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Lackawanna: terror of the unknown?



During World War I, Buffalo was gripped by what one authority (quoted by the late UB sociologist Ed Powell in his Design of Discord) called "a mounting and diffuse anxiety" over "German spies and plotters." In July 1918, a Buffalo publication advised readers: "Do not wait until you catch someone putting a bomb under a factory... You are in contact with the enemy, just as truly as if you faced him across No Man's Land."

            The Armistice didn't stop the paranoia. Ed Powell describes how in 1919 US government agents working for US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (and young proto-FBI head J. Edgar Hoover) conducted raids all over Buffalo. The catch from one spree --- 136 arrests --- was bigger than that of a simultaneous raid in Philadelphia.

            The raids made good theater, too. Before one episode, said Powell, quoting another contemporary source, "one hundred automobiles were assembled in the center of the city at 4 p.m. and started on a dash of red hunting which radiated throughout Buffalo and the surrounding towns... A detective came to the station with arms filled with alleged radical literature, but the publications were all in Polish, and he was unable to make any translations..."

Echoes of this buried past are being heard around Buffalo --- and especially the neighboring city of Lackawanna --- right now. Last week, vehicles clogged downtown, on and near Niagara Square, and emotions ran high. All because on September 13, federal authorities raided locations in Lackawanna, arresting five Yemeni-Americans --- all native-born US citizens --- on charges of supporting international terrorism. Days later, a naturalized Yemeni-American was arrested in Bahrain and added to the group now sometimes called the "Steel City Six."

            It's easy to overdraw the parallel: The vehicles last week were almost entirely news organizations' live-eye trucks, and so forth, sporting antennas and dishes that made Niagara Square look like a NASA installation. And more importantly, the authorities have acted less arbitrarily than in the old days, in part because so many ears are to the ground. (Powell recalls a Buffalo police chief of 1919 saying, "It's too bad we can't line them up and shoot them.")

            But the accused --- Yahya Goba, Mukhtar al-Bakhri, Sahim Alwan, Faysal Galab, Shafal Mosed, and Yasein Taher --- are still in deep trouble.

            The FBI's criminal complaint says the men "did knowingly and unlawfully provide, attempt to provide and conspire to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization," namely Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The charge is based on sections of the US criminal code, now fortified by the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The arrestees are being held at the federal detention center in Batavia until US federal magistrate H. Kenneth Schroeder decides whether to grant bail. (A decision is expected October 3.)

            Essentially, the men are accused of being an al-Qaeda "terrorist sleeper cell." More specifically, they're supposed to have taken part in al-Qaeda training last year in Afghanistan --- before 9/11 but after al-Qaeda attacks elsewhere --- and attended talks there by Osama bin Laden. Other allegations came out during a marathon bail hearing: that some of the men had been handling large amounts of cash; that an e-mail one man wrote contained coded language about a "big meal," signaling a future al-Qaeda attack; that a rifle-with-scope had been found at one man's Lackawanna home, etc.

            Buttressed by the men's families and allies, lawyers for the accused have answered the charges --- and in fact, the men themselves have conceded some points, though with a different interpretation. The defense says the men traveled to Pakistan for Islamic religious study; ended up at the camp incidentally or accidentally; stayed there partly out of fear; and above all, did nothing criminal during their weeks-long trip or after returning home. There also have been explanations for the rifle and other details.

            But mostly, things have been left hanging --- along with the heightened emotions.

Yemeni steelworkers and their families first settled on and around Lackawanna's Wilkesbarre Avenue in the early 1920s. Lackawanna's Yemeni population is around 1,000; as many as 8,000 Yemenis live in Erie County. But as with Lackawanna's low-income African-American residents, many of whom are clustered in a post-World War II project around the corner from Wilkesbarre Avenue, the Yemenis haven't been fully integrated.

            Lackawanna has its Roman Catholic monuments, first among them the astonishing early-20th-century Our Lady of Victory basilica built by the charitable Father Nelson Baker. But for the city's Muslims, including many Yemenis, the Islamic Center on Wilkesbarre Avenue is the center of things. On September 18, as that day's installment of bail hearing proceeded downtown, the neighborhood around Wilkesbarre Avenue was quiet. The Islamic Center's voicemail was taking no more calls. A few media types were dug in nearby. Though the weather was inviting, only a few neighbors were outdoors.

            Some "evidence" --- not of any crime, but of the Yemeni cultural presence --- had been almost destroyed: An "Arabian Foods" market which figured centrally in the first TV broadcasts about the arrests had been shuttered, and all identifying marks on the facade were freshly painted over. People on the street weren't talking.

            One elderly woman, touching up a drought-defiant green lawn behind a chainlink fence, initially declined comment then spoke freely, while not giving her name. Some of the arrestees, she said, lived across the street from her. "They never made any trouble," she said, adding she'd lived there in the same house for 52 years.

            Up at the corner of Wilkesbarre and Ridge Road, Lackawanna's main drag, an elderly man waited in a bus shelter. John --- he wouldn't give his last name, though his speech patterns all but identified him as Polish-American --- said he was a World War II vet. He said he'd lived in the neighborhood for forty years. "The poor excuses they use!" said John of the arrestees. "Americans are so gullible."

            John took credit for starting the whole legal ball rolling. He'd complained to the police, he said, about cars being double-parked by the Arabian market. The complaints got some action --- not the kind John had wanted. "One [Yemeni] guy called me a motherfucker," he said. "I called him a camel jockey."

            Even as we spoke, John kept watch. He noted when some Yemenis, most of them women with traditional head covering, rushed out of a house and piled into an SUV at the curb. They were headed downtown for the court hearing, said John, just as he was. John talked about some ecumenism that struck him funny. He pointed down Ridge Road to a Catholic Church, a small one by Lackawanna standards. "They send their kids there" to school, he said, "but they consider us infidels."

            Down at the courthouse a little later, a waiting game had gone into overtime. Dozens of people --- most of them reporters --- formed a shallow arc around the exit, ready for the arrestees, lawyers, and G-men to pile out.

            One man, declining to give his name, said he was there to support the arrestees. "I'm Yemeni," he said, adding emphatically, "I'm an American." He wore a "Freedom for Palestine" t-shirt with a Martin Luther King quote on the back: "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

Buffalo organizations and activists have been less than outspoken about the arrests. (One Rochester group, the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization, did hold a demonstration at the Batavia detention center the day after the arrests. Organizer Brian Erway said it was "a good, spirited demo" against arbitrary detentions in general. But, he said, "we didn't realize at the time they had made the bust of the so-called terrorist cell.")

            The Buffalo office of the New York Civil Liberties Union didn't return a phone call. New York City-based NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said it's vital "that the criminal justice system be allowed to function in this case as in other cases," with full "procedural rights" for the defendants.

            "Things have been crazy here," said Charles Cobb, director of the Western New York Peace Center, which champions M.L. King-style nonviolence. "It's too early to have a strong stance," he said.

            "At this stage," said Khalid Qazi, an Erie County physician who heads the American Muslim Council of Western New York, "neither side wants to show their cards; they want to save the evidence for the jury trial."

            "I didn't miss a minute of the court proceedings for the entire four days," said Qazi. "The judge is amazing, knowledgeable," he said, adding the proceedings have been "impeccable."

            "Our overall priority is that the judicial system should proceed fairly and with due process," said Paul Fallon, an attorney who heads the Buffalo Green Party. Fallon wonders about the "timing" of the bust, but he's more concerned about the ramifications of the law that made the arrests easier: the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, controversial from the beginning, has been questioned but not fully tested, and it may go up to the Supreme Court, he said.

            One section of the antiterrorism law, according to a summary prepared by Charles Doyle for the Federation of American Scientists, "enlarges the proscriptions against assisting in the commission of various terrorist crimes" and "authorizes the regulation of fundraising by foreign organizations associated with terrorist activities." Such provisions create gray areas that could obscure Americans' First Amendment guarantees.

            "People have freedom of association, even if it's in a foreign country," said Fallon. "If you don't take part in the plotting of the crime," he said, "you're not participating in it."

            Hussein Ibish, communications director for the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), expressed similar concerns. "There are a lot of issues" surrounding the Lackawanna arrests, he said, like "the constitutionality of the 'material support' provisions of the 1996 law." He added, "There would have to be some acts afterward to justify charges... It's going to be tough to argue that [merely] being with someone is material support."

            Nonetheless, said Ibish, the ADC doesn't have an official position on the case. "We haven't put it in the civil liberties file," he said. "We, like most people in the country, are waiting to see what information the government has."

            "At the very least," said Ibish, "you'd have to say these people have a great deal of explaining to do."

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