Posted by Tess Waggoner on May 01, 2019 in Blog

The first panel of 2019 Arab American Leadership Days, “Protecting Democracy: The First Amendment and Palestine, Voting Rights, and Hate Crime,” discussed three core issue areas: The First Amendment and Palestine, Voting Rights, and Hate Crime. All three issues are strongly related to AAI’s founding mission of nurturing and encouraging the political representation and civic engagement of Arab Americans.

MarilynThe panel began with an introduction from Marilyn Carpinteyro, from the organization Common Cause. She described elements of our current political landscape that undermine people’s ability to participate in the democratic process, including the unequal influence of large donors, and threats to voter districts and rights. Despite these attempts to undermine our democracy, Americans across the country are actively fighting for the expansion of voting rights, redistricting reforms, and campaign finance reforms. While these demands have been successfully finding their ways onto local ballots, there has also been a pushback to limit the ability of citizens to introduce ballot initiatives. Carpinteyro emphasized the need to make sure that people are not only motivated to turn out at the polls, but also that they continue to follow through on initiatives they have voted for after election day. A clear example of this kind of follow-through has been seen in Florida, where AAI supported the successful ballot initiative to expand voting rights which is now being challenged through state legislation. Furthermore, we need to be engaged in election administration and protection efforts, as this is an often overlooked yet essential aspect of democracy.

Manar Waheed, Senior Legislative and Advocacy Counsel at the ACLU, spoke of direct threats to the First Amendment, focusing on efforts to silence advocates of Palestinian human rights. “At the ACLU, we don’t take a position on Palestine or BDS, but we do take a position on free speech, which is very important to us,” she said. Her remarks focused on disturbing attempts to suppress voices supporting Palestine, especially on college campuses. She cited more than 100 bills proposed in state legislatures attempting to penalize those who boycott Israel, despite our countries long history of using boycotts to advance civil rights.

Waheed informed Leadership Days participants of three notable anti- BDS bills at the federal level. First, The Israel Anti- Boycott Acts 2017 penalized people or organizations with jail time for boycotting Israel. The bill has been reformed and jail time has been removed, however a fine of up to 1 million dollars can still be imposed for exercising First Amendment rights. Second, The Combating BDS Act allows states to divest from organizations that have ties with the BDS movement. While this bill does not criminalize boycotts in the same way the Israel Anti-Boycott Act does, it is nonetheless a threat to the First Amendment. Lastly, The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, although promising in name, is a Department of Education bill that conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel. Schools can lose funding for not following this problematic definition.

The panel continued with Natalie Tennant, former West Virginia Secretary of State and current State Advocacy Manager at the Brennan Center for Justice. Tennant spoke of ways to improve our voting system, with an emphasis on Automatic Voter Registration (AVR). This method switches from and opt-in to an opt-out system for eligible citizens who are interacting with a state agency. AVR is streamlined, cost effective, and an overall best practice approach. Several states are enacting AVR now with bipartisan support. The impact of AVR in 7 states and the District of Columbia was studied, and results showed that AVR substantially increases voter registration. If adopted nationally, AVR could add millions of new voters to rolls.

In addition to this promising new reform, Tennant also described legislation that restricts voting access. In Tennessee, for instance, there is a bill that would restrict assistance on voter registration and impose criminal penalties for submitting too many deficient voter registration forms. In Texas, a bill passed recently that increases penalties for inaccurate voter registrations and makes voting and registration increasingly difficult. Lastly, in Florida, the legislature is attempting to override the voices of voters who advocated for the restoration of voting rights to formerly convicted persons by passing legislation that would block this resolution. 

The panel concluded with Nadia Aziz, Co-interim Director of the Stop Hate Project and Policy Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law. Aziz spoke of the threat hate crime poses to democracy. 2017 is the third consecutive year in which hate crime has been on the rise. Hate crimes, such as vandalism or assault, differ from other crimes because they are motivated by bias against the actual or perceived protected characteristics of a group or individual. According to Aziz, hate crimes hurt more than other crimes; victims and their communities are more likely to experience PTSD, anxiety, depression, and anger. Furthermore, hate crimes can change one’s ability or interest in participating in public life, making them a threat to democracy. The Arab American community faces increased backlash in the form of hate crime when there are developments in the Middle East or mass violence domestically. After 9/11, hate crimes increased 1000%, and then dropped significantly after President Bush visited a mosque. 

Aziz emphasized the need to improve hate crime data reporting and collection. Most hate crime incidents don’t get reported to law enforcement in the first place. Of those that do, many fall through the cracks and are not reflected in official statistics. Aziz shared five recommendations to combat hate crime within the Arab American community. First, if you are targeted for a hate crime, report it. Next, take action on a local level and support national efforts to improve hate crime data collection and reporting. Lastly, we must make sure we know the issue at hand as well as our collective story. Aziz highlighted the case of Khalid Jabara, who was murdered by his neighbor in his Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2017. The heinous murder, although clearly a hate crime, was not reported as such. Such tragedies reinforce for the Arab American community the importance of improved reporting, data collection and advocacy.

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