35 Years since US Tried to Round Up Arab/Muslim Americans in Concentration Camps

Michel Shehadeh Speaks to Majalla on Traumatic Experience

Michel Shehadeh. (Supplied)
Michel Shehadeh. (Supplied)

35 Years since US Tried to Round Up Arab/Muslim Americans in Concentration Camps

Thirty-five years have passed since the discovery of an extraordinary plan by the US government to round up and detain Arab and Muslim Americans in concentration camps as it did to Japanese Americans 35 years earlier.

In 1942, during World War II, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps by President Franklin Roosevelt's administration after Japan’s attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor. (Two years later, Roosevelt reversed his order after the Supreme Court, reluctantly, ruled the order was unconstitutional).

In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a similar plan to detain and intern Arab and Muslim Americans was leaked to the media. It proposed that in case of war with an Arab country, the Arab-American community might pose a great danger to national security as a fifth column. This came on the heel of the 1986 Reagan bombardment of Libya in retaliation for killing American soldiers in Berlin, in addition to Arab opposition to American pro-Israeli policies.

The 1987 plan, entitled “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan,” targeted people from seven Arab countries: Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, as well as non-Arab Iran. Emergency legal measures would be deployed, such as rescinding the right to bond, invoking the privilege of classified evidence, and excluding the public from deportation hearings.

The site of the concentration camp was planned for Oakdale, Louisiana, ready with tents and fencing materials, cot measurements, plumbing requirements, blankets, and gas hookups.

The plan also called for a legal test case to be put as a legal precedent.

In reality, the plan was followed to the letter during the trial of the “Los Angeles Eight”.

These were eight Arabs in California who were forcefully arrested as a group in 1987 and charged with being "Communists" because they were defending Palestinian rights and opposed to the US-supported Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab lands.

This is an interview with one of them, Michel Shehadeh.

Shehadeh is a Palestinian born in 1956 in Jordan, and lived and graduated from high schools in Palestine. He emigrated to the US in 1975 for his higher education, obtaining a BA in Journalism and a MA in Public Administration from California State University, Long Beach, California.

During his university studies he was active in advocating for Palestinian and Arab causes, and was a senior official with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and the Arab Film Festival. He is now the general coordinator for the Free Democratic Palestine Movement.

Seven of the Eight in 1980’s. (Supplied)

Q: You were one of “The Los Angeles Eight”, who were the others, and what did you all do?

A: There were Khader Hamide, Julie Mungai, the Kenyan wife of Khader, Bashar Amer, Aiad Barakat, Amjad Obeid, Ayman Obeid, Naim Sharif, and myself.

Hamide and I were the only members of the group with permanent resident status. The rest had temporary student visas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Justice (DOJ), separated us according to our legal situations. They dropped the political charges on the six who did not have green cards, so as to accuse them with visa violations and deport them on technicalities, they thought.


Q: You were accused of being Communists?

A: That was an easy charge at that time with the anti-Communist hysteria then. Remember, Ronald Reagan, who was president at that time, had won with the slogan of facing-up to the Soviet Union and to Communism.

In reality, we were targeted because of our pro-Palestinian activism. We were engaging the American people and were effectively organizing around Palestinian rights. We were changing opinions and changing minds, and they wanted to get rid of us.


Q: You were distributing “Al-Hadaf” (The Target) magazine, which they said was a Communist publication?

A: Actually, “Al-Hadaf” was, at that time, available at Arab stores, college campuses, libraries, and even at the Library of Congress. “Al-Hadaf” was the organ of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which was led by George Habash at the time. There were all sorts of magazines speaking on behalf of Palestinian organizations, such as “Al-Huriyeh”, “Falasteen Althowra” and others.

“Al Hadaf” was chosen because it was a progressive magazine and fit the charges they were planning against us.


Q: When the Eight were arrested in 1987 in California, there were big media and government reactions. There were newspaper headlines like “War on Terrorism Hits Los Angeles” and, in Washington, the Department of Justice held a press conference about the arrest to give the impression that you were dangerous terrorists.

What was your personal experience of the arrest?

A: At that time, I was living in Long Beach, California, in an apartment with my three-year-old son and wife. It was early in the morning when I woke up suddenly by the loud pounding at the door.

There were about 10 or 15 police agents who barged into house, guns drawn, shouting “Where are the weapons? Where are the weapons?” They handcuffed me, and dragged me outside the apartment.

Outside, there was more horror, police cars were surrounding the place, policemen with their weapons aimed at me, and a helicopter was hovering over us.

They took me to a prison where, with more horror, I found that seven other Arabs, whom I knew, were arrested and were brought to the jail. We ended up in a maximum security state prison in San Pedro, California.

Five of the Eight recently. (Supplied)

Q: But eventually you were freed?

A: Yes, we were vindicated after 20 years of legal battles. We spent the best productive years of our lives battling the government. They tried various laws against us that were designed to deny immigrants their basic civil liberties as a result of their opinions.

But every charge they brought against us was defeated in court because they couldn’t offer a shred of evidence that we did anything wrong. The charges were political, and none of us was charged with any wrongdoing. Then-FBI Director, William Webster, said that if we had been citizens, there would have been no basis for arresting us in the first place.


Q: What was the personal toll of waiting for justice for 20 years?

A: The toll on our lives was horrendous – our lives were put in limbo. We couldn’t plan anything for the long term because we could have been deported at any moment. We could see the opportunities that we lost because we couldn’t get employment, because our names and photos were in newspapers and on TV. Our marriages were put under stress and our kids were living under the pressure of their dads being accused of being terrorists.


Q: And that was when you discovered the “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan”?

A: It was leaked to the media when our court proceedings started.  It was horrible. The Arab-American community was in real fear because of the media reports about their being sent to concentration camps.

But we persevered and decided to fight for our rights and the rights of our community and all the immigrant communities. They used many laws against us, and tried many scenarios. They used the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, the 1990 Immigration Act, the 1996 Anti-terrorism Act, and the 2001 Patriot Act, which was issued after the 9/11 attacks, but all their charges against us failed because we were innocent. 


Q: It was interesting, and encouraging, that your case received support from Japanese-Americans?

A: Yes, the Japanese American Citizens League came to our defense. The organization’s members didn’t forget the memory of the internment camps during the 1940’s. So, they organized press conferences and distributed literature in our defense.

In addition, there was a broad coalition with various political immigrant organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild.


Q: Looking back at those years, and particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, how do you see that your initial campaign for the Palestinian and Arab causes has developed?

A: First, we have become American citizens and have felt that we, as Americans, have more civic responsibility and more moral duty to keep the fight going to protect immigrant and civil rights, but mostly the rights of the Arab and Palestinian communities.

Our strong believe in the issues of freedom and fairness, the cornerstones of the American system, led us to apply these principles to American foreign policy, especially towards the Palestinian cause and the Arab and Muslim countries.


Q: And then came Donald Trump?

A: Yes, and with him came the fearful memory of the “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan” of the 1980’s. Trump’s Muslim Ban came after his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what’s going on”.

That is why I repeatedly say that our struggle is about Palestine and also, about the US government’s foreign policy -- pressured by the Zionist lobby -- not only against Arabs and the Muslims inside the US, but also overseas, as has clearly been proven by the recent US invasions, occupations, economic embargos, and bombardments of Arab and Muslim countries.

We are no longer the “Los Angeles Eight” of the 1980’s, we have become coalitions of organizations and communities, generation after generation -- that’s the wave of the future.

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