Blog Guest Bloggers

Jeh Johnson, Can You Hear Us Now? #15YearsLater Queer & Trans Muslims and South Asians Demand an End to Racial and Religious Profiling

“I’m going to need you to step aside for additional screening.”

As queer and trans Muslims and South Asians, this phrase is deeply familiar to us. We live in a time when the color of our skin is cause for suspicion, our names are reason enough to deny our civil liberties, our bodies are assaulted with impunity. Our hearts are weary and bruised. This past Sunday, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we collectively spoke back.

“Up up with the people, down down with Jeh Johnson!”

Photo credit: Marzena Zukowska
Photo credit: Marzena Zukowska

On that day, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) and KhushDC took over 14th St and U St NW for more than two hours. More than 60 of us directed our rage at Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), demanding that he end the legalized, discriminatory profiling of our communities. Under the letter of the law, any profiling that Johnson and his Department engage in is completely legal: they are allowed to profile communities based on race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Johnson has been promising to issue a “guidance” on profiling for months now, but even that weak promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Jeh Johnson has the power to end this legalized discrimination, but he has repeatedly refused to take action. Under his direction, the Department of Homeland Security enforces the policies that oppress many of our communities. Every time we are stopped going through TSA -­ that’s Jeh Johnson. Every time someone we love is deported -­ that’s Jeh Johnson. Every time we are harassed and called terrorists -­ well, that’s Jeh Johnson too. By legalizing the profiling and surveillance of our communities, he has given both law enforcement and everyday people permission to view our existence with suspicion.

“We’re investigating reports of suspicious activity in the area. I need to ask you some questions.”

We decided to flip the script, and replicate our experiences of profiling and policing for white brunch-goers in some of the most highly frequented areas of the nation’s capitol. We created “checkpoints” in Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle and U Street. We stopped people for many of the same reasons that our communities are stopped: wearing a backpack, having a phone in our pocket, or for no reason at all. We pulled over mothers with children, couples having a romantic afternoon, friends on their way to brunch. We accused people of speaking English, being from Washington, DC, associating themselves with the Catholic faith; we called people “terrorists” for being white, straight, Christian, and wealthy.

Photo credit: Khadija Mehter
Photo credit: Khadija Mehter

These checkpoints replicated the types of systemic profiling, policing and interrogation that Muslims and those perceived as Muslim endure at the border, at TSA, and in daily life. The people who went through the checkpoints were visibly shaken; multiple participants described the interactions as “nerve-wracking” and “terrifying.” We had designated ‘debriefers,’ who helped them process their experience of going through the checkpoint. The debriefers explained, with compassion, that these experiences have become painfully common for our communities in the past 15 years. That we never get to choose convenient times for ourselves and our loved ones to be profiled. For us, this is not a momentary inconvenience; it’s a consistent and national reality.

“Hey hey, ho ho: racial profiling has got to go. State violence has got to go!”

The Department of Homeland Security is the central target of our campaign because we recognize its position in upholding the systems that surveil and profile our communities. The concept of “homeland security” has always had roots in discriminatory profiling, assuming that certain individuals or stereotypes are inherently domestic terror threats. DHS was established in 2002 – just one year after the 9/11 attacks – to police people of color, particularly black and brown Muslims and those racialized as Muslims.

Profiling is a central component to DHS’s policies; without it, their whole apparatus would start to crumble. Borrowing from Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we demand “abolitionist reforms” instead of “reformist reforms.” We are not interested in reforms that will give more power to DHS. Instead, we want to take away the cornerstone of their operations – profiling based on race, religion, national origin, gender identity, and more. We seek to #RedefineSecurity by completely transforming the way that DHS has historically operated – by refusing to allow profiling, and refusing to allow DHS to operate on the back of our communities.

Photo credit: Marzena Zukowska
Photo credit: Marzena Zukowska

At its core, this action was rooted in a dream of shared liberation. We were inspired by Palestinian and Palestine solidarity activists doing anti-apartheid work, creating “checkpoints” that replicate Israeli checkpoints between Palestine and Israel. We were inspired by “Black Brunch,” a tactic used by many Black Lives Matter and Black liberation organizers to force mostly white and wealthy brunch goers to acknowledge the police brutality in their midst. As queer and trans Muslims and South Asians, we locate our own oppression squarely within larger fights for racial and immigrant justice; safety from policing, profiling and deportation; and LGBTQ liberation.

Jeh Johnson, can you hear us now?”

For many people, this was their first action – their first time engaging strangers on the street, blocking traffic, chanting in protest. Others have done this work for years. We showed up together because we all know that we will get free together, or not at all. Profiling and policing are issues that, in different forms, are harming so many of our community members. We are grateful for our accomplices who showed up not as “allies” but as co-conspirators in a shared liberation. We will continue to show up for each other until our dreams of shared liberation are real.

The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) is a federation of LGBTQ Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations. We seek to build the organizational capacity of local LGBTQ AAPI groups, develop leadership, invigorate grassroots organizing, and challenge queerphobia and racism.