April 21, 2011
by Andrew Purcell
"Reflections on the April 9 Mobilization for Aafia"
"Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill."
Some of you will recognize this as a quote from the The Sermon on the Mount. It seemed an appropriate start to a reflection about an event that took place in the shadow of a prison.
To be honest, we weren't really in the shadow of anything. We were exposed to direct sunlight. The official temperature in Ft. Worth that day was over ninety degrees. The protest area was considerably hotter. We had lots of bottled water.
We were not allowed anywhere near the facility in which Aafia Siddiqui is being held. She was unaware of the demonstration, but the prison officials know we were there, and that was the point.
A group of American citizens, we were going to exercise our First Amendment right to assemble peacefully and express our views. Mauri Saalakhan, from the Peace Thru Justice Foundation, organized this demonstration. He made it clear that we were going to have a non-violent and non-confrontational demonstration. We were going to follow the guidelines set down by the local law enforcement agencies. We were not going to create problems for anyone, nor were we going to provoke a response from law enforcement officials or passers-by.
More than a hundred people chose to give up their Saturday afternoon to speak up on behalf of a woman who has been isolated from any contact with anyone. We met in a field just to the side of a highway exit ramp. We were instructed not to stand in or cross the street. We were told not to pass the trees at one end of the field or the sign at the other end that marked the beginning of the prison property.
This is as good a place as any to compliment the Westworth, Texas police department, in whose jurisdiction this demonstration took place. They were both professional and polite. Their basic position was if we didn't do anything that would cause them extra paperwork we would all end the afternoon as friends.
Those driving past us were friendly. They waved, honked their horns, held up the two-fingered peace symbol.
There were people still drifting in long after the demonstration was over. I know that one friend had come in all the way from whichever Carolina she hails only to arrive when the last few stragglers were leaving.
Most of us had never done anything like this before. There were several people who would describe themselves as activists but the other ninety five percent were just people who knew of Aafia's story and decided to help in the only way they could.
During Islamic prayers there is a moment when you look to the person on your right and then the person on your left. These are the people who came to this rally. On May 7 there will be a second demonstration at the same site. This time maybe the guy in the middle will join us.
We made a difference.
This demonstration was successful. We got the attention of the prison authorities. When the demonstration was announced last month, Aafia's brother began to receive letters from her. Three of them. Sort of. Picture the notebook paper you send your children to school with. Now rip out a section with three lines. This is what a letter from Aafia looks like. Barely enough space to write "Dear Bhai" and "Love Aafia" let alone anything else.
The big success came unexpectedly. On Thursday afternoon, five days after the demonstration, I got the following text message from Aafia's brother.
"My mother got a call from Aafia today. We feel the mobilization and the brave souls who came deserve full credit for this. JzkAllah"
This is the first call Aafia has been allowed to make in six months. To anyone.
The Pakistani government is claiming credit for the phone call and the letters and a visit to Aafia by an official from Pakistan's consulate in Houston. That is what governments do. But it is interesting that nothing happened until a hundred average Americans stood outside the prison for a few hours holding signs.
The Pakistani government is also claiming that they arranged a visit for Aafia's brother. This is just not so. This is one of several reasons why there will be further demonstrations.
The day after the demonstration I got this e-mail from Aafia's sister Fowzia in Karachi:
Fowzia sent e-mails like this to some of the others involved in the demonstration. To her it was simply good manners, thanking her supporters. She does not realize how powerful her words are. If any of us had any doubts about participating in this demonstration they disappeared.