The Mideast in the Midwest: Evidence at Civil Rights Forum Shows Federal, State Representatives Have Much to Learn

By Szremski, Kristin | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Mideast in the Midwest: Evidence at Civil Rights Forum Shows Federal, State Representatives Have Much to Learn


Szremski, Kristin, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


THE MIDEAST IN THE MIDWEST: Evidence at Civil Rights Forum Shows Federal, State Representatives Have Much to Learn

Kristin Szremski is a news editor with a suburban Chicago newspaper.

Federal prosecutor Dan Gillogly, who helped convict a Chicago-area Palestinian on criminal contempt charges last spring by using information supplied by Israel, recently participated in a forum addressing discrimination and hate crimes against Muslim- and Arab-Americans.

Set in the context of the hate-based backlash that swept the country after Sept. 11, and the government's detention of more than 600 people on undisclosed charges, representatives from 10 federal and state agencies participated in a civil rights forum whose purpose was to calm fears and instruct members of Chicago's Arab and Muslim communities how to protect themselves from discrimination.

About 200 people attended the event in Bridgeview, Illinois, which was sponsored by the offices of Illinois Gov. George Ryan, Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ), Civil Rights Division.

In addition to the Civil Rights Division, other U.S. Department of Justice offices, including investigations and the educational opportunities section, were represented. Among federal agencies participating in the forum were the U.S. Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Two assistant U.S. attorneys for the Northern District of Illinois were present as well.

Noticeably absent, however, were officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Immigration and Naturalization Service--a fact that did not go unnoticed by audience members.

While the stated intention of the speakers, who sat behind a long table on a raised platform several feet from the audience, was to disseminate information on how their offices can assist victims of discrimination and hate crimes, the message seemed to fall short of its intended goal.

On one hand, most panelists echoed the sentiments offered by Valerie Simons, DOJ attorney in the civil rights division of the educational opportunities section: "We are here," Simons said. "We are listening and we want to take your calls."

Despite their seemingly sincere pledge to help fight race- and religious-based discrimination, however, the panelists seemed to have a difficult time connecting to the diversity of the audience. Until the moderator, DOJ attorney Selin Cherian-Rivers, stepped in and pointed out that members of the Indo-Pakistani community as well as Sikhs were in attendance, the first five speakers addressed only discrimination in the Arab community.

"Before I turn it over to the next presenter," Cherian-Rivers said, "we're dealing with situations of discriminations based on race, religion and national origin. I think some of the panelists have mentioned specific examples dealing with Arabs and Arab-Americans, but I just want to emphasize that it is not just that specific group. This includes South Asians, Sikhs, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis. It is an all-encompassing thing that we're talking about."

The next few panelists tried to broaden the scope of their advice, albeit with difficulty. Comments by Pamela Moore-Gibbs, a senior trial attorney for the EEOC who said she has prosecuted religious-based discrimination cases, underscored the perception that the federal government is out of touch with the population that has suffered from the hate-based backlash since the attacks.

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