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ACLU Sues Jet Blue & TSA for Barring Man Wearing Arabic T-Shirt

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The American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union have sued the Transportation Security Administration and JetBlue Airways in federal court for illegally discriminating against an American resident based solely on the Arabic message on his T-shirt and his ethnicity. Last year, the Iraqi-born architect and blogger Raed Jarrar was prohibited from boarding a flight until he agreed to cover his T-shirt. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: A year ago this month, Iraqi-born blogger and analyst Raed Jarrar was stopped from boarding a JetBlue flight here in New York at JFK Airport. He was headed to San Francisco. They said it was the Arabic script on his T-shirt. The T-shirt said, “We will not be silent,” in both Arabic and English. He was prohibited from boarding until he agreed to cover his T-shirt.

Jarrar first spoke about the incident on Democracy Now! Well, last week the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration and JetBlue. They’re being sued in federal court for illegally discriminating against an American resident based solely on the Arabic message on his T-shirt and his ethnicity.

Raed Jarrar now joins us from Washington, D.C. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Raed.

RAED JARRAR: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you talk about this lawsuit and exactly the grounds you’re suing on, and go back to the original story for those who have not heard you describe it on Democracy Now!?

RAED JARRAR: The original story is that I was stopped last year and prevented from boarding on my plane, while I was flying from New York to Oakland, because I was wearing a T-shirt in Arabic. So the security officers and the JetBlue officers at that time told me that wearing an Arabic T-shirt and coming to an airport in the U.S. is like going to a bank while wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I am a robber.” And I was made to cover my T-shirt, because they prevented me from speaking to any supervisor, and they prevented me from exercising my constitutional rights by keeping my T-shirt on. And then after that, they changed my seat on the airplane from the beginning of the airplane — I was on the third seat —- to the end of the airplane. They changed my seat without even consulting with me. And that’s why -—

AMY GOODMAN: They walked you on the plane before the other passengers?

RAED JARRAR: Yeah. I was asked to board before all of the other passengers, after they reissued my boarding pass. So I boarded some few minutes before all of the other passengers at the back of the airplane, as if I was a criminal or something. So at that moment last year, I told the TSA, JetBlue and other officers on the spot, I told them I will not — you know, this will not end here. I will continue with — through constitutional rights organization, and I will fight for my rights, because I think it’s my responsibility to do this. They said, “Do whatever. Go do what you want to do.”

AMY GOODMAN: Now, they had come up to you at the gate and stopped you because of your T-shirt and said you couldn’t wear it on the flight. So what happened?

RAED JARRAR: What happened is that after I passed the two checkpoints of the airport without having any problem — they checked me twice, and I went to my gate — I in fact had some breakfast and went to my gate to have breakfast there. So while I was eating, I was approached by the officers near my gate, and they said, “Can we have a minute with you?” And I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know what’s the problem.

So I walked with them, and then the TSA officer starts talking to me by saying that people are feeling uncomfortable because of your T-shirt. And at that moment I looked down and I figured out that I was wearing a T-shirt with Arabic script and English script. It said “We will not be silent.” So I didn’t understand what he was saying. I said, “I apologize if I offended anyone, but I don’t think that this message is offensive. It just says, 'We will not be silent.'” So they told me, “But we can’t be sure that the message says 'We will not be silent,' even though it has English translation under it. Maybe it means something else.” So it was very weird, like a very weird dynamic that actually shocked me, because I wasn’t expecting at all to be dealt with in this way based on my language or something.

And I felt that, you know, I actually — the problem became bigger when they figured out that I’m a new immigrant with an accent — I’m, you know, originally from Iraq — when they looked at my green card. And, you know, it just became more complicated. And they called in more officers. And I had a feeling that I would either get arrested like — or even more, like what happened to Maher Arar, the Syrian Canadian who was deported to Syria and tortured because of no reason, so — or I will at least miss my flight because of no reason.

And that’s why they put so much pressure on me to wear the T-shirt. They called it — they said, “Let’s buy you another T-shirt, and let’s have this as a compromise.” And I said, “This is not a compromise. If you want me to wear the T-shirt, I will just put it on, because I don’t want to miss my flight or get arrested. But if you want a compromise, let me get my constitutional rights, and I prefer to keep on my T-shirt.” And they prevented to let me board with my T-shirt on.

AMY GOODMAN: So how does this case proceed? It’s both against the U.S. government and against JetBlue.

RAED JARRAR: The case is — we’ve been working — I’ve been working with my lawyers and other people in the ACLU for the last year now to put together a case that will — it has a number of demands, but one of the major demands is that we want to make sure that these incidents will not happen to me or to someone else in airports or federal buildings, and people will not be discriminated against based on their linguistic or ethnic background, that all of us are equal under the law. And this is why you don’t see me wearing my T-shirt today, because I have to go to work in the Congress, which is a federal building, after the interview. And I want to make sure that I have my rights as a U.S. taxpayer and resident, the same way that everyone else has them. And that’s why I think this case is important for me and important for maybe many other U.S. residents and taxpayers and citizens, who want to make sure that all of us are equal under the law and all of us have the same rights for expression, the same way that all of us have the same duties, all of us pay the same taxes, and we’re under the same law, that we exercise our right of expression, and we have a due process under the law as equal citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: The JetBlue security crew member responded to you when you talked about your constitutional rights. I’m actually looking at your complaint, your lawsuit, that’s been filed in the Eastern District of New York. He said, “People in the U.S. do not know about these constitutional rights.”

RAED JARRAR: Yeah. It was one of the four officers. I don’t know whether he was in JetBlue or another agency, but he wanted to explain to me, because he thought that, you know, this newcomer — you’re talking a new immigrant — doesn’t even know how things work around here in the hood, so he was explaining to me — he was saying, “People here in the United States don’t know these things about constitutional rights.” And I said, “Well, I live in the U.S., and I know, and I’m not ready to give them away.”

AMY GOODMAN: Raed, I wanted to turn now to the issue that you cover that you’re well known for in your blog. Raed Jarrar, the Iraqi-born blogger, looking at what’s happening in Iraq: massive protests against the oil law. Where does it stand right now?

RAED JARRAR: Now, the Iraqi parliament went on recess without passing the law. So there is no new developments regarding the central oil law. What happened is that the Bush administration, the International — the IMF and the World Bank and many other international agencies and the Iraqi Council of Ministers were putting so much pressure on the parliament for the last months to pass this oil law that privatizes Iraq’s oil and decentralizes the decision making, opening doors for splitting Iraq into smaller regions. So the Iraqi parliament, that is a parliament majorly controlled by Sunni and Shia nationalists who are against splitting Iraq and against privatizing Iraq’s oil, blocked the law. They did not pass the law in the last year or so. And they went on recess now for a month without passing the law.

The only new development is that the Kurdistan local parliament, because Kurdistan is an unannounced independent state in the north of Iraq — it has its own parliament and army and government and president and, you know, borders and embassies — so the local parliament in Kurdistan passed the local oil law, which is unconstitutional, and it’s illegal in Iraq to pass, you know, any regional laws or provincial laws before the central law passes. But they went ahead and passed the law, and they say that they will start signing contracts — or like continue, in fact, because they have been signing contracts for the last years. They will continue signing contracts based on their law, without waiting for the central government’s law. Now, many observers think that this step, in particular, means that many of the people who are lobbying for the oil law actually lost hope that it will pass through the central government, and that’s why they went to this step by passing the Kurdistan oil law, just to, you know, start privatizing the oil in the north of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar is an Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service Committee, also blogs on these issues. What about this latest news out of Baghdad, Iraq’s most senior Sunni politician accusing Shia militia of waging an unprecedented campaign of genocide against Iraq’s Sunni population? Adnan al-Dulaimi said Shia are on the brink of total control in Baghdad, said in an email to the Associated Press, it’s a war that started in Baghdad, they will not stop until they expand to all Arab lands. He accused Iran of directing, arming, supporting the militias. Nearly half of al-Maliki’s Cabinet is no longer participating in the meetings. On Sunday, al-Maliki called for an emergency summit to end the political deadlock. Raed?

RAED JARRAR: What he said actually is a little bit different. I think there was a small mistranslation. What he said is that he gave — sent a letter to all of Iraq’s Arab neighbors, saying that the Iranian influence that is being exercised by some Shia militias is taking over Baghdad, because both Mr. Adnan al-Dulaimi, who is a Sunni nationalist, and many other Sunnis in Iraq realize that there is no such a thing as a one Shia politics or one Shia community in Iraq.

The Shia community and politicians themselves are split very strongly among those who are nationalists and those who are separatists. The separatists are the ones who are supported directly by the U.S. and Iran at the same time, and they are the ones who are taking, you know, so much support, and they are the ones who are trying to create a Shia state in the south. But the Shia nationalists, who are the majority, are against all of these plans. They are against splitting the south. They are against taking over Baghdad. And they are against all of these ethnically or sectarian-based fights.

So what he said is that the Iranian influence is reaching to this maximum in Iraq, and the battle for Baghdad is, you know, very important for the rest of the region, or whatever, which is something that maybe a majority of Iraqis agree on, whether they were Sunnis or Shia, that foreign intervention, whether it was exercised by the coalition and the United States or whether it was exercised by Iran, should be stopped as soon as possible. This is what Iraqi Sunnis and Shia want to see. They want to see an independent sovereign country that neither the U.S., nor Iran, nor al-Qaeda, nor anyone else, interferes in Iraq’s domestic politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar what do you think has to happen now? In your evaluation of what’s happened in the United States, in the U.S. Congress, in the Democrat-led Congress, the continued funding for war? We just have one minute.

RAED JARRAR: The Congress is still disconnected regarding two major points. The first one is that Iraqis, in general, demand a complete withdrawal, while the Democratically led Congress is until now demanding a phased withdrawal and keeping troops there for three fake reasons or excuses. This will not change the political situation on the ground. The other thing is that the Democratically led Congress is still basing its decisions on unilateral plans, instead of involving Iraqis in the decision making of putting a plan for withdrawal. So I think both of these things, negotiating a complete withdrawal with the Iraqis to end the violence in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Raed, for joining us. Raed Jarrar, Iraqi-born blogger, political analyst, now lives in D.C., Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service Committee.

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