statement the morning of March 22nd in light of the Brussels attack. With dozens dead and hundreds injured, the act of terror had the city of Brussels reeling, and policy and security experts scrambled to find solutions to prevent further terror plots from occurring again. Immediately following the attack, Cruz’s direct statements did not waver, including calling for the surveillance of Muslim communities. Even before the victims of the attacks could even be identified, Cruz took what some would call  ‘opportunistic and politically-motivated’ actions.

Fortunately, a wave of discontent gave shame to Cruz’s comments about patrolling Muslim communities throughout the United States and Europe. Arguably, the most notably appalled by Senator Cruz’s comments were the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blassio and the New York City Police commissioner, William “Bill” Bratton. The pair held a joint press conference, in which they admonished the senator’s comments and reminded him that the country doesn’t need a president that doesn’t respect the values that form the foundation of this country.” After the public statements, the men seemed proud of their work and literally patted one another on the back. In the following days after his public appearance, Chief Bratton continued to write an oped on the subject, scorching Cruz’s understanding of the NYPD’s spying efforts.

Cruz is convinced that the NYPD spying unit came to an end under the pressure of political correctness, while Bratton maintains that the goal of the Demographics Unit was to map-out the diverse nature of the city and dwindle down to two officers. Both men are wrong and this shows an attempt by the chief to gaslight his readers on the true nature of what happened in the department years ago. Mayor de Blassio himself isn’t innocent either as a quick look into the past and recent court filings will show.

Mayor de Blassio’s office found itself in the middle of a lawsuit brought forth by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the nonprofit group Muslim Advocates in June 2012 on behalf of 11 plaintiffs from the New Jersey area. The plaintiffs consisted of mosque leaders, former and current college students, a school administrator and an Iraq war veteran. They were all convinced that they were unconstitutionally spied on, solely based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. A timeline of the lawsuit in Hassan v. City of New York can be viewed here.

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Officer monitoring security footage in the New York Police Department. Image Source: Information Security Newspaper

The first lawsuit was struck down by a federal judge who said that there was nothing unconstitutional about spying on Muslim communities in the areas of New York and New Jersey. The judge sided with the mayor’s office, stating that the suit was only brought in after the discovery of the NYPD’s spying by the press and that no sole individual in the suit was mentioned by name. However, with much persistence, the plaintiffs were able to have their voices heard in an appeal set by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the fall of 2015. It seems as though before Cruz’s call for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, de Blassio was not only a supporter of such spying, but a staunch defender by his consistent scapegoating on the press that reported the unconstitutional tactics being conducted by the NYPD.

With all of this information permeating to the public courts, who would be deemed responsible for opening up that can of worms? Well that would be accredited to the Associated Press’ reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo.They led the efforts in uncovering the intricate and well-funded spy unit rising out of the New York City police department. The reports laid out details about a sector of the NYPD named the Demographics Unit. They uncovered unconstitutional tactics of information-gathering, transferring information to the Central Intelligence Agency through unofficial channels, and releasing informants for unwarranted spying with little or no leads on crimes committed.

The reports from the AP consisted of mutiple documents from the program itself, verified by officers working within the department. The American Civil Liberties Union compiled a factsheet with an outline of the work done by NYPD’s intelligence unit, which spanned over several states and its selective spying on “ancestries of interest”. The AP also profiled an informant who worked with the unit who spoke about his job as a “raker”, in which he spied on Muslim student groups and gathered information around the city.

The most revealing aspects the AP’s investigation into the unit was its close partnership with former members of the CIA that lead the department’s intelligence efforts, as it is illegal for the CIA to conduct spying domestically. Former agent David Cohen was brought into the NYPD fold only a few months after the attack on the twin towers. He, along with Larry Sanchez (another former CIA agent), were put in charge of the intelligence unit and tasked with training NYC’s finest on information-gathering techniques. One of the tactics included using traffic stops as a means of weeding out potential informants or suspicious activity.

Cohen’s previous unconventional practices also led to the illegal detention of protestors by the Hudson River during the 2004 GOP convention, which has since led the city to settle at nearly $18 million dollars in damages. Anyone can see that Cohen’s CIA training and use of force is doing more harm to the city than good, but it seems as though it’s the direction city leaders wish to take.

Where was the press? Only the AP’s reporters paid attention, but others should have been following-up on their revelations about the unit’s unwarranted spying. To the contrary, many publications attacked the AP for their work with little follow-up. Publications such as the NY Post and NY Daily News wrote editorials that bashed critics of the NYPD spy unit, as well as the AP reporters for their publications.

While questioning the relevancy of this information, it helps to listen back to Cruz’s call to action. One of the communities Cruz consistently points to as an example of needing patrolling, is the Somali Muslim community in the Twin Cities. This is a community that has suffered from the focus of law enforcement and terrorist recruiters in the past, and now both forces hope to increase their efforts among the community.

In the past years, Minnesota has had countless numbers of young men leave behind their lives for the battlefields of East Africa by joining the terrorist group known as Al Shabaab. That brought Somalis into the spotlight early on with initiatives to stem the flow of recruits leaving the country as far back as 2009. ISIS’s effort to fill up its ranks with local Minnesotans has amplified the threat of recruitment in the past years. Due to this, many law enforcement officials and community leaders have proposed initiatives aimed at suppressing recruitment efforts by investing in the Somali community.

Behind much of this push for federal and local law enforcement involvement is Minnesota District Attorney General Andrew Luger, who has steadfastly insisted that the community leaders would pave the counter violent extremism program. In February of 2015, a delegation of Somali Minnesotans joined the attorney general and others at a summit on countering violent extremism held at the White House. Some say this cooperation of community leaders is needed in order to rid the state of its fears on recruitment, but others say it belittles efforts already being made by Somali leaders and is only a front for governmental overreach.

According to the Intercept, previous community outreach programs associated with local law enforcement used the guise of social service provisions as a tool for amassing information on what they saw as potential recruits for extremism. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law obtained documents from 2009 that depicted the true nature of these programs focused on gathering intelligence. Michael Price, an attorney at the Brennan Center, was shocked that there was little distinction for those uninterested in the services provided by the outreach groups and how quickly they were labeled and suspected of wrongdoing.

Tactics such as these have driven many community advocates and leaders to grow weary of programs offered through law enforcement or joint cooperation with these agencies. Organizations ranging from student associations, religious centers and nonprofit groups came together to voice their concerns in a letter titled: Minnesota Muslims Concerned About New ‘Stigmatizing, Divisive, and Ineffective’ CVE Pilot Program. The letter is signed by over 40 different groups that share the concern of intelligence-gathering over their respective and collective communities.

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of Minnesota’s chapter in the Council on American Islamic Relations, has been a notable opponent on the dragnet spying over the Somali Muslim community. In early April of 2016, CAIR-MN held an event at the State Office Building with many local leaders that shared the same observations about the program. Some of the leaders included former NAACP Saint Paul, chapter president Nathaniel Khaliq, and Black Lives Matter Minnesota chapter leader, Rashad Turner, who is a recent convert. They all expressed doubts about the true motives behind the CVE programs being offered.

In connection, House Democrats in the Minnesota’s Senate have been pushing for funding for programs as well. Representative Phyllis Khan proposed a $2 million dollar budget out of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus for programs aimed at reducing the flow of recruits leaving Minnesota from the Somali community. The talk of budgeting and programming proposals shows a heightened focus on the community, and recent events dovetail why.

One of the young men being accused (who has been arrested for his suspected support of the terrorist group ISIS) became the sixth to plead guilty to charges leveled against him. Federal agents intercepted Hamza Ahmed and three others on their way to the JFK Airport as they traveled there via Greyhound. The agents allowed them to travel back to Minnesota, but upon their return the agents decided to arrest and charge the young men.

Ahmed is one of nine young men (aged in their late teens to early 20s) accused of conspiring to partake in terror plots abroad and give material aid to ISIS. The rest are set for trial this month of May 2016. Many people advocating a watchful eye over the Somali community have used these young men as examples for the need of the CVE initiatives, while critics express the view that many of these charges are overblown, pointing to the fact that so far the main evidence used against them has come from a paid informant who received $41,000 from the FBI to entrap them in order to bolster their claims of recruitment, even though it’s through their efforts.

A judge has allowed the defense to incorporate this new information on the informant for future proceedings as they move forward. The bureau is known for their bait-and-switch practices, with past reports detailing how the FBI is behind almost all major terror plots hatched in the U.S..

The efforts to redress the CVE program’s efforts in the state have continued on through media campaigns and AG Luger’s constant outreach. The StarTribune wrote an editorial on the program, hoping its lighthearted and cheerful take could persuade the public that law enforcement-associated community outreach programs are a beautiful thing and not governmental intrusion, by literally using the word “beautiful” in the title.

The article is titled: Countering Extremism in Minnesota: A Beautiful Goal, Barely Begun. The article spotlights the Cedar-Riverside community of Minneapolis and gives access to the West Bank Athletic Club and its soccer coach,  Ahmed Ismail. The authors give  a sad and struggling description of the recreation center and the equipment used by the soccer team. “There are no goal nets at today’s practice and just one soccer ball so worn [that] its patches are barely visible.” The implications here show a community with little resources, which is not far from the truth. However, painting a picture that Somalis are in need of publicly-funded resources solely to root out radicalized members of the community paint them in a one dimensional aspect of constant victimization to the enticing siren calls of extremism.

The StarTribine praised AG Luger’s efforts on community engagement, and fail to report on past discrepancies of spying on Somalis in Minnesota. However,there wanted to do more than to belittle the legitimate worries by Mr. Hussein of CAIR-MN to be weary, and attributed that to the Somalis’ past history in their own country of government abuse instead of the extensive history that the U.S. harbors on civil rights abuses. They also chalked up his concerns to be as ‘overlooking and underestimating’ Minnesota’s good faith, and that he  should be more proud of the changes being made. The article continues with a sob story about their spotlighted community center, which truly is in need for funding. However, their main goal in the article seems to be gaining support for CVE.

As time passes and the courts commence with their trials, Minnesota will surely be seen throughout the country as a recruiting hub for extremist groups as long as the media plays the narrative. Although it is true that there is an issue of terror groups preying upon the young, impressionable and disenfranchised Somalis, it’s up to the greater public not to give into the fears generated by any source of authority hoping to exploit such tragedies for further injustices.

The notion that the Somali Muslim American community in Minnesota is a starter for tracking terrorists is unconstitutional and immoral. Somalis have come to Minnesota for its rich opportunities and inspiring promises for a new future, but to take that away from them and treat them as some sort of “other” would be against the beliefs this country was founded upon. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin so poignantly stated, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”