April 22, 2014
"OBEDIENCE TO law is liberty," proclaims the Orwellian motto above the entrance to the imposing Springfield District Court in Springfield, Mass. This "liberty" was not in evidence on April 15, when Ayyub Abdul-Alim was convicted in a jury trial of a crime that he did not commit. The Springfield police officers and FBI agents who Ayyub says entrapped him have not been held accountable for their crimes.
Two and a half years ago, Ayyub was approached repeatedly by the FBI, like many other young Muslims. The FBI wanted him to be an informant in his community. FBI informants have become notorious for entrapping innocent people in the "war on terror," to help justify the FBI's budget and continued siege on people of color. Despite enormous pressure, Ayyub refused the FBI time after time.
Then, on a night in December 2011 on a "tip" from another informant, Ayyub was "randomly" stopped-and-frisked by the Springfield Police shortly after closing his shop, Natures Garden. One officer patted him down twice, finding nothing. The officer then received instructions by radio to do a "more thorough" search, where he then "found a gun" in Ayyub¹s underwear.
Ayyub was arrested and put in a police cruiser. There, an FBI agent joined him and, according to Ayyub, asked, "Are you ready to make the deal of a lifetime?" Ayyub says that he would have been exonerated of the charge of possessing an unlicensed and loaded firearm if he agreed to be an informant on the local Muslim community.
But Ayyub refused again. For his defiance he spent the next two and a half years behind bars awaiting trial for these spurious charges.
A strong community campaign, Justice For Ayyub, has been building support for his freedom over the last year. They have held multiple public forums with packed rooms and routinely turned out dozens of people to pre-court vigils and actions to pack the courtroom. During Ayyub's trial, the courtroom was filled with supporter wearing matching blue T-shirts with the image of a bird flying from a cage.
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BEFORE THE trial commenced on April 10, one Ayyub supporter from Smith College, Nashwa Alsharki, said at a morning vigil outside the courthouse, "I'm here because what I see in this case is representative of what the U.S. does to so many minorities. I'm here for Ayyub and countless other people who are on trial simply because of their name."
The "justice system" was not interested, however, in hearing criticisms about the FBI and their role in targeting Muslims. As the trial approached, a key part of Ayyub's defense hinged on demonstrating that the FBI and the Springfield Police Department had colluded to force Ayyub to agree to become an informant. Unsurprisingly, the case was forced to trial before the defense could obtain records from the FBI regarding Ayyub.
The court's suppression of such relevant information to Ayyub's case shows just how integral the role of the courts are in upholding the racist surveillance tactics of the police and FBI. As one Justice for Ayyub organizer, Lyla Denburg, highlighted, "While the courts are often overlooked in the prison industrial complex their role in funneling people to prisons is clear."
The trial became increasingly farcical as presiding Judge Constance Sweeney repeatedly blocked the defense from bringing witnesses to the stand, or prevented those who were called from providing testimony that would demonstrate the Springfield Police and the FBI had an ulterior motive for stopping and frisking Ayyub on the day of his arrest.
The defense called state Rep. Ben Swan to testify that Ayyub had contacted him to file a complaint after the first time the FBI had approached him about becoming an informant. Judge Sweeney did not permit Rep. Swan to approach the stand, ruling that his testimony would be merely "hearsay."
Each time defense attorney Tom Robinson posed a question to a witness regarding the FBI, Assistant District Attorney Frank Flannery, would cry "Objection," and Judge Sweeney would respond "Sustained." This effectively blocked the defense from presenting any evidence that would have convinced the jury to exonerate Ayyub on the basis of entrapment. On the basis of the evidence that was allowed, the jury was effectively required to return a "guilty" verdict.
In their closing arguments the defense and the prosecution appeared to be talking about two very different cases. The defense pointed out that the stories from the informant and the arresting officers were inconsistent; the casual indifference the state had with evidence (they never tested the interior of the weapon for prints, they never did a background search for ownership of the weapon, they destroyed the clothes Ayyub was wearing on the night of his arrest); the role of the FBI before, during and after the arrest; and so on.
The prosecution, on the other hand, appealed to the nearly all-white jury (Springfield is only 36.7 percent non-Hispanic white, but the jury was 91.6 percent white) on the basis of personal experience. Flannery argued that to believe the defense's case, one would have to believe that all the police officers on the midnight to 4 a.m. shift in Springfield are either corrupt, or would willfully provide false testimony. But for any person of color in Springfield, this would not require a large leap of faith--as anyone who remembers the cases of Charles Wilhite or Melvin Jones III can surely attest.
Flannery went on to argue that since "nothing came of" the FBI approaching Ayyub while he was held at the Springfield Police Department, the jury should disregard it. Flannery encouraged the jury to consider the admitted evidence alone and to find Ayyub guilty as charged.
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AFTER EIGHT hours of deliberation, the jury did just that. The jury was initially deadlocked six to six. Judge Sweeney denied the jury's request to end deliberations, however, reading them the "Tuey-Rodriguez instruction," which states that deliberations cannot end unless "absolute certainty cannot be expected from [the jury] and that there is no reason to believe any other jury can do a better job of arriving at a verdict." The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict.
Ayyub then accepted a plea offer, which will reduce his sentence to time served plus an additional one and a half to three and a half years, but which removes the possibility for an appeal. Ayyub can elect later to plead "not guilty" should he choose to go back to trial on enhanced charges. Ayyub now remains imprisoned, awaiting trial for another trumped-up charge brought against him in retaliation for refusing to become an FBI informant.
The Justice for Ayyub coalition was certainly disheartened by the trial's outcome, but the group's efforts were not in vain. The great numbers of people who become active around this case did amazing work to shift public discourse around the police and FBI's role in communities of color, shining light on often ignored issues of institutional racism, Islamophobia and the devastating impact of the surveillance state. As Denburg said at the trial's beginning, "It has been very positive to see so many people come together around this case. It's necessary for us to know that everyone's liberation is connected."
The campaign thus remains strong, and people activated by it have become sharper in the fight for justice. They now look toward fighting the remaining charges against Ayyub and are not backing down.
And just as Justice for Ayyub was born out of organizing for Charles Wilhite, the movement for Ayyub has prepared people to fight future cases of injustice. Over the last year, the coalition has galvanized people who are sick of the injustice system.
Justice for Ayyub has brought together students from different colleges and communities from across Western Massachusetts, itself racially divided. Having united for justice, this group has shown the true strength of solidarity.