For the nationwide movement against police violence, the news of charges being brought against the six Baltimore officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray has been a welcome development. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and an organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement, is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a little bit of a morale booster,” she told me in an interview, “I think that this kind of gave activists in the streets that rejuvenation and that energy they need to continue doing what they’re doing.”
Sarsour was in Asheville, North Carolina earlier this month for the America Healing Conference, a four-day dialogue on racial justice and community healing sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. There she spoke on the struggle against police brutality and the connections between Arab American and African American experiences at the hands of law enforcement. For the past 14 years, Sarsour, who also heads the National Network for Arab American Communities, has worked tirelessly to fight police brutality and racial profiling against black and brown communities of all backgrounds.
Sarsour’s work against police violence began after September 11. “I found myself part of a community that was targeted by state violence and unwarranted surveillance,” she said during a panel on intergenerational struggle. “Men were being picked up from our community, fathers and brothers, where men disappeared off the face of the earth from places like Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn.”
According to a 2003 investigation by the Justice Department, an uncounted number of Arab American immigrants were held in “preventive detention” for up to eight months at a time following 9/11. Often held without charge or evidence of any wrongdoing, detainees were nevertheless bound by a “no bond policy” that effectively closed off their access to the justice system. Hundreds more were deported on minor offenses, according to the report.
In response, Sarsour soon began working with the newly formed Arab American Association to defend the rights of Arab immigrants in and around her neighborhood in Brooklyn. “It was one of those moments where you kind of didn’t have a choice,” says Sarsour. “This is the community I was born and raised in.”
Fourteen years later, there is still enormous work to be done. It was just last year that the New York Police Department disbanded the Demographic Unit, a secret surveillance unit that collected detailed information on dozens of Muslim communities in New York City. The unit, which began under CIA auspices and resulted in no convictions or leads, ended only after the Associated Press ran a series of investigative stories on it, sparking a national outcry. “It will take years to undo the trauma that the American Muslim community has endured,” Sarsour told Democracy Now! at the time.
And while Arab surveillance is no longer official policy in New York City—not that it doesn’t still happen—national players like the FBI don’t exactly have clean records either. According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2011, the FBI engages in regular, large-scale racial profiling and surveillance. Targets reportedly include Arab American communities in Michigan.
While Sarsour continues to fight back against abusive practices like these, she says her approach has shifted dramatically since the death of Michael Brown and the nationwide response it provoked. “I realized that what my community was dealing with in the past 14 years was just the expansion of a wound that we never healed in this country,” she said during the panel. “Unless we understand that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of black people in this country, none of us are going to be liberated.”
Not long after protests against Brown’s death began, Sarsour founded Muslims for Ferguson to build solidarity between Arab American and black communities and broaden the fight against police brutality. She also participated in Ferguson October, traveling to Missouri last fall to help connect the struggles of black and Arab America.
Although it’s primarily seen in terms of the African American struggle against police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement has long been remarkably diverse and inclusive. As the movement’s cofounder Alicia Garza recently told Yes! Magazine, “Our diversity in leadership is an important component. We have diverged from a model that is about following one charismatic leader, usually a man who is straight.”
Sarsour says that this commitment to an inclusive, intersectional vision of justice was a big draw for her. “I’m a woman, I’m Muslim, I’m Palestinian, I come from an urban city, I’m also a parent. I think what’s very beautiful about the Black Lives Matter movement is that you’re able to bring all those different areas into one room with the understanding that they’re all going to be accepted.”
Indeed, as Sarsour recently told Colorlines, the Ferguson protests last summer opened significant space for activists of all backgrounds to share and connect in the struggle for justice. As protests in Ferguson entered their second week, groups like the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans released letters of solidarity to activists on the ground.
It was also during the Ferguson protests that activists in Gaza tweeted hard-won advice on dealing with police tactics like tear gas and rubber bullets. One activist, Abbas Sarsour, tweeted side-by-side images of activists in Ferguson and Gaza tossing tear gas canisters back toward police. The caption read, “The oppressed stands with the oppressed.” For many people the dialogue connected Israeli occupation tactics with police practices in urban America for the first time.
Of course, for now, all eyes are on Baltimore. This week, Baltimore prosecutors released a document stating that because Gray was arrested before police had found a knife he was carrying, the arrest itself was illegal. The report comes not long after the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation of Baltimore police practices. Whether or not police in Baltimore are ultimately convicted—and Linda Sarsour isn’t overly optimistic—she says even getting this far is a significant victory. “It never would have happened if it wasn’t for the young people on the streets,” she says. “And it sends a message to young people to stay in the streets, stand in your power, and keep demanding justice.”