In the days following the largest voter turnout in a presidential election in our nation’s history, Muslim Advocates, a Washington, D.C.-based group that strives to “halt bigotry in courts and halls of power,” held a virtual press conference to discuss the current state of our democracy, and to deliver the message that advocacy work towards minority rights is not over yet, even with President-elect Joe Biden moving into office.
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, shed light on plight of the Muslim community during this time of uncertainty.
Khera explained that this conversation would be framed broadly, as there are too many serious concerns and questions than can be answered.
“These past four years have been traumatic for American Muslims and other vulnerable communities,” Khera said. “We’ve endured family separations. We’ve had our lives violently taken from us. Our mosques have been vandalized, burned and bombed. Our families have been tortured with sickness, death and hardship from COVID-19.
“In the wake of the election, it is not clear if or when the relief will come. We’re here tonight to help ease your fears, we hope, and to show you where we go from here as a community and as a country. Like all Americans, at Muslim Advocates, we’re deeply concerned about the integrity of our democracy.”
Watch the full discussion here:
Joining Khera in this discussion was Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, New York Attorney General Letitia James, House of Representatives-elect Mauree Turner from Oklahoma, and Samba Baldeh, Common Council president from Madison, Wisconsin who was just elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly.
James called for calm in the days following the election.
“It is important that every voice be heard in this democratic process, and so, I know the results are in no way final, but we are in a good position and voters should decide the outcome of the election, it should not be up to the courts,” James said. “It should not be up to politicians or political parties, and particularly those who unfortunatly propagate misinformation and disinformation.”
James continued to explain that now it is of the utmost importance to protect Muslim Americans who have been put into danger because of the amped-up political rhetoric, which James says, is not consistent with the values of New York state.
“That’s why it is my honor and privilege to always stand with the Muslim community, standing up against those in our country, and in our state, and in our communities who unfortunately are filled with hate, filled with bigotry. Because at this time of crisis and moral confusion, we must remember that we may have come over here in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat,” she said.
“The very fabric of our democracy is being ripped to shreds by police brutality, by systemic inequality in the forces of hate. You must know that we will all rise and sink together in the same boat,” James continued. “And when the president attacks the humanity and dignity of any of us by calling for a Muslim ban that shut the doors on immigrants, which contribute so much to our nation and to our economy, it’s important that we all stand up and defend our brothers and sisters within the Muslim community.”
On Jan. 24, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that would ban travellers from seven majority-Muslim nations from coming into the U.S., saying these countries encompass “radical Islamic terrorists,” and over the course of his presidency, has expanded the ban to 13 countries.
Initially, the countries banned were linked to terrorism concerns as shared by the intelligence of the U.S. armed forces: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. In 2020, six more were all also added to the list: Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania.
To defend his reasoning, Trump explained during a signing ceremony at the Pentagon that “we don’t want them here,” and that we are not bringing in the threats that soldiers are fighting to contain overseas. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people,” according to The New York Times.
However, President-elect Biden explained in July that on his first day as president, he will lift this “Muslim ban.”
“Muslim communities are the first to feel Donald Trump’s assault on Black and brown communities in this country, with his vile Muslim ban. That fight was the opening barrage in what has been nearly four years of constant pressure and insults,” Biden said.
Muslim advocates agree, as speakers brought to the conversation represent ideals of hope, defense and understanding.
Attorney General James said she is upholding the lawful protections of the Muslim population in New York, which is in the hundreds of thousands.
“As a woman of color, as an African American woman, I am all too familiar with hate and discrimination,” James said. “I therefore must stand with those who are unfortunately have tasted hate and discrimination, and we have, because we’ve seen the ugliness for far too long and particularly in the last four years, but we all know that this ugliness, and this disease has been here for a very long time.”
James then paraphrased an Islamic prophetic tradition: When you see injustice, you must physically correct it. If you are unable to do that, then you must speak out against it, and if you cannot do that, you must know in your heart that it is wrong.
“As the attorney general and as a woman of faith, that’s how I have led and that’s how I live my life, knowing that he’s wrong,” she said. “My office has vigorously enforced federal anti-discrimination statues, whether it be in in housing, in the workforce, or even in government misconduct. We have been and will continue to combat hate crimes and harassment to the fullest extent of the law because it’s my office’s responsibility to make sure that all New Yorkers feel safe, regardless of how they pray and who they pray to.
“Whenever we are confronted with acts of ill will, acts of hate, acts of bigotry, you must rely upon and depend upon and stand on our faith, and on our conscience and stand up to those and educate those into doing the right thing. That’s my solemn oath.”
Khera asked James about her role regarding protests in New York state, and if the public can have confidence that state agencies are ready and willing to step in to keep the peace in days and weeks ahead.
James responded with certainty that she will uphold New Yorkers’ right to protest peacefully, and will denounce any intimidation from parties who are attempting to silence people utilizing their first amendment rights.
“Thankfully, we have not seen any violence last night in Manhattan, but there was a protest and there was some arrest and there were some allegations of police misconduct and we are looking into that matter,” she said. “In the state of New York, again I can say, and again joining with my colleagues on the Democratic side, they are duty bound to protect the rights and liberties and freedoms of all individuals regardless of their religion. We will not tolerate any acts of hate, or endure acts of violence.”
The arrest and police misconduct allegations James expressed are referenced in videos of the event that circulated through Twitter on Nov. 4.
In a Twitter video from seasoned journalist Nick Pinto, police were pushing away protestors using their bicycles, and further down in the thread, people were screaming as one man was arrested. According to the Gothamist, who provided a timeline of post-Election Day protests in NYC, there were multiple protests, either moving uptown from Washington Square Park, or downtown through 6th Ave.
Couple hundred people out in Washington Square now for this event, as a considerably greater number of police encircle the park in helicopters, vans, unmarked cars, and uparmored bicycle suits. https://t.co/LXGYZFZlwm
— Nick Pinto (@macfathom) November 4, 2020
Greenbaum, whose role within the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to manage their collective efforts in seeking racial justice, referenced a reason to celebrate: at least 161 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election.
“I think a huge part of that is not only was there a lot of interest in the election, but more people had more methods in most states, in terms of how they could vote, voting by mail, voting early in person, as well as on Election Day,” Greenbaum said. “Over 100 million people voted this year for Election Day which is by far the largest amount and I think that that had a lot of positive effects.”
Greenbaum continued to explain that there were fewer problems at the polls this year than in previous elections. He says people voting early lessened the stress of voting on Election Day, and made it more difficult to engage in voter suppression due to the drastically lowered voter population on one day.
Though the suppression efforts existed, they weren’t very successful — there were instances of individuals and groups who were trying to prevent people from voting in various ways, “but there wasn’t anything systematic, there wasn’t a political party involved in large scale suppression at the polls,” according to Greenbaum.
This year, the hotline at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law received a record number of phone calls to date: 220,000. Greenbaum says they had a relatively small number of calls on Election Day, and that that may reflect that people were voting early.
At the time of this conversation, lawsuits were filed in states across the country regarding contested ballot counting. On Nov. 6, there were hearings in Georgia and Michigan where the vote-count was brought to court.
“The cases that were brought by the campaign were pretty desperate and the arguments were pretty desperate, and the judges rejected them,” Greenbaum said. “… There are a lot of lawsuits, trying to stop the count because they want him to maintain the lead, and then the dynamic changes in the states in which Vice President Biden is ahead where the Trump campaign wants the vote to go forward in the hopes that it will turn things around in the States, but one of the things that’s happened over the course of the day in Pennsylvania, and in Georgia, is that the vote count has gotten closer and closer.”
As of Nov. 16, the “voter fraud” legal actions by President Trump in four major states have been dropped — Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — making former Vice President Joe Biden the president-elect of the United States.
“This comes in a year in which we’ve had an unprecedented amount of litigation to begin with, as somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 250 cases related to voting have been brought this year,” Greenbaum said. “My organization by itself has been engaged in 30 to 35 of those cases, but hopefully we’re going to bring this thing to a conclusion.”
Although contested ballots riddled Wisconsin’s voter system for almost two weeks after Election Day, former City Council president from Madison, Wisconsin, Samba Baldeh, is now a state Assembly member for District 48 — the first Muslim to ever serve in the Wisconsin Assembly.
Back in 2016, leading up to President Trump’s presidential election win, Baldeh felt it was particularly important to educate Muslim and minority communities on their rights, and organized Know Your Rights, a forum for members of the Madison community that garnered almost 5,000 attendees.
Baldeh believes that people have the right to vote and a need to better understand that right. At first, he believed that he was doing enough by educating his communities and advocating for their rights, but soon realized that in Wisconsin, the state runs most of the local government.
“I thought it was important to tell my own story, but also tell the story of the community that I come from: the African American community, the Muslim community, the immigrant community, but also the minority community in this country,” Baldeh said. “I want to make sure that I am a part of the process that really designs and advocates what happens, and I’d be local and stable. The reason I’m running is to make sure that I tell my story and advocate for our people, but to also move this country forward. America has been a beacon of hope for many people, and we cannot afford to lose it to President Trump.”
While Baldeh made history for Muslims in the Wisconsin Assembly, Representative-elect Mauree Turner made her own in Oklahoma’s 88th District as the first Black Muslim ever elected to the Oklahoma State House, breaking new ground for prospective candidates on multiple fronts.
Turner was elected with 71.4 percent of the vote from District 88 as the first Muslim to serve in the Oklahoma State House, the first non-binary person elected to any state house nationwide, and the first openly LGBTQ+ Muslim to be elected to any state office.
Turner explained to listeners that her upbringing was very different from a normal childhood. Turner’s father — her baba, as she called him — was incarcerated in a minimum security facility right outside of their town. She explained that the incarcerated individuals from the facility would be brought into town to help set up rodeos, and Turner’s mother had picked her father up, snuck him into their house, and had him make the children clean their rooms.
“My baba was very impressed with my childhood and upbringing, and around the last time he was released from prison, the narrative that was being reinforced right from my community, right my elected officials, was that people who are in prison deserve to be in prison and they are actively choosing a life of crime over choosing community and family,” Turner said. “That was something I internalized for a long time.”
During her junior year of college, Turner worked with the NAACP of Oklahoma and the Council on American Islamic Relations for Oklahoma. At first, Turner’s further career goal was to become a veterinarian, but then decided to pursue a career in figuring out how to correct Oklahoma’s justice system.
“I got to process that Oklahoma specifically, and the criminal legal system across America, does a really bang up job with keeping families and individuals incarcerated long after they leave the physical prison,” Turner said.
Soon, Turner came across the campaign, Smart Justice from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which focused on bettering the living conditions of incarcerated peoples and reintegrating formerly incarcerated people back into normal society.
Turner was then able to direct policy advocacy in a way they hadn’t been able to before, and was able to see firsthand that Oklahomans use middle-of-the-road solutions to solve everyday problems that they may not have encountered themselves. At this point, Turner wanted to find someone to run for office, but community members felt Turner would be the best choice.
“I decided that I would go ahead and listen to my community that was asking me to run, and I would listen to the advice I’m continuously giving our young students on why it’s important that we see ourselves and those who make, interpret and enforce policies that dictate our everyday lives,” Turner said. “… I had to put a lot of faith in my community to catch me when I jumped, because running for offices is not financially the best thing to do, it’s not something that’s easy to achieve [living on] paycheck to paycheck, and so it was a long road.
“I guess the ultimate advice would be to take a breath, it’s long and labor intensive work and burnout happens. So make sure that you’re caring for yourself and make sure that you don’t expect change overnight from a system that wasn’t built for us to be here in the first place.”