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Police Check 'Little Gaza' Claims

Arab American merchants meet with Anaheim officials to complain of harassment by two officers looking for Islamic terrorists.

September 13, 2004|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

With the Muslim community under scrutiny by law enforcement since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Ahmad R. Alam wondered if it was a good idea to complain about two officers he felt were harassing and intimidating Arab Americans in an Anaheim shopping district known as Little Gaza.

But Alam's fear of making waves was overcome by an unshakable belief that what was happening was wrong. So he and other Middle Eastern business owners asked for a meeting with the police chief.

"We are Americans, and we live in America, not Baghdad, where you expect the police to act like these guys were acting. It wasn't right," said Alam, who was born in Lebanon.

He said the officers had told him they were looking for Islamic terrorists in the Muslim-owned shopping district on South Brookhurst Street -- a tight cluster of butcher shops, beauty salons, restaurants and offices.

Belal Dalati, another business owner who met with Police Chief John Welter, said it was the officers who were harassing the community.

Days after the Aug. 26 meeting with Welter and City Manager David M. Morgan, one of the officers offered an explanation, but not an apology, Alam said. It was a misunderstanding, the officer said.

On Thursday, city spokesman John Nicoletti said police had begun an internal investigation of the allegations against Sgt. Chuck Knight and Officer Wayne Casey. The officers did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Welter was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Given the climate of suspicion between law enforcement and the Islamic community, Alam and other Islamic business leaders in Little Gaza said, they are heartened that authorities are taking their concerns seriously.

"They have to understand that Muslim Americans love this country. Where we were born was not by choice. But we became Americans by choice," Dalati said. "But since 9/11 we don't feel like we're in America anymore. We understand that the FBI and police have to do their jobs to protect America. All we're asking is to treat us with respect and don't violate our rights."

Alam, owner of an Arabic- and English-language newspaper, and Dalati, who owns an insurance business, said Middle Eastern shoppers complained that one of the officers jotted down license plate numbers and asked to see licenses, vehicle registrations and immigration green cards.

At times, an officer would sit in an unmarked car and watch the stores and parking lots through binoculars from across the street, Dalati said. "It has been a very uncomfortable situation for a long time," said Dalati, who was born in Syria and is a U.S. citizen.

One of the officers pressured him to work as an informant, Alam said, and he decided he had had enough. The officer, he said, claimed there were five businesses in Little Gaza that were fronts for the militant group Hezbollah, and he wanted Alam to identify them.

It was a ridiculous claim, Dalati said. Hezbollah is supported by Shiite Muslims. The Muslims in Anaheim are overwhelmingly Sunnis. For Sunnis to support Hezbollah financially would be like Protestants in Northern Ireland giving money to the Irish Republican Army, he said.

Randy Hamud, an Arab American attorney in San Diego who has defended dozens of Muslims detained or arrested by federal authorities, said the officers appeared to be "profiling an entire community."

Hamud said he had faith in Welter, a former assistant police chief in San Diego whose relationship with that city's diverse communities was seen as an asset to the department.

Alam, Dalati and other businessmen also complained to City Councilman Richard Chavez, who said he too was a victim of spying when he was a city firefighter and union activist.

"It wasn't just Alam and Dalati. There were doctors, attorneys and others [of Arab descent] who told me about the constant harassment," said Chavez, who arranged for Alam, Dalati and other merchants to meet with city officials. "They interpreted this as an attempt by the city to make them go away. It made my blood boil."

Assertions of spying have been an issue in Anaheim for several years. This year, retired Police Capt. Marc Hedgepeth said police spent hundreds of hours in the late 1990s conducting surveillance of Chavez when he was president of the Anaheim Firefighters Assn.

In 2001, Hedgepeth said police conducted politically motivated surveillance of four Latino activists in the 1990s. Welter, who became chief in March, and City Manager Morgan, who also took his job after the alleged spying, have asked the state attorney general to review charges.

Before his meeting with city officials, Dalati said, he visited relatives in Syria. He found himself defending his adopted country from the criticism of relatives and friends.

"I was defending the country I love and its foreign policy, even though I don't agree with it," Dalati said. "In the Middle East, people try to make you feel ashamed because you're an American. Here, people make you feel ashamed that you are Arab, because of what criminals who say they are acting for Islam are doing."

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