Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies

Chapter 7

Local Government Responses and Best Practices

The final panel heard from representatives of local government agencies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, mainly in Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions, who described some of the actions taken by their agencies on and after September 11, 2001, to respond to the emergency and ensure the safety of groups affected by the backlash.[1] In addition, a representative of the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service spoke about this unit’s efforts to assist local authorities across the country in meeting this challenge, and staff members of two Islamic educational organizations commented on the response by schools and law enforcement. Among the major points made by the Panel Five speakers:

Ronald Clarkson
Community relations manager, Office of the County Executive, Montgomery County, Maryland

The situation in the beginning was very tense and the atmosphere was one of disbelief. On the afternoon of September 11, we started making phone calls to representatives of the communities that we thought might experience retaliation, to find out what was happening and let them know we were available to help. The police department also started similar outreach, offering to do security checks at facilities, to give them the maximum protection possible and also let them know that the county does care. This was based on our own guess that people might retaliate for the terrorist attacks, because we know that in the past even lesser incidents have put gasoline on the fire in terms of people acting out their hatred.

We were active that entire week, going out to locations, talking to people, trying to reassure the community and make sure things were under control. The county executive organized an interfaith prayer service on September 14 and made a statement at that event calling for tolerance and respect for differences. Since then, the county Human Rights Commission has visited mosques and other places in the community to discuss people’s concerns. We mounted an education campaign around the anthrax threats, holding public forums to talk about bioterrorism preparedness and about tolerance. There were some minor hate incidents reported in the county, but no physical violence.

Every year in December the county executive holds an ecumenical prayer service. The December 2001 service, which fell during the month of Ramadan, was held in a mosque and drew the largest turnout we’ve ever had for one of our prayer services. It was an unspoken statement that we recognize the value of the mosque in the community, that we are going to learn as much as we can about the Muslim community, and make sure that we do not victimize that community.[2]

Charles Moose
Chief of police, Montgomery County, Maryland

Our police department’s response to September 11 has been in three broad areas: community outreach, public safety coordination, and internal issues. As a result of September 11, many people in our community were identified right away as “culprits,” and we had a tremendous spike in our hate crime statistics. Within hours of the attacks, the Montgomery County police department put squad cars at mosques and Jewish facilities in the county to protect them. Since then, we’ve done aggressive investigation of the spike in hate crimes and are working with affected communities to track trends and patterns so that they can assist us in finding solutions.

In public safety coordination, we have tried to pool our cultural and language resources as we respond. In terms of internal response, we reissued our policy and directive on civil and human rights. We’ve provided counseling for people in the community and inside the agency so the stress they feel doesn’t manifest itself in violence.

We need to increase the diversity in the law enforcement workforce and make sure the workforce we have is knowledgeable and sensitive. But certain groups don’t seem to seek out public safety jobs. It is a challenge we continually face.

I am very concerned about the movement by the Department of Justice to ask local law enforcement to do immigration work.[3] When the FBI has asked local law enforcement to go with them to interview specific people, we did join them because it was in the context of specific questions about possible crimes. But we are not trained to enforce federal immigration laws. We’ve spent years trying to build trust with communities, and we have come a long way; asking us to do immigration work is a hand grenade to destroy all of that trust. It threatens to destroy all the progress we have made. It is clearly the wrong direction, but it’s coming from the top down. It puts us in a precarious position and will force someone like myself to give thought to whether 27 years in law enforcement may be enough. I should note, though, that the law enforcement community is divided on this concept, and some leaders in law enforcement endorse it.

Regarding the proposal in certain states such as Virginia to identify immigration status on driver’s licenses, this is foolishness that cannot solve the problem. Before September 11, the biggest terrorist act in America was committed by Timothy McVeigh, whose driver’s license wouldn’t have shown anything unusual.

There are two different approaches to solving this problem: the criminal justice approach and the “war” approach. With war, a lot of rules go out the window. Since September 11, people have been willing to throw some things out the window and not stay focused on the criminal justice system and the Constitution.[4]

James Ashton
Virginia Department of Education (representing Dr. Jo Lynne DeMary, state superintendent of public instruction, Virginia Department of Education)

Our response to September 11 drew on crisis management systems that the Virginia Department of Education had put in place and that school divisions had been perfecting for the last three or four years. These systems allowed us to possibly avert some problems that could have occurred. The vast majority of school divisions in the state provided counseling to students and parents to help them cope with the events of September 11. Some offered special counseling to Muslim children and to all directly affected children. In at least four or five school divisions, Muslim imams in the area came in to assist.

Many positive changes have occurred in schools since September 11, which have resulted in the formation of new partnerships and networks. Many PTAs have held international awareness days to promote tolerance of cultural and religious differences. Also, the Farmville, Virginia, community held an interdenominational religious ceremony. Many organizations assisted schools in planning special activities, especially in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater area where there are many ethnic groups. The Virginia Association of Multicultural Educators conference will feature a dialogue with representatives of groups affected by September 11, including Muslims and Sikhs.[5]

Brian Boykins
Assistant district commander, Mason District, Fairfax County Police, Virginia

Prior to September 11, we had established the Bias Incident Unit to improve the reporting of hate incidents, and we reached out to diverse communities to hear their concerns. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, we put out public messages that hate crimes would not be tolerated and violators would be prosecuted. Unfortunately, since September 11 we’ve seen an increase in reported bias incidents, some of which is due to our change in reporting procedures.

As a black person in America I bring a unique perspective, as this whole scenario of hatred played out not too long ago in relation to African Americans. Now we’re right back here dealing with hatred again. I’m proud that I can go into a variety of communities and make clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

As far as racial profiling being used to identify potential terrorists, in law enforcement we should be focusing on behavior rather than on racial and ethnic stereotypes that are insignificant. For example, several of the terrorists went to flight school and only wanted to learn how to take off, not how to land. That should have been a red flag, regardless of their race or ethnicity.[6]

Penelope Gross
Member of the board of directors, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and Mason District supervisor, Fairfax County, Virginia

On September 11, the emergency response at the Pentagon was rapid and highly professional. Where the Council of Governments saw gaps was in other areas, away from the Pentagon. As a result, we have been working hard for months to develop a regional emergency coordination plan so the region can be better prepared should another emergency occur.

Although much of it deals with technical aspects, emergency planning also needs to include a cultural component. When the September 11 attacks hit, certain members of our community were suddenly seen in a different way. In an emergency, our first responders always have to keep in mind that everyone must be treated with dignity and respect.

Wearing my hat as Mason District supervisor, I would like to emphasize that our local response here in Mason District started long before September 11. The population of the district includes longtime residents who’ve been here since the 1940s as well as many new immigrants, and frictions were apparent. In 1998 I developed a group called Kaleidoscope, which meets once a month and has held two town meetings to talk about cultural issues in the community and build greater understanding. Kaleidoscope has established networking and socializing among people who never would have met one another otherwise.

This good will was tested on September 11. That afternoon, five Muslim clerics came to my office expressing their great fear of a backlash that would put women and children in danger. At my suggestion, they held a multicultural prayer service at the Dar Al-Hijra mosque involving local ministers, members of the school board, and the community. This effort drew on the relationships we had begun building at least two years before.

The fallout from September 11 affected all immigrants in this country, not only Arabs and South Asians. It affected them psychologically, making them feel as if they’re moving backward in the process of acceptance. For example, there was a tremendous impact on the Latino community.[7]

Sharee Freeman
Director, Community Relations Service, Department of Justice

The District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia have done a super job of dealing with the aftermath of September 11.

After the terrorist attacks, the attorney general made a public service announcement condemning hate crimes, and we told our U.S. attorneys throughout the country to make similar statements. In the months since then, the Community Relations Service of DOJ has undertaken intensive outreach throughout the nation. We are:

The raids in Northern Virginia in March were done by the law enforcement side of the Treasury Department. CRS has stayed away from that issue. CRS is not a law enforcement agency. We did have several meetings with some national groups on the subject, but we have not engaged in any community activities focusing on this.

As regards the discussion of local police doing immigration enforcement, at present there has to be a memorandum of agreement between the Justice Department and a local police force before this type of activity can take place. That has only happened in one state. I think we all recognize that it’s a new day. And it may surprise you to know that some Muslim communities outside the Beltway have been telling us, go get these bad guys and do whatever it takes. I think having community forums like this is one way to help achieve balance in our policies, with respect to making sure that what happened on September 11 never happens again.[8]

Susan Douglas
Principal researcher, Council on Islamic Education

Efforts to build understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims didn’t start on September 11, 2001. We’ve long known that we need to teach American students about other cultures and religions, about geography and history, about where the United States fits into the world. The Council on Islamic Education has co-published a study that explains state requirements in curriculum about religion in a way that fits within a constitutional framework, and we have also prepared materials for teaching about Islam and Muslims in the public schools.[9]

Educational efforts on these themes have greatly accelerated since September 11. State departments of education across the country responded within hours of the attacks to help schools deal with the event and avoid hate. There has been a flurry of teacher training workshops and presentations over the last eight months.

Fairfax County Public Schools has a proactive approach that involves dual efforts for enhancing community outreach and social studies standards to include broader teachings about the world. They set up an Arab and Muslim task force of community members and educators that held a number of meetings in the fall of 2001 to address the responses of the schools in preventing hate violence.

The structures for teaching tolerance are in place, and we need to continue to do more of the same.[10]

Jason Erb
Government relations officer, Council on American-Islamic Relations

The initial local response to the backlash was good around the country. Police provided protection to mosques to prevent vandalism and hate crimes. Local officials did outreach and made public statements urging people not to turn on their neighbors. There were numerous prayer vigils and other public events.

Many Muslim immigrants in this country are somewhat isolated from the larger community, so in times of crisis, they’re out of touch with local officials. However, that was not necessarily the case here in Virginia and Maryland, where the Muslim communities are so large. Efforts to build good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the area began well before September 11 and will continue.

Nonetheless, there is a continuing stream of hate language, for example, on local radio talk shows. Commentators make statements about Islam that show their ignorance, and these statements are not being challenged as much now as they were in the immediate aftermath of September 11. And given the involvement of the United States in various crises around the world, we will probably see the backlash against Muslims spike again, increasing their alienation from the larger society. We need to remain vigilant and work to prevent that.

There have been cases in parts of the country where the local response was not appropriate, where local police rounded up immigrants for no real reason. Furthermore, the federal government is now talking about using local law enforcement to help enforce immigration policies. When people are stopped for a traffic violation and then asked about their immigration status, this undermines the community’s trust. A number of police forces actually refused to cooperate with the “voluntary” interviews of 5,000 Arab and Muslim men because they knew it would destroy trust. On the other hand, in some other places local law enforcement was eager to round up and expel Muslims. Most of the 1,200 people detained after September 11 were held on very minor visa violations, and in the voluntary interviews, immigration questions topped the list. Those interviews have led in some cases to weeks and months of detention without charges. This has sent the wrong message to the community.

The September 11 tragedy has provided an opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the United States to work together toward greater mutual understanding and recognize some of the stereotypes on both sides. We need to continue these efforts given the likelihood that other events will again raise tensions within the community.[11]

[1] Regrettably, no representative of the District of Columbia government attended the forum, despite a written invitation and follow-up calls to the mayor’s office. The deputy mayor who agreed to attend the forum did not attend or send word, nor did the mayor’s office respond to an invitation to provide a written statement after the event. The SAC members therefore were unable to learn about specific initiatives taken by the D.C. government, police, or schools to respond to the events of September 11. The forum did, however, hear from a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which includes the D.C. government.

[2] Ronald Clarkson, summary of testimony before the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Annandale, Virginia, April 24–25, 2002, transcript, pp. 416–24, 505–07 (hereafter cited as Forum Transcript).

[3] Historically, only the U.S. Department of Justice has had authority to enforce federal immigration laws, but Attorney General Ashcroft is now moving to empower local law enforcement to make arrests on civil immigration violations as part of the war on terrorism. In 1996 Congress authorized the attorney general to make agreements with state and local governments permitting them to enforce immigration laws; as of October 2002 only Florida had concluded such an agreement. However, the Justice Department drafted an opinion in 2002 arguing that state and local law enforcement already have “inherent authority” to make arrests for civil immigration violations. The memo, seen as signaling an important shift, sparked strong opposition from civil liberties organizations and from many local police forces, and has not yet been issued publicly. See James M. Lindsay and Audrey Singer, “Local Police Should Not Do a Federal Job,” New York Times, May 8, 2002; Darryl Fears, “Hispanic Group Assails INS Enforcement Plan,” Washington Post, July 23, 2002; and Migration Policy Institute, “Authority of State and Local Officers to Arrest Aliens Suspected of Civil Infractions of Federal Immigration Law,” June 11, 2002, <> (Oct. 25, 2002).

[4] Summary of testimony by Charles Moose, Forum Transcript, pp. 425–29, 481–90, 507–10, 519–22.

[5] Summary of testimony by James Ashton, Forum Transcript, pp. 429–35, 501–02, 518.

[6] Summary of testimony by Brian Boykins, Forum Transcript, pp. 436–41, 478–79, 488–89, 510.

[7] Summary of testimony by Penelope Gross, Forum Transcript, pp. 441–52, 480–81, 490–91, 498–501, 504–05, 508–09, 512–13, 516–17.

[8] Summary of testimony by Sharee Freeman, Forum Transcript, pp. 452–60, 477–80, 484, 491–93, 497–98, 522–23.

[9] Council on Islamic Education, Teaching About Islam and Muslims in the Public School Classroom, <> (Oct. 28, 2002).

[10] Summary of testimony by Susan Douglas, Forum Transcript, pp. 460–70, 518–19.

[11] Summary of testimony by Jason Erb, Forum Transcript, 470–76, 494–96, 511–12.