For the last 20 years, the U.S. government has accused me of being a terrorist. Along with six other Palestinians and a Kenyan, we were dubbed the “Los Angeles Eight” by the media. Our case even made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Oct. 30 – 20 grueling years after the early morning raid in which armed federal agents barged into my apartment, brutally arrested me before my 3-year-old son’s eyes, incarcerated me in maximum security cells in San Pedro State Prison for 23 days without bond, and attempted to deport me – the government dropped all charges fabricated against me. The charges involved accusations of aiding a member group of the Palestine Liberation Organization that the government alleged aided terrorism. But Los Angeles immigration Judge Bruce J. Einhorn had ordered an end to the deportation proceedings against us last January because the government failed to comply with his order to disclose evidence that supported our innocence. He called their behavior “an embarrassment to the rule of law.”
Why did the U.S. government spend 20 years trying to ban us from this country? Because we tried to educate Americans about the situation facing millions of Palestinians living in apartheid-like conditions under Israeli military occupation. Because we organized fundraisers to provide Palestinians with humanitarian support. And because we attended demonstrations to urge a shift in U.S. policy away from unconditional financial and diplomatic support of Israel.
The government robbed us and our families of the best and most productive years of our lives. For more than 20 years, they vilified us in public without recourse. We’ll never be able to entirely erase the negative words and images they manufactured about us. Our case is a stark example, and is different only in degree, from what routinely befalls those who call for equal rights for Palestinians and press for a fair Middle East U.S. policy consistent with international law. In February of this year, two others who advocated equal rights for Palestinians – Mohammed Salah and Abdelhaleem Ashqar – were found not guilty of terrorism charges based in part on evidence provided by Israel and obtained through the use of torture.
President Carter, university professors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu face charges of anti-Semitism and shoddy scholarship meant to intimidate, discredit and silence them.
And it may be surprising, but I don’t hold a grudge. Throughout this 20-year plus ordeal, we never lost faith that we would win against this political and legal oppression. Not only because of our innocence, but because of the tremendous, unfaltering support that we enjoyed all these years across religious, ethnic and civic communities, and a legal team that did not waver once in its commitment to justice. This incredible support has taught us more about America than we could have learned in two lifetimes; the support of such people who are a living example and a role model for immigrants – to positively engage with the issues facing the country on a daily basis. Struggling to make the place a bit better than when we arrived is what made America home to us. We made that choice, and we’re the better for it.
My two American-born sons learned though this experience the meaning of establishing a strong grassroots connection and of getting involved with their community. The words justice, freedom, equality and civil liberties are not words they learned in school that will become empty clichés as they grow older. They are concepts that have real meaning to them, that affect their family and community. They know that they must be vigilantly protected, especially when the issues they advocate are not popular, or at times of war, and conflict, when the first causalities are our basic freedoms – free speech, the right to dissent and to disagree with the government – the very basis of democracy.
From the beginning, we said that our case was a political one and that the government made us victims of a political witch-hunt. We persevered all these years and defeated the attempt to uproot us from our communities, break our families apart, and deport us, because we were innocent. Free at last, we are finally exonerated and it tastes sweet. We will savor the sweetness. And we will use it to fuel our determination to defend the same issues that our supporters defended through us: justice, civil liberties, freedom and immigrant rights. We believe that this is the America for which we continually aspire, the America that is just, here at home and in faraway places – with policies based on fairness, equality, and a shared humanity.
Michel Shehadeh is a research associate in the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.