ACLU, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, Council on American-Islamic Relations File Suit
LOS ANGELES — The City of Los Angeles is set to receive a $425,000 grant from the federal Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program supposedly aimed at building community resistance to extremism. But under the Trump administration, the secretive CVE program poses a dangerous threat to the civil rights and religious liberties of American Muslims.
Today, a coalition of civil rights and community groups filed a lawsuit against the city for not fully answering Public Records Act (PRA) requests for information on how the grant funds will be used. The lawsuit demands full transparency regarding the grant, including any instructions and conditions imposed by federal officials.
The lawsuit was filed by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Greater Los Angeles Chapter, and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. The group Vigilant Love Coalition that battles Islamophobia is also a plaintiff in the suit.
“The need for information is even more imperative now under the Trump administration, which has unleashed a number of Islamophobic policies including the Muslim travel ban,” said Laboni Hoq, litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. “With this lawsuit, we intend to arm impacted community members with the information they need before participating in CVE programs, if they do go forward in L.A., which we oppose as discriminatory and ineffective.”
The Obama administration formally initiated the CVE program in 2011 to combat efforts to incite “Americans to support or commit acts of violence” under the false assumption that local authorities could identify behaviors and actions that would predict future radicalism. These so-called “indicators” centered around First Amendment-protected activities, including holding certain political views or being a devout adherent to Islam.
“The CVE program indicts Muslims as potential threats to the homeland when they do nothing more than practice their religion or engage in political activism,” said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. “The government’s focus on First Amendment-protected activities enables inappropriate monitoring and surveillance of local Muslim communities.”
Under Trump, the administration has removed any pretense that this isn't an anti-Muslim program. According to a Reuters news report last year, the administration seriously considered changing the name of the program to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.” Even more telling was the fact that the Department of Homeland Security withdrew a CVE grant to Life After Hate, a group that planned to use the funds to combat white supremacist violence.
"At a time when our communities need resources more than ever, the most destructive part is that CVE is a disguised effort by the government to offer this, all the while furthering it’s agenda to profile and surveil us," said Sahar Pirzada, co-founder of the Vigilant Love Coalition.
On Feb 7 and July 12, 2017, plaintiffs requested information concerning the CVE program from the city under the California Public Records Act, which is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Instead of providing the requested information in compliance with the PRA requests, city officials delayed producing relevant information, often without explanation, and provided incomplete productions which fell far short of the requests made by the parties in this action.
Anjan Choudhury, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, notes that “it has been over 16 months since these community and civil rights groups made their requests for information to bring transparency on this important issue. The very real and urgent need to end this delay is exactly why Public Records Acts exist.”
The city’s support of CVE is a glaring departure from its commitment to protect Muslim communities from unwarranted targeting and the PRA is an important tool to hold it to account. Angelenos have, in many ways, stood up to the bigoted, inflammatory, anti-Muslim statements and directives of the Trump administration. Thousands of protesters descended upon LAX to rally against the Muslim travel ban. And Mayor Garcetti, who went to the airport to personally welcome a once-banned Iranian man the ACLU got into the country, said last year in response to anti-Muslim actions by the administration, “L.A. will always protect the safety and security of our families and communities, and will remain a welcoming city where people from all over the world can find a home.”
“CVE targets and stigmatizes the Muslim community by promoting the false premise that Muslims are inherently dangerous,” says Marwa Rifahie a civil rights managing attorney at CAIR-LA. “The City of L.A. must protect the civil liberties of all its residents and reject the institutionalized profiling and surveillance that the CVE program will subject Muslim Americans to.”