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2006-10-23

Does Tee Stand For Terrorist? NYC Student Stopped on Staten Island Ferry For Wearing T-Shirt Saying "We Will Not Be Silent" in Arabic

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Hunter College student Stephanie Schwartz says ferry security officials stopped her two weeks ago aboard the ferry. During the summer, Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar was stopped by security officials for wearing the same t-shirt at JFK Airport. He was forced to change the shirt before boarding a JetBlue flight. [includes rush transcript]

Later today a protest will take place at the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. Recently, a student riding the ferry was surrounded by Coast Guard officials. As she was getting off, she was stopped by a ferry security guard and warned about her T-shirt that had Arabic print on it. It read "We Will Not Be Silent."

The student was Stephanie Schwartz — and she joins me now here in our Firehouse studio.

Raed Jarrar is still with us from Washington DC. A few months ago Raed was wearing a similar t-shirt as he was boarding a JetBlue airways flight at Kennedy airport in New York. Airport officials forced him to change his T-Shirt before getting on the plane.

We left a message with the Coast Guard public affairs office but did not hear back from them.

  • Stephanie Schwartz, Hunter College Student who was recently stopped by Coast Guard officials for wearing T-shirt with Arabic writing
  • Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi blogger and architect. His blog "Raed in the Middle" is at raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com. Raed is Iraq Project Director for Global Exchange.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The woman was Stephanie Schwartz. She joins us in the studio now. Hi, welcome to Democracy Now!

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a student here in New York?

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: Yeah, I’m a student at Hunter College.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us exactly what happened and when it happened.

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: Sure. Two weeks ago, I got on the Staten Island Ferry. It was a Monday morning, and I was wearing this t-shirt.

AMY GOODMAN: And for our radio listeners, what does it say?

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: It says, "We will not be silent," both in Arabic and then in English. And as soon as my friends and I sat down on the ferry, four Coast guard — armed Coast Guard officers came and, you know, positioned themselves around us and — you know, a lot of times on the ferry, you’ll see Coast Guard people patrolling, but I’ve never seen four people stand in one place that long. And I kind of joked to my friends, like, "Do you think it’s because of my t-shirt?" But I didn’t really believe that they would have made such a big deal about it. And we sat there for the half-hour ferry ride, and they didn’t move.

And as I was getting off the boat, I was stopped by a security guard who said, you know, "Excuse me, Miss, but you better not wear that shirt on the ferry again." And I was kind of taken aback. "Excuse me? You know, what are you talking about?" And he said, "Well, I don’t think it’s safe. This is a high-security area." And, you know, I asked him, "Well, what’s unsafe about this shirt? What do you think it means?" And he didn’t actually comment on what the shirt meant. He just asked me, you know, "Isn’t it in Arabic?" And I said, well, you know — I just kind of looked at him incredulously. I couldn’t believe he was actually saying that.

And he said, "Well, you remember what happened on that JetBlue flight?" referencing over the summer, when Raed Jarrar was wearing the same shirt boarding a JetBlue flight at JFK. And I said, "Yeah, I remember that incident. I think it was racial profiling, because they didn’t allow him to wear the shirt on the plane, simply because it was in Arabic, and they said they didn’t have a translator to tell them what it meant." And he said, you know, "Well, obviously you’re not a threat to us, but someone else wearing that shirt might be." And, you know, I asked him if he meant by that that, you know, an Arab wearing a shirt with Arabic script on it would be considered a terrorist. And he didn’t answer the question. He just told me again that I better not wear this shirt on the ferry.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing now about this?

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: Well, just from talking to some other activists in the city, people are pretty outraged that this is going on, that the Coast Guard thinks they can just tell us what we can and cannot wear. It’s a pretty clear violation of free speech. So this afternoon at 5:00, there will be a group of us, all wearing this shirt, boarding the ferry to see what happens. And, you know, hopefully in numbers we’ll be able to get on the boat and not have any problems. But if we do have problems, I hope we’ll make a big stink about it and let it be known that the Coast Guard is not allowing people to wear shirts that express their opinions.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar, you started this a few weeks ago, or perhaps it was a month ago. For our viewers and listeners who are not familiar with what happened to you, could you briefly repeat the story of trying to get on a JetBlue flight at Kennedy Airport?

RAED JARRAR: Yeah, I had a similar incident to what Stephanie was describing. I was stopped in the airport, and a number of officials from TSA and JetBlue and other agencies prevented me from going to my airplane, because I was wearing the t-shirt in both Arabic and English, and I was told in that time that wearing a t-shirt with Arabic script and going to an airport in the U.S. is like going to a bank and wearing a t-shirt that reads, "I’m a robber." And after that, after I was intimidated and I felt threatened that I would get arrested or at least miss my airplane, I covered my t-shirt with a t-shirt that they bought for me, but the incident —

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait, wait. Can you explain that? Who went and bought a t-shirt for you?

RAED JARRAR: A JetBlue employee ended up buying a t-shirt for me, because I refused to take off my t-shirt or put it upside-down. And then, after —

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the t-shirt say, that he bought for you?

RAED JARRAR: She. She bought a t-shirt that says "New York," just from the market. In fact, they had a small debate among them, the security forces — the security guards, whether they should buy a t-shirt that reads, "I love New York," or not. And then they decided that maybe I will be offended, because they said, "No, we don’t want to take him from one extreme to another?" And I asked them, "Why do you think that I don’t love New York if I was wearing an Arabic t-shirt?" And they did not answer. But we ended up just buying another t-shirt with, like, "New York" or something. And I covered my first t-shirt, and I felt really bad about it. I informed them that I’m not doing this as a compromise. I’m doing it, because I don’t want to get arrested, I don’t want to lose my flight, and I’m going to pursue the issue through legal organizations.

But they did not stop there, in fact. They changed my seat from the beginning of the airplane, and they changed it from like maybe the third seat of the airplane to the last seat or the seat before the last. And they said that — I asked why. I said, "It’s my right to choose my seat. If you have any limitations for Arabs or Muslims to pick their seats, you should inform me on your website." And they said, "No." They just mumbled something about a, you know, baby, like "We need the seat for another person," or something. But I felt really bad, because this reminded me of what used to happen to African Americans in the '40s and ’50s, where they used to be sent to the back of buses because there were black, and I felt that I'm being sent to the back of airplane because I’m an Arab and because I’m brown.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephanie Schwartz, are you wearing this t-shirt because Raed Jarrar wore this t-shirt?

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: I actually got the t-shirt before the JetBlue incident. I bought it at a protest this summer. We were in Washington, D.C., protesting Israel’s crimes in Lebanon, and I saw the shirt, and I just thought, you know, what a great way for people to kind of speak out in a very simple way against the racial profiling that has been going on against Arabs and Muslims in this country and just to say, you know, we — Arabs, Muslims and the people who support them — won’t be silent.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you Jewish?

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: I am.

AMY GOODMAN: Does that weigh in here?

STEPHANIE SCHWARTZ: You know, I think I grew up, you know, with the same kind of Hebrew school education that I think a lot of Jewish kids grew up with, you know, kind of unquestioned support of everything that Israel does, and, you know, I think when the war in Iraq started, it started to bring out to me a lot of contradictions that, you know, that I had in my own politics, that how could I, you know, oppose the war in Iraq and support what Israel was doing in Palestine? And it just became clear to me that if I was going to have principled politics, I had to oppose both of those occupations and, you know, I decided it was time to actually speak out against the crimes that Israel is committing in Palestine and now in Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed, the fact that the Coast Guard on the ferry, the Staten Island Ferry, actually invoked what happened to you as a precedent for telling Stephanie she wouldn’t be able to wear this t-shirt anymore that has Arabic script above the "We will not be silent," what is your response to that?

RAED JARRAR: I am very shocked, in fact. I am very shocked to see how my incident, my oppression in JFK is being used as a precedent to justify oppressing more people. It makes me feel more responsible to take this case furthermore and try to make a precedent out of it, that you cannot oppress people and you cannot oppress the freedom of expression. I thought that people like security officers will feel ashamed of what happened and just people not use it as a victory that will justify repeating the same shameful incident to other people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Raed Jarrar, Iraqi architect now living in this country. But a final question is, you said you are bringing legal action? Have you filed a lawsuit?

RAED JARRAR: I have taken a number of legal steps with a number of organizations, like ADC, the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. They opened a number of official investigations in Homeland Security and JetBlue to reach to what happened, and I’m in contact with the ACLU to see whether we will take any further action.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar, thank you for joining us, and Stephanie Schwartz, for joining us, as well. Your protest today at 5:00 over at the Staten Island Ferry. We’ll be covering it and bringing our audience the developments tomorrow.

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