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Southern regional conference to stop FBI repression builds solidarity

Conference unites over 100 activists from across the South
By Kosta Harlan |
February 23, 2011
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Speakers on the second panel
From left to right: Kosta Harlan (Triangle CSFR), Leila Yaghi (mother of Ziyad Yaghi of the NC 7), Peter Gilbert (UNC Center for Civil Rights), Lela Ali (In the Name of Humanity), Maureen Murphy (Palestine Solidarity Group), Khalilah Sabra (MAS Freedom), Jennifer Rudinger (ACLU), Meredith Aby (Twin Cities Anti-War Committee). (Triangle CSFR)
Attendees of the conference Steff Yorek (left) and Meredith Aby (right) give the keynote address Panel on history of FBI repression
From left to right: Elena Everett (Raleigh FIST), Lewis Pitts (public interest attorney), Theresa El-Amin (Green Party of the United States, Southern Anti-Racism Network), Efia Nwangaza (US Human Rights Network), and Dianne Mathiowetz (International Action Center, Atlanta). (Triangle CSFR)
Steff Yorek (left) and Meredith Aby (right) give the keynote address at the Southern regional conference to stop FBI repression. (Triangle CSFR)
Over one hundred activists from across the South came to the UNC School of Law to build the movement against political repression. (Triangle CSFR)

Chapel Hill, NC - Over 100 activists from across the South gathered at the University of North Carolina School of Law Feb. 19 for a conference against FBI repression of anti-war and international solidarity activists. The conference was one of four regional conferences organized by the national Committee to Stop FBI Repression (CSFR). Activists came from as far as Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia.

The main goal of the conference, which was organized locally by the Triangle CSFR, was to inform activists about the Sept. 24, 2010 FBI raids on anti-war activists and to unify organizing work across the region. 23 activists have now been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago relating to an investigation concerning the ‘material support of terrorism.’

The conference also examined the political and legal context for the FBI attacks on the anti-war movement, including the ten years of assaults on civil liberties and democratic rights under the guise of the so-called war on terror.

"The Southern Regional Conference of the CSFR was a really great event," said subpoenaed activist and keynote speaker Steff Yorek. "The conference did an excellent job of tying together the issues around this case with the history and current realities of similar issues taking place in the South."

The conference began with an address from subpoenaed activists Meredith Aby and Steff Yorek, who described in moving detail the outrageous raids on their homes, including how their young children were traumatized by the FBI raids. Aby noted, "The FBI basically held me hostage in my own house while they searched it for several hours." Aby discussed her subpoena to appear before the federal grand jury, and, to applause and cheers from the 100 attendees, Aby stated, "At no moment did I ever consider honoring this subpoena!"

Learning the history of FBI attacks on the movement

The first panel of the conference, moderated by Elena Everett of Raleigh FIST and the Triangle Committee to Stop FBI Repression, brought forth activists with decades of experience in the movements for justice, and who know firsthand about FBI and political repression against their movements.

Attorney Lewis Pitts gave an overview of the FBI's complicity in the Greensboro massacre, where several outstanding labor organizers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. Despite his chilling account of the state repression that led to murder, Pitts stressed, "We can't be frightened, we can't be chilled."

Theresa El-Amin, of the Green Party of the United States and the Southern Anti-Racism Network, traveled to the conference from Columbus, Georgia. After describing the FBI surveillance and repression of the Black liberation movement when she was active in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, El-Amin urged attendees, "Let's leave this conference with consciousness about how the FBI represses and why it does, so that we do not let it disrupt our movements."

"I lived through the days of raids of Black Panther Party and I feel like I'm coming full circle," said Efia Nwangaza of the U.S. Human Rights Network in Atlanta, Georgia. Nwangaza spoke of the more than 100 political prisoners in the United States and the urgency to free those prisoners, as well as prevent new ones from being interred.

Dianne Mathiowetz from the International Action Center in Atlanta closed out the panel by speaking about U.S. support of political repression in Colombia and elsewhere in South and Central America. Mathiowetz also discussed how the School of the Americas is used to attack the people's movements in Colombia.

Grand Juries, Material Support of Terrorism, the Legal and Political Context of the September 24 Raids

"The grand jury is supposed to stand between people and repressive government but it doesn't work that way," said Lewis Pitts in the morning panel. In the second panel of the day, speakers spoke about what this reality means for those who have been subpoenaed and why it is important to support activists who are refusing to appear before it.

"We heard from activists involved in protecting civil liberties about how new legislation has been developed to prosecute people for their political work and about how old legislation that protected our rights has been dismantled," said Maureen Murphy, a member of the Palestine Solidarity Group, in describing the panel to Fight Back!. "Speakers talked about how this has disproportionately affected the Arab and Muslim community in the U.S. and so we must stand together and unite to push back against this repression."

Murphy spoke about the long history of the government's use of grand juries to persecute political activists. Murphy also discussed the international context for the raids, and demonstrated how the U.S. is worried about the uprisings in Arab states. "While the increasingly desperate and defeated U.S. government will not simply step to the side and allow for peoples' liberation," Murphy emphasized, "we must not let the threat of repression prevent us from continuing to organize in support of peoples' struggles and toward a future of freedom and dignity for us all."

Activist Peter Gilbert of the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights gave an informative overview of how the Supreme Court decision in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project is impacting international solidarity activists. Lela Ali, a 16-year old Egyptian activist from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, representing In the Name of Humanity, gave an account of that organization's solidarity work with the people of Palestine. Ali also pointed to the struggles of the Egyptian people, as did many of the conference attendees, and urged those present to take inspiration from their struggle for freedom and democracy. Khalilah Sabra, from MAS Freedom, spoke about the criminalization of dissent and how the government is increasingly labeling those who oppose U.S. foreign policy as ‘terrorists.’

Jennifer Rudinger, the executive director of the ACLU in North Carolina, talked about the expansion of the PATRIOT Act and intensification of violations of privacy. Rudinger highlighted how massive databases of information are being mined and used for profiling individuals. She also gave a brief "Know Your Rights" training to members of the audience. Leila Yaghi gave a moving account of her son Ziyad Yaghi's case. Ziyad is one of the North Carolina 7, a group of people who were charged with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. In reality, Yaghi says, all her son did was take a trip to visit their homeland in Jordan.

Closing out the panel, Meredith Aby talked about how the material support of terrorism laws are being used to attack activists for their First and Fourth amendment activities. Aby also talked about the government infiltration of the Anti-War Committee, and how ‘Karen Sullivan,’ a professional liar, spent two and half years pretending to be an activist committed to peace and justice, while in reality she was spying on anti-war activists.

Continuing to build the struggle against FBI repression in the South

After the second panel concluded, activists gave reports about their local organizing efforts to oppose the FBI witch hunt against the anti-war movement. Attendees heard from organizers in Columbus and Atlanta Georgia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; South Carolina and Asheville, Durham, Raleigh, Rocky Mount and Greensboro in North Carolina. Organizers from Memphis Tennessee also described how the FBI attempted to intimidate their protest on Jan. 25. Inspired by the proceedings of the conference, organizers in Tennessee are now working on forming a Middle Tennessee Committee to Stop FBI Repression.

After the regional reports, Steff Yorek led the final section of the conference that discussed upcoming actions and summed up the day's events. All attendees vowed to mobilize for emergency protests should further subpoenas or indictments be issued against any anti-war activists. Attendees commented that they were extremely pleased with the panels and presentations, and were energized to continue the struggle. After the conference, Yorek told Fight Back!, "It was important to come together to against the attack on civil liberties and the right to dissent and oppose the attack by the Department of Justice on the anti-war and international solidarity movements."

Here in the Triangle area, organizers with the Triangle Committee to Stop FBI Repression were pleased with the result of the conference. Matt Drew, an organizer with the Triangle CSFR, told Fight Back!, "I thought it went very well. The broad support from our 38 co-sponsoring organizations across the South was amazing. The success of the conference has energized our committee to keep expanding and we will keep applying pressure to get this FBI repression shut down."