Posted on June 15, 1998 in Washington Watch

Even with the progress made by Arab Americans in recent years, problems of discrimination and bigotry remain.

I have been involved in fighting two such cases for the past several weeks. The first involves 39 Arab American small storeowners in Phoenix, Arizona. All of these merchants are recent immigrants. All are victims of shocking abuse by local and state law enforcement agencies. And some of them even appear to have been unfairly exploited by local attorneys.

The story of these 39 Arab Americans merchants began in September 1997, when they were arrested by Phoenix police and charged with selling quantities of legal cold medicines to undercover police agents.

Although these medications are, in fact, legal and sold all over the United States, unbeknownst to the Arab merchants, the state of Arizona had passed a law prohibiting their sale in large quantities. The law was passed after it was discovered that these medications contain small quantities of a substance that can be processed into an illegal drug and sold by criminal elements.

What the state of Arizona and Phoenix city officials did to the Arab merchants was itself criminal.

Significantly, after passing the law, steps were taken to notify the major businesses in Arizona that sale of these items were being monitored. The Arab-owned and other small merchants were deliberately not notified. During the course of the court proceedings, a law enforcement official admitted that he was told not to inform the small stores of the law because some agencies of the government “were involved in an investigation and they thought it would inhibit and hurt their investigation.”

What happened to the Arab merchants was a classic case of entrapment. Undercover police, disguised as tough looking drug pushers, entered the stores and prodded and pushed the merchant to sell them large quantities of the medicine in question.

In some instances the merchants didn’t even have the medicine in stock. In these cases, the undercover agents pushed them to order the item.

Most of these businesses are in tough neighborhoods, and most of the merchants are recent immigrants who speak English poorly and are frequently afraid that they may be victims of robbery or other violent crimes.

Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that most of the merchants sold whatever the police wanted or ordered the product if they didn’t have it in stock.

One merchant did not comply with the pressure of the disguised under cover agents. And his story only seems to demonstrate how dishonest was the entire police operation.

When the agents came to his business insisting that he sell them the cold medication, he informed them that he did not have large quantities in stock. The agents described for him how they needed this item in order to “cook some dope,” slang for “process or make drugs”–an expression which most of the other merchants did not understand, but which he did, since he had been in the United States for many decades.

Not realizing that these were undercover police agents, the merchant called the police and reported this incident. The police never filed a report of his complaint and instead told him that he had nothing to worry about since it was legal to sell the medication in question.

All these facts and more came out in the court proceedings. For example, the police provided no evidence that any of these stores had actually sold any of these cold medications in large quantities to anyone other than the police who had entrapped them. And it was clear that since they had never been informed of the law, that most of the merchants had no idea what was going on, even after they had been arrested. The one local reporter who covered this story noted that if only the Sheriff’s Department had sent a notice and explained the situation to the merchants, the taxpayers of Arizona could have saved the million dollars it cost to carry out this operation. And the Arab merchants would have been spared their nightmare.

As a result of the many irregularities in this case, the court dismissed the charges against the Arab merchants last month. But the 30 Arab Americans still live in fear. Some are concerned that new charges may be brought against them. This fear has been encouraged by some of their lawyers who have already charged them over $750,000 in fees. Many of the Arab Americans are still being harassed by the police and other legal authorities with fines and penalties and other legal proceedings directly and indirectly related to the now dismissed medicine case.

Because there is only a small Arab American community in Phoenix, the merchants are extremely vulnerable to such harassment and discrimination. It became clear during the court proceedings that the authorities specifically targeted the “Middle Eastern” businesses, without prior evidence that they had been engaged in wrongdoing.

Since this group is small, with no political clout and no friends in local politics, they faced this nightmare alone–until they called us in Washington and asked us to come to Phoenix to help.

Now, the Arab American Institute and the National Arab American Business Association are working with the Arab American merchants in Phoenix to help them make contacts with potential allies in Arizona politics and to prepare for a possible civil rights legal action against the authorities who targeted them and violated their rights.

As we told the Arab American merchants of Phoenix when we met with them earlier this month, it is important to fight to secure your rights. The history of America is this–groups that are discriminated against and vulnerable to attack, organize, become stronger, fight back and win.

For Arab Americans the fight is continuing.

Next week I will write about another extremely disturbing case of bigotry we are fighting.

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