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2008-09-02

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) Condemns Police Intimidation of Journalists

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Rep. Keith Ellison, Democratic Congress member from Minnesota.

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Democratic Congress member Keith Ellison of Minnesota has been back in the Twin Cities this week closely monitoring the treatment of protesters and journalists at the RNC. He joins me now in St. Paul. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN:

Democratic Congress member Keith Ellison of Minnesota has been back in the Twin Cities this week closely monitoring the treatment of protesters and journalists at the RNC. He joins me now here.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Glad to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And thanks for helping out last night. It’s a very serious situation, of course. Hundreds of people remain in jail. This rule of thirty-six hours, can you explain how it works?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Well, first of all, the thirty-six hours doesn’t count weekends. And so, if you get —

AMY GOODMAN:

Or Labor Day, which was yesterday.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Or a holiday. So if you get arrested, say, on a Friday night, you could be getting out — hopefully, if you can — maybe Wednesday midday. So it really is something that can take quite a bit of your freedom away.

AMY GOODMAN:

You’re — in addition to being a Congress member, you’re a lawyer?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

For about sixteen years, I practiced law right here in the courts of Minneapolis-St. Paul and all over Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN:

It was Minneapolis police, by the way, who arrested us, even though we’re here in St. Paul. Why is that?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Well, because they brought in probably a number of jurisdictions to help their complement of officers who would try to do policing activity here for the RNC. So I wouldn’t be surprised if they have other jurisdictions besides Minneapolis. Might have a number of suburban districts and maybe even some from further away than that.

AMY GOODMAN:

And, of course, National Guard.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yeah, no doubt about that. Secret Service.

AMY GOODMAN:

And is there a fusion center here in the Twin Cities?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

You mean, a coordinating center? Yeah, I’m quite certain there is. I can’t give you details on that, because, quite frankly, I thought that it was going to be a relatively routine situation. But when you see some of the footage that I saw, it was anything but routine. It looked quite extraordinary, to tell you the truth.

And when you hear about journalists getting arrested, it’s very disturbing. I mean, the news gatherers — how can the people know, if they don’t have news gatherers to gather the news and show them? But when those folks are being intimidated and even roughed up, it’s pretty — it actually is a threat to democracy and the First Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN:

Right, we don’t know if the Associated Press photographers have gotten out, if the Pepperspray videographers have gotten out. Even the New York Post guy, we don’t know what happened to him at this moment. And, of course, there are many, many people who are on the streets who get rounded up just by virtue of being there. When they move in with such a fast pincer move from all corners and surround a block — this was basically a parking lot — there is nowhere to go.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Right. There’s nowhere to go. And, of course, they know that, as well. It’s not like they haven’t mapped out the whole area and don’t know exactly what forces are moving in which directions. They do know. And, of course, it’s pretty clear that Nicole and Sharif were making their status as press widely known, and it was easy to hear it; you know, clearly on the tape, it was easy to hear. So that’s pretty disturbing to me, and I’m actually pretty upset about it.

AMY GOODMAN:

So you weighed in last night as they were in jail. You called the police commissioner.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

I called and let them — just provided the information. You know, this is who you have. This is the deal, stuff like that. So, you know, I just think it’s important to make sure that when journalists are trying to do their work, that they are allowed to do it.

AMY GOODMAN:

This is only the second day, and, in fact, the Republican convention was not in even full gear because of Hurricane Gustav yesterday, though the protests in the streets were. You’ve got a number more days. What is the plan for the city?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Well, you know, that’s what I’m trying to find out right now. I mean, before, quite frankly, I was perfectly content to allow the police to do the work they were doing, and I’m just going to go do the work I do. But now, I do have a new — an urgent curiosity to find out what the plan is. When are massive uses of force going to be deployed? What circumstances will trigger them? Have we looked — have we recognized the fact that we can actually cause more trouble than what would otherwise happen, when we bring forth this massive use of force as we saw on the tape? And so, I’m concerned about it. I think overreaction is as bad as under-reaction, and what I saw on that tape was pretty disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN:

Congress member Ellison, you are the first Muslim member of the US Congress. The issue of Islam in this country has come to the fore with Barack Obama being — there’s no other way to say it but “accused” of being Muslim.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN:

So every time he has to simply say, “I’m not Muslim,” deny being Muslim, it makes it sound like there’s something wrong with being Muslim.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yeah, right. Well, by the way, Amy, let me just say Ramadan Mubarak, which means blessed Ramadan. It’s the second day of Ramadan, so just thought we’d get that out of the way.

Yeah, it’s really kind of concerning. But, you know, I will tell you this. This last DNC convention in Denver, there was an unprecedented amount of participation by people of the Muslim faith, and people participated on a very productive basis and felt like they were able to be a part of the activities. There will be a presence of people who are Muslim at the RNC, people who have a different political point of view than I have, you know.

But this idea of religious intolerance is something we have to be on the alert for. I mean, remember that the same provision of the Constitution that protects you as a member of the press also says that there’s no state religion. The First Amendment contains both of those ideas. Both of them protect our freedom as Americans, and so we’ve got to be on the look out for this idea. You should know that it was Thomas Jefferson who actually introduced a bill into the Virginia legislature that was entitled the bill of the rights to be free, freedom of religion. So this idea of freedom of religion is deeply rooted, and this newfound intolerance is something that I think we really need to be on the alert for, because it is a threat to our democratic freedoms and our rights in general.

AMY GOODMAN:

You mentioned Thomas Jefferson. Did you swear in?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

I certainly did. It was the ceremonial swearing in.

AMY GOODMAN:

With his Koran?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yes, I did. There are two swearing-ins. One is the real one. That’s when the Speaker tells everybody to raise their hands to swear to uphold the Constitution. There’s no religious book involved in that at all. The next one is more of a photo-op than swearing-in, and there, that’s when you get to have your family there and everybody, and in that occasion I did employ the Koran, Thomas Jefferson’s Koran, by the way, when I did — when I performed that ceremony.

AMY GOODMAN:

There was a big deal made of that, saying you wouldn’t swear on the Bible.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yeah, well, there’s no rule that you have to. In fact, you know, after practicing law over sixteen years, I found Article 6 of the Constitution, which says that there shall be no religious test applied to anyone before they can hold an elective office. So I was in good grounds constitutionally.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re talking to Keith Ellison. He’s the first Muslim member of Congress. The second is from Indianapolis, Julia Carson, who died, the Congress member’s grandson.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

That’s right, Andre, Andre Carson. And, you know, he hasn’t had to withstand some of the stuff that I had to put up with, but he had to put up with a certain measure of it. I tell you this, you know, it’s important for Americans to know that Islam is as widely diverse as Christianity or Judaism. There’s not one way to be Muslim, not one way to be Jewish, not one way to be Hindu. And I am a very strong and long-term progressive and am trying to build a progressive movement, that movement to promote human solidarity, you know, respect for our planet, respect for human rights, peace, and to revive and strengthen this tradition of nonviolent negotiation of conflict.

And I think that it’s important for our country to understand that people who are Muslim who believe in nonviolent social change are great allies for national security for our country and other countries around the world and that it’s not a good idea to try to alienate us, because, you know, we’re the ones who can really show a more accurate representation of what the faith is. Yet some people feel it’s to their political advantage to try to marginalize all Muslims, and that’s unfortunate, but we’re not going to just lay down and take it, either.

AMY GOODMAN:

Congress member Ellison, you must have been there on Thursday night, Barack Obama’s major address —

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

— in the Mile High Stadium. Over 84,000 people packed in. There were fireworks afterwards. It’s very different from what’s happening here, a much smaller convention, of course, and it’s very much, at this point, just business as usual, because they don’t want to have parties, although I’m sure there are a lot of behind-the-scenes parties, as there were at the Democratic convention, where the big corporate-sponsored parties behind closed doors that a lot of people don’t get to. But in that speech of Barack Obama on Thursday night, again he talked about the escalation of war with Afghanistan. He’s calling for up to 10,000 more troops to be sent. What do you think?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

In my view, our strategy in Afghanistan has been flawed. What I think we need to do, and should have done from the very beginning, is, after the Taliban was wiped out of power, the United States needed to really help build a strong government and build Afghan institutions. I’m talking about a judiciary that functions. I’m talking about women’s rights, schools, things like that. We didn’t really do that. What we did is we empowered warlords around the country, and essentially Hamid Karzai doesn’t run anything outside of Kabul. And that’s too bad. And so, at this point, we have a mess. I think the only real way to get Afghanistan back on its feet is to strengthen institutions.

And I must add, if I may, Amy, that every time we use military action to try to solve a — to try to address a hostile in Afghanistan, what we do is we invariably end up killing more people than even the person that the US military is after, which, of course, then just exacerbates the problem. You know, there’s a big story about how ninety people at a wedding party were killed. The United States says, no, it was only fine. Whether it was ninety or if it was five, we’ve killed a lot of people who didn’t deserve to die and didn’t have any real involvement, and we’ve made that many more families sworn enemies of our country, which doesn’t help at all. What we need is policing institutions and courts and to strengthen Afghan institutions.

AMY GOODMAN:

Last week, sixty kids killed, of ninety —

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:

— it’s believed, although the US government is saying no. Just in the headlines today, I was reading five children in strikes on Monday.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Right, right, right.

AMY GOODMAN:

So are you opposed to Barack Obama’s proposal to increase troops?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

My position is, I am opposed to the military escalation in Afghanistan. I believe we need to — the United States and the world community needs to strengthen Afghan institutions. That is the way forward. That is the wise way forward. The method that we’re employing now is simply going to spread the problem. And I think that the Afghans, after so many years of living in a war-torn society, have a right to live in peace and freedom and even be able to select their own leaders and have some — and have a strong court system, school system, and have Afghan institutions made better.

AMY GOODMAN:

Hamid Karzai has long been supported by the United States. Now there’s even talk of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to the United Nations, President Bush’s top guy. He was in Iraq and Afghanistan, now UN ambassador, running for president of Afghanistan. He, himself, is Afghan-born.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yeah, well, that’s curious, isn’t it? But what about the native organic Afghani leadership? They’re there. I mean, I’ve been to Afghanistan. There’s a lot of leadership in Afghanistan that might offer good leadership for that country. I get very concerned when we have somebody who really has not lived in the country for many, many years, now all of a sudden is going to go back there and run the country. Sounds like a Chalabi-type situation.

AMY GOODMAN:

Very quickly, Obama’s call for possible unilateral action in Pakistan? I mean, he’s not that different from McCain on this.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Yeah. Well, you know, I think that there’s a lot Senator Obama needs to learn about the situation there, and I think that it’s delicate. And as I said, military action will tend to exacerbate the problem. We need to strengthen institutions, water, roads and people feeling like they have some say-so over their own lives. That’s the ticket to get us to a more peaceful situation.

AMY GOODMAN:

Finally, Congressman Ellison, though it is sort of old news, I haven’t seen you since then, the whole issue of the scarves, of women wearing scarves —

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

— and being told by volunteers of the Obama campaign they couldn’t be part of the backdrop behind him wearing Muslim scarves.

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Right. Well, you know, on the very next day, I raised that issue personally with Senator Obama, you know, from my voice to his ear, face to face. He did apologize to the women. I actually gave him the telephone numbers that he used to call them for the apology, and I will say that the Obama campaign has been much more responsive and much less panicky about Muslim involvement in the campaign since that time. They’ve made marked improvement. We are — there are some things we’d like them to continue to try to do.

AMY GOODMAN:

Like?

REP. KEITH ELLISON:

Well, you know, I think it would be good to see both candidates — not just one, but both — visit a mosque. They’ve both visited churches, they’ve both visited synagogues. They both can visit a mosque. I don’t want to hold Obama to a higher standard than McCain, but I think they both should go. I think they also need to make public statements about religious tolerance and that all people of all backgrounds have a right to participate fully in America. I think that they both need to make some clear statements about how the United States is going to continue to build diplomatic ties with all people all over the world, including the Muslim world. So — and I think that people in the United States, Muslims in the United States, are interested in what President Obama’s policies are going to look like. I’m a little afraid we already know what President McCain’s camp policies may look like.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Minneapolis Congress member Keith Ellison. He’s the first Muslim member of Congress. Now there are two. We’re here in the Twin Cities, in St. Paul at Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, in public access here.

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