By Elliot Owen
New America Media
Alex Emslie and Ramsey El-Qare contributed to this article. Click here to listen to Alex’s audio report.
San Francisco civil rights advocates concerned about what they call domestic spying on the city’s Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities are celebrating new legislation signed into law Wednesday, May 9, by Mayor Ed Lee.
The Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance requires San Francisco Police Department officers working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to be bound by local and state laws strictly governing intelligence gathering of First Amendment protected activities like religious worship.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pass the final version of the legislation May 8. Although the board does not have the jurisdiction to influence FBI activity, the ordinance targeting local police participation in the task force is seen by activists as an important step in tackling the much larger issue of unlawful federal surveillance. Advocates are also hopeful that the law will begin to repair the icy relationship between San Francisco’s police department and AMEMSA communities.
“This is a first step in a long way to go for this issue our community is facing,” Yemen-born Arab-American civil rights activist Adel Somaha said. “We want to see these agents stay away from our mosques, which are places of worship, not spy stations. They turn our community environment into a warzone for no reason.”
San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim resubmitted the ordinance to the city’s board of supervisors on April 10 after the mayor vetoed a more detailed version of the policy. The revised version will be implemented by mid-summer.
The final version of the ordinance lacks direct references to existing local intelligence gathering policies and financial restrictions that were in the original, but Kim said it still contains the same protections under a broader reference to the California Constitution.
“The new legislation doesn’t include as many specifics,” said Kim, who authored both versions. She said the new legislation still addresses concerns around racial and religious profiling and transparency of future agreements between local police and the FBI, called Memorandums of Understanding. It also requires the SFPD to report on Joint Terrorism Task Force activity to the city’s Police Commission.
“A lot of mosques are in our district, and a lot of our small business owners are of Arab and Muslim background,” Kim said. “A lot of our constituents said they were fearful of harassment and racial profiling. They were really scared to come out and talk because they were afraid of being further targeted.”
The AMEMSA communities began filing complaints concerning FBI intelligence gathering with civil rights organizations in 2009, Kim said.
Saadi Nasim, a board member of one of the mosques in Kim’s District 6, said his was one of the affected congregations.
“We have open-house Ramadan events where we invite everyone from the community and anyone from the government who wants to come,” Nasim said. “Unfortunately, someone betrayed our trust by approaching individuals and gathering information about them. That’s not why we’re inviting people. If you’re doing that then go get a warrant.”
FBI documents recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Asian Law Caucus and the San Francisco Bay Guardian reference FBI surveillance activities in San Francisco and other Northern California cities between 2004 and 2008. Nasim’s mosque, Al Sabeel, is mentioned in a 2008 FBI document describing “mosque outreach” activities that civil rights organizations allege gathered First Amendment protected information.
“We have students, business leaders and community members that have been interrogated by the FBI at home, at work, at school, at the border,” said Summer Hararah, coordinator for the National Security and Civil Rights Program at Asian Law Caucus. “We know because the people that are questioned come to us.”
While local lawmakers cannot affect FBI activities, advocates hope the ordinance will begin to restore trust between the SFPD and the AMEMSA communities that was damaged by former Police Chief and current District Attorney George Gascón.
Remark has Consequences
Gascón stated in May 2010 that the San Francisco Hall of Justice was susceptible not only to earthquakes, “but also to members of the city’s Middle Eastern community parking a van in front of it and blowing it up.”
The chief’s remarks reverberated throughout Somaha’s community.
“The whole Arab and Muslim community was very upset and angry at those racist comments he made,” Somaha said. “It cost him the trust of our community.”
Not even the mosque was perceived as a safe place to go, Nasim said, adding that attendance at his mosque’s youth group meetings dropped significantly after Gascón’s statement.
“Many parents became afraid of letting their children come here because they might be getting spied on,” he said.
“It’s destruction of community, and I don’t use those words lightly,” Hararah said.
The Coalition for a Safe San Francisco was formed in response to Gascón’s comments, and members brought their concerns to the city’s Human Rights Commission. The commission recommended enforcing civil rights protected by the California Constitution, increasing transparency and oversight of the SFPD, and advocating against federal law enforcement religious and racial profiling.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the recommendations in April 2011.
A Secret Agreement
That same month, the SFPD released the 2007 memorandum of understanding secretly entered into with the FBI.
The agreement expanded the abilities of Joint Terrorism Task Force officers to include the use of informants and surveillance without criminal predicate. It also gave local officers permission to infiltrate meetings of law-abiding organizations.
Suhr issued an order in May that contradicted the FBI agreement, stating that JTTF officers must abide by California law and remain under the police department’s chain of command.
“Civil rights don’t work through verbal assurances,” Hararah said. “We have a Constitution. We have a Bill of Rights. It needs to be law.”
The original ordinance specifically referenced local and state laws protecting privacy. It also sought to codify SFPD intelligence gathering procedures that required reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and approval by the police chief prior to intelligence gathering.
The mayor’s office reached out to the coalition the same day the board passed the original ordinance, said Asian Law Caucus attorney Nasrina Bargzie.
“The mayor’s concern was that he didn’t like the level of specificity in our version of the ordinance,” Bargzie said. “In particular, picking out parts of particular [police] department general orders.”
Although omitted specifically in the new ordinance, all department general orders in addition to other local and state laws are incorporated under an all-inclusive section within the revised legislation, Bargzie said.
The mayor was also concerned with the original ordinance’s requirement that the Police Commission approve any future agreements between the SFPD and FBI, Bargzie said.
“The mayor didn’t want us to be placing barriers on the existing relationship between the police chief and the Police Commission,” Bargzie said. “The commission already has a lot of power over the chief.”
The revised ordinance requires new memorandums of understanding to be submitted for public discussion and comment at a Police Commission meeting, but the commission will not have the power to approve or reject future agreements.
The new ordinance also requires the police chief to provide the Police Commission with an annual public report outlining the department’s work with JTTF during the previous year.
The less specific ordinance will require more vigilance from AMEMSA civil rights activists, Bargzie said.
Regardless of the outcome, Nasim said he is proud of his community’s journey throughout the process.
“In our culture, if something happens to you, you don’t come out and tell everybody, but my community is finally waking up,” Nasim said. “That’s been a great victory. If something happens even a 6-year-old kid at my mosque will say, ‘Know your rights!’”
At publication time, Mayor Ed Lee and Chief of Police Greg Suhr were unavailable for direct comment.