ACLU hosts conference on civil rights
By Delia Habhab | Tuesday, 02.05.2008, 09:47 PM

DEARBORN The Metro Detroit Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Michigan held its "Reclaiming Our Rights" conference on Saturday, January 26, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

Detroit Branch NAACP Deputy Director Donnell White (l, at table), Dawud Walid, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and ACLU staff attorney Mark Fancher speak to a room full of activists at the Arab American National Museum January 26 during the ACLU's Reclaiming our rights conference.

The conference, entitled "Standing up for Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights," focused on the attacks on civil liberties that people in the Metro Detroit area are currently facing.

Heather Bendure, ACLU Metro Detroit Board President, said that the conference was an opportunity to bring to light many of the issues affecting people in the Metro Detroit area, and allow individuals to discuss solutions to ongoing problems.

"The main focus of this conference was for ACLU members in the Metro Detroit area to get together and discuss issues of mutual concern," she stated.  "We wanted to highlight the key issues in Michigan, and give the participants an opportunity to discuss these ideas further and learn from each other."

The day-long event covered a wide variety of topics, including racial and ethnic rights, censorship, profiling, and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. 

Former director of the Center for Constitutional Rights Bill Goodman keynoted the event.

He targeted warrantless wiretapping, denial of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, torture, secret prisons and other ongoing civil and human rights violations.   

"You don't have to be a lawyer to understand basic democratic rights," he said.

"The writ of habeas corpus is such a critical right.  Without the ability to preserve this right, to go into court to demand of the judge, to demand of the juror that he tell you why you are being held  Without that, we are slaves to a police state." 

Goodman described the Guantanamo Bay military prison as a "place that was consciously and deliberately designed by this administration to hold people so they would be out of the reach of the courts of this country."

He talked about various lawsuits addressing the issues, gradually making progress.

"I think that all we can do is keep fighting. And fight like hell. All I know is that politicians are weak and the people are strong."

The conference also featured an address by U.S. Congressman John Conyers, Jr., who serves as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee.  Conyers spoke to a full auditorium about important issues being discussed in Washington. He also expressed frustration with the Bush administration, discussing Guantanamo, the erosion of civil rights and the struggling economy.  Despite these and other dire issues, Conyers maintained that there is hope for the future with the upcoming presidential election nearing.

 "It's a great notion that in one of the coldest spells of the winter so far, we all come out anyway," he said. "It is really encouraging that so many people are concerned with these matters. 

"The most exciting thing for me ladies and gentlemen is the fact that we are in the most exciting election for the presidency in the U.S. that I've ever been in," Conyers stated, referring to the diverse field of Democratic candidates.   

Conyers also commended the ACLU for their continued efforts in the field of civil rights, and encouraged them to continue their fight for the preservation of civil liberties.

Panel discussions and workshops were held throughout the day on  topics such as domestic spying and youth and student rights. One panel entitled "Church and State: Freedom of Religion," featured The Arab American News Publisher, Osama Siblani, as a guest speaker.  Siblani was joined by Frank Ravitch, a Professor of Law at Michigan State University, and Harry Cook, of St. Andrews Episcopal Church.

Each panelist offered their own unique perspective on religion in the U.S. and the changes that have occurred over the past several years.  They also discussed the 2008 presidential election, a recurring topic of the conference, and talked about how religion is used by politicians.  Siblani claimed that the many candidates running for the presidency are bringing religion to the forefront of many issues, and using it as a tool to sway voters.

"After 9/11, religion was suddenly thrown back into politics," Siblani stated. "As we move toward the upcoming elections, we see that happening more than ever.  I don't believe that we are practicing separation of church and state; I believe that we are witnessing the abuse of religion in politics."

Siblani went on to discuss the diversity of religion that exists in the U.S. stating, "We need to use it as a tool to reach out to those around us.  Islam should be used in the U.S. as an asset, a way to build bridges with the rest of the world."

In another workshop, ACLU staff attorney Mark Fancher detailed disparities in the education system in which students of color are suspended, expelled and referred to the criminal and juvenile justice system at higher rates than white students.

At the same time, Fancher said, statistics show that students of color are most often disciplined for insubordination and loitering while white students are most often disciplined for violence and possession of weapons or narcotics.

He said the ACLU is assembling work groups to gather statistics on the disparities for the purpose of advocating reform.

Dawud Walid, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke about facing discrimination on fronts as both a black man and Muslim.

"The American Muslim community has been under siege in the post-9-11 era," he said, detailing the struggle against wiretapping and the difficulties confronting Muslim charities since 2001.

"I have the privilege of flying while Muslim and driving while black," he said.

Fancher, Walid and Detroit Branch NAACP Deputy Director Donnell White did not express the same hope that Conyers did with regard to the promise of the upcoming presidential election.

"I don't see things getting better for the Muslim community," said Walid.

White said that it's not through political leadership that progress is acheived, but through communities.

"I don't think change is going to come from the top," he said.

Following the dialogue sessions were community breakouts, where conference participants were given the opportunity to meet fellow ACLU members who lived in their communities.  The sessions were broken up by geographic area, to allow people in neighboring regions to interact with one another and discuss issues affecting their particular areas.

"We are proud to say that this event was a great success," said Bendure.  "Not only did we bring in twice as many participants as we originally expected (nearly 200 attended) but the feedback we received was really positive.  People left the conference feeling motivated to get involved with issues on a local level and connect with fellow ACLU members in their areas."

To become involved in the Metro Detroit Chapter of the ACLU, visit

The Arab American News writer Khalil AlHajal and Elian El-Khamissi, intern at The Arab American News, contributed to  this report.

By Delia Habhab

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