United States magistrate judge Laurie Michaelson treated everyone who came before her with notable kindness and courtesy, whether for an arraignment, detention hearing or to decide if an individual should be jailed for violating his bail terms.
She wished each of the men who stood before her bench at the US courthouse in Detroit on Wednesday, including those wearing red vests bearing the words “Wayne County Jail Prisoner,” a “good afternoon” before going through the motions of his case.
But her gentle manner could not conceal the violence manifest in that wood-paneled courtroom. Most of the defendants sat along the wall on one side of the room. Unable to afford lawyers, all but one required a federal defender.
On the other side of the room were the prosecutors – men and women in suits – secure in the knowledge that they had the unlimited resources of the United States at their disposal.
And there, too, was Rasmea Yousef Odeh, sitting in the front row with her nephew on one side and Chicago attorney Jim Fennerty on the other, waiting for her case to be called.
In the rows of seats behind, several dozen supporters packed the benches. I sat in the back row between a correspondent from Reuters and a local representative of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Many of us had come from Chicago, Rasmea’s home, to be with her.
Outside the courthouse in the bitter cold, there were dozens more from Chicago, from Dearborn, Grand Rapids and Detroit, Michigan and from as as far away as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Supporters in several other cities including Chicago, Minneapolis, Tampa and Oakland held rallies as well.
A dozen students, including Farah Erzouki, traveled from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the rally at the courthouse.
“We represent the [Students for Justice in Palestine] both in Michigan and nationally and came to show solidarity and support for Rasmea Odeh,” Erzouki told Fightback News.
But inside, Rasmea had to wait her turn as other individuals were called up for arraignment – a procedure where the accused hears the charges they face, along with the penalties if convicted, and then has the choice of pleading guilty, not guilty or “standing mute.”
All the accused but one were people of color and Rasmea was the only woman. The first person called up, Mr. N., had been charged with “unlawful re-entry into the United States” – I presume from Mexico, since he required a Spanish-English interpreter.
From the few details revealed in the hearing it appeared he has a wife in the United States. The penalty, if convicted, for wanting to stay with his family? Ten years and a fine of up to $250,000.
Another man, also requiring an interpreter, faced the same charge, and a third person, an African American man, was arraigned for “transporting an illegal alien within the United States.” Again, up to ten years in prison and astronomical fines on conviction.
This too is the context for Rasmea Odeh’s case, which was made vividly clear in that court room.
Men with guns
Then there was a young man, also African American, who faced a charge of “brandishing” a gun while committing a robbery (this is a federal offense because robberies interfere with “commerce”). Now, even though the man was not accused of firing the weapon or injuring anyone, this is still a serious charge that carries an additional seven years in prison on top of other penalties.
It struck me, though, how differently this country treats people brandishing – and firing – guns: in some cases they are deemed “mentally disturbed,” in other cases “terrorists” or reviled criminals against whom the full weight of the United States must be brought to bear.
Most of the time, of course, men with guns are considered patriots and heroes exercising a constitutional right or “serving their country.” But it’s not always easy to tell which is which.
Justice for Renisha McBride
I could not help thinking of Renisha McBride.
Just a few miles away from the Detroit federal courthouse, in the early hours of 2 November, McBride walked up to a house in the suburb of Dearborn Heights to seek help after a car accident.
But instead of helping her, or calling 911, the homeowner shot McBride, 19, in the face and killed her.
Although he later claimed – implausibly – that the shooting was an “accident,” the gunman has not explained why he waited several hours before calling the emergency services to report what he had done.
Police have refused to release the name of the shooter although he was named on Democracy Now! on 13 November as 54-year-old Ted Wafer.
The Dearborn Heights police have not arrested him or charged him.
As outrage about McBride’s killing grows, hundreds have rallied in Dearborn Heights to demand justice for her and her family.
Why has Wafer not been arrested? “His whiteness is the only explanation I can come up with; you know, her black body, justification, de facto,” filmmaker and activist Dream Hampton told Democracy Now!.
“We know that the … Dearborn Heights Police Department is an all-white police force.”
Commenting on her niece’s shooting with – for now – total impunity, McBride’s aunt Bernita Spinks asked, “Wow! Could I possibly do that? Somebody knocked on my door, and I pull my shotgun out, and I shoot them while they’re leaving off my porch, instead of finding out what was the problem—would I be standing here? No, I’d be in jail without a bond.”
But as we are reminded with tragic regularity, this is a country whose legislatures and courts are more interested in protecting sacred “commerce” and property than the sanctity of African American lives.
Now it was Rasmea’s turn and she and Detroit attorney William Swor went up (a local lawyer is required in the court). The procedure was a formality for the ever courteous Judge Michaelson, but I can only imagine what Rasmea must have felt when the court clerk called out “United States vs. Rasmea Odeh.”
The charge was read: obtaining naturalization by fraud. Rasmea is accused of failing to disclose on her US citizenship application twenty years ago that she had a prior conviction.
The conviction in question was in an Israeli military court 45 years ago – in which there is nothing resembling due process – for involvement in two bombings in Jerusalem, one of which killed two civilians.
She spent ten years in prison before receiving a pardon and being released by Israel as part of a prisoner exchange.
If convicted for this omission, the judge explained, Rasmea could face ten years in prison, an exorbitant fine and the trial court would “revoke, cancel and declare null and void” her United States citizenship certificate.
From Lifta to Chicago
Rasmea Odeh is from Lifta, Palestine. She was born in 1948, the year Lifta was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias.
During her time in Israeli detention, she faced torture including sexual abuse.
Despite her ordeal, after her release and expulsion to Lebanon in 1979, Rasmea made her way to Jordan where she earned a law degree.
She moved to the United States in 1995 and, as the dozens of organizations expressing support for her have reiterated, she has dedicated herself to working with women to promote literacy, education and to fight domestic violence and racism.
On 22 October, Rasmea was arrested in Chicago, on behalf of federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Michigan, and released on bond the same day.
Like the other defendants Rasmea “stood mute” and Judge Michaelson entered a plea of “not guilty” on her behalf, just as she did for every other accused person.
After the hearing, those of us in the courtroom joined those still rallying outside. Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, of which Rasmea is associate director, reminded us why we were there.
Rasmea’s case is not just one of alleged “immigration fraud.” It is in every sense a political case and part and parcel of the ongoing assault on Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities, Abudayyeh said.
One must wonder why the government would decide to dig out her 20-year-old immigration file now. As Abudayyeh suggested, this may be another case of selective prosecution, where Rasmea Odeh was singled out because of the community she comes from.
We know, from the great piece Bill Chambers wrote for The Electronic Intifada this week, that in the case of Irish political prisoners, US authorities have acted with discretion when they judged that it would help the cause of peace and reconciliation. As Chambers, who was also in court for Rasmea’s hearing, pointed out, Palestinians have never been shown such mercy.
And while the government doggedly pursues Rasmea Odeh, the impunity enjoyed by the killer of Renisha McBride also extends overseas to other men with guns.
My Electronic Intifada colleague Maureen Murphy writes: “Meanwhile, the US provides Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and other arenas, ensuring [Israel] total impunity — even when US citizens are its victims.”
These victims include include Furkan Doğan, the American teenager extrajudicially executed by Israeli commandos while he held a small camcorder documenting their assault on the Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid ship in international waters on 31 May 2010.
Yesterday, after the hearing, as Jim Fennerty and Rasmea stepped out of the courthouse into the cold, they were received with warmth by those outside. In brief statements the two expressed how much the public support meant, and how much it will mean as the case goes forward.
Rasmea’s next court appearance – the date was not set in the arraignment hearing – will be for discovery and preliminary matters before the trial court of US District Judge Paul D. Borman in Detroit.
The road from Chicago to Detroit is long and it is one that Rasmea and many of her supporters are likely to travel many times in the months and perhaps years ahead.
And while “standing mute” before the power of the government is the wise course attorneys counsel their clients to take at this stage in a case, it is not an option for us. We will also need to speak out as we travel that road with her.