Is a curtain of silence descending on our American freedoms? An administration that continues to erode constitutional liberties is unchecked by Congress. The recent wiretapping bill hastily passed by Congress is said to have givem Bush even more power to snoop on Americans - more than he even demanded.
And here in liberal New York which should be the bastion of free speech and civil liberties, an authoritarian mayor repeatedly restricts the ability to protest the Iraq war by using aggressive police tactics or refusing the use of our parks and other public places as rallying points for the tens of thousands who want to express their demands for peace. The police are given new enhanced powers to promulgate uncontestable regulations that restrict freedom of assembly. This is done under the guise of fighting terrorism but in effect the police are rapidly becoming a quasi-military force that is not subject to any civilian control
The latest flashpoint in the struggle to preserve our constitution revolves around a proposed new public school that would teach Arabic language, history and culture. Just as many other New York city schools focus on specific racial, linguistic or national studies so would the new Kahil Gibran International Academy consecrate Arabic studies as the focal point of its syllabus. This is in line with what former Mayor David Dinkins referred to as our city's "beautiful mosaic."
But from the very beginning the school came under vicious attacks from racists and extremists eager to advance their agenda of hatred and right-wing politics. Leading these attacks were the New York Post and the New York Sun. These papers are ultra-conservative rags whose biased pages seem to be designed to inflame passions and to divide people. The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch whose media empire is considered by many to be the unofficial press agency of the Bush administraiton.
Lies and slanders were unleashed against the woman, Debbie Almontaser, who had been called upon by the city to launch the school and to serve as its principal. Branding her a terrorist or terrorist-sympathizer and the school a madrasah (the Arabic word for school) they implied that it would be a training school for terrorists. Despite the fact that Ms. Almontaser is a decorated teacher widely lauded as a force for peace and inter-faith unity, the lies were repeated over and over again. Do the words witch hunt come to mind?
The showdown came when Ms. Almontaser tried to explain the meaning of the word "intifadah" which had appeared on t-shirts prepared by young women belonging to Arab Women Active in Art and Media. Never mind that she had nothing to do with the production of the t-shirts or the group. Never mind that she was simply attempting to explain the meaning of the word intifadah. Never mind that the struggle in Palestine referred to as an intifidah is an uprising that is in response to an unjust and brutal 40-year old occupation of those lands by Israel. All that aside, the simple truth is that the intent of the Post/Sun extremists was to poison the atmosphere, slander Ms. Almontaser and prevent the new school from ever coming into existence.
The Mayor and the Department of Education, while acknowledging the skill, credentials and the upstanding decency of its own proposed principal, caved into the jingoism and agreed to accept Debbie Almontaser's forced resignation. Even more shameful, Randy Weingarten, leader of the teachers' union, the UFT, joined the chorus of circling vultures and also called for her resignation. Shameful, because the head of a union should have been on the front lines in defense of this woman and not siding with the very forces who are always the the first to attack labor.
It's clear to me that if ever there was a time to speak out, this is it. This is no time for silence. This is the time for all of us who cherish democracy, freedom and liberty to speak out forefully in defense of Debbie Almontaser and the Kahil Gibran International Academy. Letters to your local editors, to the TV and radio stations are important. So are statements from local community organizations of all sorts. And teachers should be deluging their union with calls and letters demanding an apology from Ms. Weingarten. After all, this is New York! This is our city! Our tradition is one of free speech and free thought. Our tradition is diversity not conformity to the philosophy of the New York Post and its ilk. No, we must not, dare not be silent.
It was with that goal in mind that hundreds rallied today outside the headquarters of the NYC Department of Education Chambers Street in Manhattan. A wonderful mix of New Yorkers of all faiths stood together to defend Debbie Almontaser and the new school and to demand her reinstatment. Speaker after speaker called on the city and the mayor to defend civil liberties and to stand up to the politics of bigotry and repression.
"It represents a gift of vision, a vision of tolerance, of cooperation, of community understanding,” said Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition. “That's what New York is about, that’s what New York should be about, and that's certainly the vision that the academy was based on and founded on.”
And a former member of the NYC Board of Education, Luis Reyes, in a prophetic warning to the gathering, quoted the famous German pastor, Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.
Reverend Clinton Miller of the Brown Memorial Baptist Church of Brooklyn, held the crowd in thrall as he chastised the Mayor for his lack of defense of Ms. Almontaser. And he dramatically linked the forces behind the attack on the school to the fundamentalists who helped lead the nation into the disastrous war in Iraq.
A NYC teacher spoke and wanted it to be known that many of his colleagues were very troubled by Randy Weingarten's role in the fiasco when she sided with those attacking the school and its principal. And a young Arab woman pointed to the necessity of such a school in developing pride and identity in her community at a time when it is under attack by the forces of bigotry.
It was an important first step in combatting the curtain of repression that seems to be descending in our country and our city. Next time around there should be thousands protesting, not hundreds. Let us all understand the urgency of the moment and work to bring out those thousands in defense of our democracy.
At the Tweed Courthouse in NYC -- now the site of the NY Department of Education.
One sign poses a very pertinent question to the mayor.
A NYC teacher says Randy Weingarten doesn't speak for him.
A diverse crowd filled the sidewalk in front of the Tweed Courthouse, the headquarters of the NYC Department of Education.
Rabbi Michael Feinberg spoke eloquently of the need for diversity in our schools and cultural institutions.
Reverend Clinton Miller gave a rousing speech which was greeted enthusiastically by the the gathering.
A former member of the NYC Board of Education, Luis Reyes, quoted Pastor Martin Niemoeller, in warning of the danger of remaining silent.