Category Archives: news & critique

Beyond Guantanamo: Draconian Federal Prison Programs Make Front Page of New York Times

Beyond Guantanamo: Draconian Federal Prison Programs Make Front Page of New York Times

“The new Guantanamo” is what New York Times – Washington Bureau Chief, Scott Shane, calls “an archipelago of federal prisons that stretches across the country, hidden away on back roads.”  From the ADX Florence, CO, to the “Communication Management Units,” facilities in Marion, IL, and Terre Haute, ID, to the “ADMAX Unit” at FMC Carswell, TX, (although the FBOP denies is a female CMU), all are political prison programs with glaring racial and ethnic disparity, and have an un-ignorable demographic of inmates who have politically charged cases.

The United States prides itself as a country that has no political prisoners.  Perhaps the inception of camp X-Ray at Guantanamo was an attempt to semantically side-step that argument.  The US, however, can no longer avoid that argument since it instituted the CMU programs within the US federal prison system.  In an effort to “manage communications” of men and women perceived as “terrorists” the CMUs and the ADMAX Unit at FMC Carswell, TX effectively strip its wards of their voices, by denying them access to the press, by vetting their correspondence, by denying or severely limiting access to phone calls, and by putting an end to contact visitation with their families.    Each case designated to these programs deserves a voice, deserves renewed access to due process, and privileged communications with their legal counsel.  Sparrow will continue to press for transparency and to hold those who have bypassed dude process rights accountable.

Read Scott Shane’s entire feature in The New York Times

Occupy Wall Street & the Legacy of Martin Luther King

Occupy Wall Street & the Legacy of Martin Luther King


I’ve been pondering a lot about Martin Luther King, lately; more than usual. Every day, down at Liberty Plaza, I can’t help but think that, had he not been murdered, he would be with us. This was especially salient on Tuesday night, October 18, when I did the People’s Mic with Jesse Jackson. Whatever one thinks of Rev. Jackson’s politics, the man was an associate of the late, great Dr. King. The image of a young Jackson, standing to the right of Dr. King, on that fateful Memphis balcony, is emblazoned on the collective conscious of all who revere justice.

I’ve long been awash in indignation at the co-opting of King’s legacy. Much as the capitalist war-makers have done with other historical figures who devoted themselves to peace and justice, Dr. King has been hijacked and bowdlerized; molded into a neat little figure who fits nicely into Americana.  The egregiousness of this was never clearer or more infuriating than in the recent dedication of the National Memorial to this great person.  Here were Republicans and Democrats (as if there is a difference), marionettes of Wall Street and the Military/Prison Industrial Complex, sanctimoniously celebrating a man whom they would incarcerate, were he still alive. They wish to portray King, selectively, as a Civil Rights leader, and nothing else. They ignore the fact that, for the last three years of his short life, King identified himself as a “Democratic Socialist.” This is the man who characterized capitalism as economic violence and exhorted us to ask, “’Why are there forty million poor people [He would be horrified by today’s total] in America?’” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
» [related content] Jesse Jackson speaks about OWS & the 1968 Poor Peoples March organized by he and Dr. King on Countdown w/ Keith Olbermann «

Barack Obama spews platitudes of reverence to King, yet enacts policies that would have the latter in fits of apoplexy. This president has received more money for his re-election campaign from Wall Street than any other candidate, in history, and the election is still more than a year away.

This president has deported more than one million people, since taking office, in January, 2009.

This president has expanded the murder machine of war, so that the US is killing innocent people, en masse, in Iraq; Afghanistan; Pakistan; Yemen; Libya, et al. The sabers of iniquity are rattling against Iran, now. Wall Street’s lackey must ensure that everyone join the IMF.

This president has abrogated further the Constitution, vis a vis the First Amendment rights of the nation’s citizenry.

This president has aided and abetted the capitalist class’s assault on labor. While he stole millions from the unions, promising to enact EFCA, he has appointed Goldman alumna to his cabinet. His big mouth was conspicuously silent, when Wisconsin begged for support, earlier this year.

Let us remember that Dr. King, after being harassed for years by the very government which now seeks to siphon off of his legacy by dedicating a memorial to a fraction of the person, was murdered just hours after addressing striking sanitation workers, in Memphis.

 So, as I stand/sit/march/scream at Liberty Plaza, I cannot help but think that, if indeed there is another plain of existence to which we go, after our corpora expire, Dr. King is smiling down in solidarity on us, at Liberty Plaza, and shaking his head, in shame, at the Wall Street-Washington cabal that tries to usurp his great legacy.

Arthur Smilios is an unapologetic anti-capitalist, musician rabble rouser.   Arthur was the co-founder of the seminal New York punk band the Gorilla Biscuits. Since his days of performing “Cats & Dogs” (a song that encouraged thousands to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle)  Arthur has strived to braid his art with his passion for social justice.  The Sparrow Project has invited Arthur to continue to sound off on the issues he holds most dear through their blog on .  Arthur’s articles are written exclusively in his own voice, and may not reflect the views of The Sparrow Project.

Hipster Cop & the Repression of Occupy Wall Street Protests

Hipster Cop & the Repression of Occupy Wall Street Protests

There is no question that the relationships law enforcement bodies have developed with activist communities has been a pervasive and chilling one.  US history has shown time and time again that those who have chosen to speak truth to power are often faced with ridicule, coercion, intimidation, and out-right violence.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is only different when you consider the speed in which it has materialized.  The rapid growth of the OWS movement has not given some agencies time to adapt and therefore some of the investigative witch hunts associated with the anti-war, animal rights and environmental movements may not rear their ugly heads in this chapter.  However, what we are seeing play out in the streets speaks to a new level of desperation.  Grotesque abuse at the hands of rank-and-file NYPD beat cops is causing many to question whether  a multi-million dollar support package that J.P. Morgan gave to the NYPD means the protests are getting “special” treatment.


Private interests have not only given money to law enforcement, they have also shared intelligence that would have otherwise required warrants to obtain, warrants the NYPD and FBI could not get because the OWS movement was not guilty of predicate criminal activity.  Gawker reported yesterday that the FBI was spoon-fed information by Thomas Ryan, a conservative computer expert who supposedly hacked activist forums, sifted through private emails, and issued reports back to both Wall Street firms and the FBI detailing the moves and plans of the protesters.    Ryan also brags to have “infiltrated the movement in hopes to discredit it.”  Similarly, there has been a half dozen or more reports of ground-level infiltration of the OWS group by plain-clothes officers (some more noticeable then others) which is to be expected with any event of this size, but one of these plain clothes officers has become a pseudo-celebrity as of late.

Detective Rick Lee, Community Relations Detective for Manhattan’s 1st Precinct (or “Hipster Cop” as the world has come to know him) is now a larger then life character because of his unconventional dress and cocky attitude.  While organizing at Liberty Plaza members of the Sparrow Media team were asked by a news agency if we had additional information about Lee, so we compiled some footage and info.  In the big picture of the struggle against corporate greed Lee is nothing more then a pawn, but it is important to note law enforcements attempt to coerce and destabilize our movements.  Even though it is hysterical to read comedian Jamie Killstein come to his defense saying “Guys! Stop making fun of #hipstercop! He’s trying to find himself.” or to read the myriad tumblr references to his style, it is important to remember Hipster Cop is part of the process of intimidation, ridicule, and violence being levied against us.

“What would have to happen is that a representative from Brookfield would go into the park, and say, ‘You’re in violation of the rules of the park that apply. You’re trespassing,’” Detective Rick Lee of the NYPD’s community affairs office told attendees.They pressed him to be sure: It’s Brookfield’s move to make, then?

“That’s the scenario,” Lee said. “Politically, when that button is going to be pushed is beyond my pay grade.”

Please practice good security culture and keep in mind that as things continue to ramp up nation-wide so will the response from law enforcement.  Try to also not let your security protocols cripple your groups with paranoia, instead simply practice good security and fairness with the people around you.  Lastly remember if they are not paying attention, then you are doing something wrong.  Right now you guys are winning, keep it up!

Troy Davis: A Circle of Prayer

Motivational posters line the hallways en route to the visitation room.  Images of rock climbers, an eagle soaring over clouds, a collection of hands of all pigmentation on a basketball, each with an inspirational one-word message: LEADERSHIP, OPPORTUNITY, ACHIEVEMENT, FOCUS, TEAMWORK.

Opportunity? Achievement? The irony was almost outrageous. The hallway was in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison and I was walking down it with the Davis family en route to visit death row inmate Troy Davis.

Though I had been corresponding with Troy for years via letters and phone, December 2009 was my first visit. I knew I would not have the opportunity to be sitting in the same room as Troy; contact visits had been taken away from death row inmates a few months earlier. Instead, I spoke to Troy through a black iron grate, alongside his mother, sisters and teen-aged nephew. At the end of every visit, the Davis family would form a prayer circle, holding hands, Troy leading a prayer thanking God for their blessings and praying for the strength to continue their quest for justice. Now that contact visits had been revoked, Troy could not hold hands with the rest of his family. Instead, he pressed his hands flat against the black iron grating. His family and I formed a semi-circle. Troy’s mother pressed her hand on the opposite side of the grate as Troy’s right palm, and his nephew did the same on the left. Everyone bowed their heads, closed their eyes and offered prayers. I couldn’t help but take a peek. Troy looked like a silhouette through the dense iron grill, his head bowed, his hands pressed against the grate, with his mother and nephew’s hands pressed just as firmly on the other side, finding a way, despite the steel and bars, to maintain their circle of prayer.

Georgia is preparing to kill Troy Davis at 7 p.m. tonight. He has refused his last meal, opting to fast and pray. If the state carries out his plans, he will be strapped to a gurney. Needles will be thrust into his arms, so that three different lethal injection drugs will flow through his veins. If there is no last-minute intervention, Troy will die.

Tonight’s expected execution of Troy Davis brings inconceivable pain and loss to his family and friends. But it should also bring deep self-probing to us as a country, forcing us to ask ourselves agonizing questions: How can our system of justice be comfortable executing a man despite such substantive doubts as to his guilt? How can our country possibly justify taking an unarmed, captive human being, and killing that human being? Who are we as a people if we, sanctioned by the state, intentionally and with premeditation wrack a family with grief?

I will be outside the prison as the hours and minutes tick towards 7:00pm, joining with hundreds of others, including Troy’s family, in prayerful protest. I will be thinking of the words that Troy asked my colleague, Wende Gozan-Brown of Amnesty International, to share when we visited him this morning:

“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davis’s who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath.”

As 7 pm approaches, I do not intend to picture Troy strapped onto a gurney. Instead, I will focus on the image which has been seared into my brain since December 2009:

Troy standing in silhouette, arms outstretched and palms pressed against the iron grating, his mother’s hand pressed against his on one side, his nephew’s on the other, the rest of the family holding hands in between, as he leads a circle of prayer, thanking God for the blessings they have received, and asking for the strength to continue the struggle for justice.

In Solidarity,
Jen Marlowe

The following letter was written by Jen Marlow, author, activist & friend of Troy Davis.
Video and original music provided by Nelly McKay.

Echoes of Korematsu: The Holy Land Five Case by Noor Elashi

Echoes of Korematsu: The Holy Land Five Case by Noor Elashi

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and my father remains incarcerated in a modern-day internment camp, the time in which we live begins to feel less like 2011 and more like 1942. But this week could determine whether today’s justice system is capable of rewriting the sad chapters of our history. I say this week because on Thursday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the long-awaited oral arguments in the Holy Land Foundation case, involving what was once our country’s largest Muslim charitable organization.

Meet my father, Ghassan Elashi. The co-founder of the HLF. Inmate number 29687-177, sentenced to 65 years in prison for his charity work in Palestine. He is an American citizen from Gaza City, who before his imprisonment, took part in the immigration rally in Downtown Dallas, joining the half a million people wearing white, chanting ¡Si, se puede! The prison walls have not hindered his voice, as he writes to me, heartbroken about the homes destroyed during the earthquake in Haiti, the young protesters killed indiscriminately in Syria, the children lost to the famine in Somalia. Most frequently, he writes to me about the Japanese-American internment.

Now meet Fred T. Korematsu, who after Peal Harbor was among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans ordered to live in internment camps. This was in 1942, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military detainment of Japanese-Americans to ten concentration camps during World War II. Mr. Korematsu defied orders to be interned, because he viewed the forced removal as unconstitutional. So on May 30, 1942, Mr. Korematsu was arrested. His case was argued all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him, stating that his jailing was justified due to military necessity.

Nearly forty years later, in 1983, Mr. Korematsu’s case was reopened, and on Nov. 10, 1983, the conviction was overturned. Judge Marilyn Hall Patel notably said, “It stands as a caution that, in times of international hostility and antagonisms, our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.”

Fast-forward six years. It’s already 1989, when my father co-finds the HLF, which becomes a prominent American Muslim charity that provides relief—through clothes, food, blankets and medicine—to Palestinians and other populations in desperate need. Then, in 1996, President Clinton signs the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, giving birth to the Material Support Statute, a law that in time would come under fire by civil libertarians for profiling and targeting Arab and Muslim Americans.

Two years later, in 1998, Clinton awards Mr. Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest citizen honor, condemning Mr. Korematsu’s persecution as a shameful moment in our history.Three years later, the towers fall. And President Bush declares a “War on Terror.”

The HLF case was tried in 2007, lasting three months, and after 19 days of deliberations, the jury deadlocked on most counts. The judge declared a mistrial and the case was tried the following year.In 2001, President Bush signs the Patriot Act, which strengthens the Material Support Statue. The law’s language is so vague that it gives prosecutors the authority to argue that humanitarian aid to designated terrorist organizations could be indirect, and therefore, a crime.

In my father’s case, he is charged with conspiring to give Material Support in the form of humanitarian aid to Palestinian distribution centers called zakat committees. Prosecutors admit the zakat committees on the indictment were not designated terrorist groups, but according to the indictment released in 2004, these zakat committees are “controlled by” or act “on behalf of” Hamas, which was designated in 1995. Their theory is that by providing charity to zakat committees, the HLF helped Hamas win the “hearts and minds” of the Palestinian people.

In 2008, after essentially the same arguments, the retrial ended with the jury returning all guilty verdicts, and in 2009, my father was sentenced to 65 years in prison, for essentially giving humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

In 2010, my father was transferred to a “Communications Management Unit” in Marion, Illinois—the aforementioned modern-day internment camp. The CMU received the nickname “Guantanamo North” by National Public Radio since two-thirds of its inmates are Middle Eastern or Muslim. The purpose of this prison—which has another branch in Terre Haute, Indiana—is to closely monitor inmates and limit their communications with their families, attorneys and the media. Thus, I only get to hear my father’s voice once every two weeks, for fifteen minutes. And our visitations take place behind an obtrusive Plexiglass wall.

My father and his co-defendants—now called the Holy Land Five—are in the final stages of the appeal as the oral arguments approach on Thursday. In the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans, defense attorneys will urge the panel of three justices to reverse the HLF convictions based on errors that took place in the trial process.

According to the appellate brief, there’s a major fact that undermines the prosecution’s claim that Hamas controlled the zakat committees: “The United States Agency for International Development—which had strict instructions not to deal with Hamas—provided funds over many years to zakat committees named in the indictment, including the Jenin, Nablus, and Qalqilia committees,” writes my father’s attorney, John Cline. He continues stating that in 2004, upon the release of the HLF indictment, “USAID provided $47,000 to the Qalqilia zakat committee.”  Furthermore, defense attorneys will argue that the district court:

a) Violated the right to due process by allowing a key witness to testify without providing his real name, thereby abusing my father’s right to confront his witness. They are referring to an Israeli intelligence officer who became the first person in U.S. history permitted to testify as an expert witness using a pseudonym.

b) Abused its discretion by allowing “inflammatory evidence of little or no probative value,” which included multiple scenes of suicide bombings.

c) Deviated from the sentencing guidelines when they sentenced my father to 65 years.

When putting the lawyerly language aside, human rights attorneys have deemed the HLF case as purely political, perpetrated by the Bush administration. Likewise, the decision to intern Japanese-Americans was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership,” according to a 1982 report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

I can only hope that my father’s vindication won’t take 40 years as it did for Mr. Korematsu. Let us learn from our old wrongs.

Noor Elashi is a writer based in New York City. She holds a Creative Writing MFA from The New School.  This op-ed was inspired by a forward written by Karen Korematsu in the upcoming book, “Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice,” which includes a chapter about Noor’s father. You can purchase a copy from McSweenys HERE

Echoes of Korematsu; The Holy Land Five Case by Noor Elashi was originally published on Counterpunch