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THE L.A. 8 | COLUMN ONE

Lives of Worry, Sadness, 'Why?'

The L.A. 8, arrested in 1987 for allegedly aiding terrorists, still express bewilderment over it all. And the government still presses its case.

June 30, 2005|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

Picture a tidy, two-story house on the far eastern fringe of metropolitan Los Angeles, folded inconspicuously into the land of the tiled rooftop and the two-hour commute. At the front window stands an Arab man, 47 years old, with dark, brooding eyes and slumped shoulders. He stares out at the street, watching, waiting.

This is on the morning after Sept. 11, 2001. The man's name is Khader Musa Hamide. A Palestinian, he has lived in the United States for 30 years. He is a coffee bean wholesaler, an Internet day trader and the father of three boys. He is also, as he puts it, a "quote-unquote suspected terrorist."

For many years now, Hamide has fought off attempts by the United States government to deport him for activities related to his visible, vocal advocacy of Palestinian causes. He was arrested in early 1987, along with his Kenyan wife and six other Palestinian immigrants.

They initially appeared destined for rapid deportation to the Middle East. The proceedings stalled on legal challenges, however, and the L.A. 8, as they came to be called, were allowed to carry on with their lives as best they could while they waited for the litigation to run its course. They are waiting still.

On this grim morning, the man at the front window barely resembles the dashing young organizer captured years earlier in FBI surveillance photographs. He attributes his aging more to his troubles than to the passage of time. He has lost his hair. He has lost friends. And he has lost his sense of trust: Behind every new face, he sees a potential FBI undercover agent.

More than anything, though, he has lost his political voice, which, certain government documents suggest, was precisely the point of the investigation in the first place. This is a man who once demonstrated defiantly in front of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, who once exhorted hundreds at a 1986 Glendale fundraiser to reach into their wallets, telling them, "People, the revolution will not continue, and the march to Palestine will not go on, with words alone."

Now he tries to keep his political views to himself. His weekends are filled not with rallies for the revolution, but with suburban errands, ferrying kids to basketball practice in his van. He worries that his neighbors might discover he's a principal in a terrorism case. One man up the block, in fact, did piece it together, and his children haven't come to play since.

"I can see that," Hamide will concede. "If somebody thinks that there is a quote-unquote suspected terrorist living in the neighborhood ...

"Well, you know."

Fretting about neighborhood gossip on this morning, of course, would seem misplaced and maybe moot. Hamide has convinced himself that, given the terrible events of the day before, the FBI will start at once to round up every "Arab that has a brain."

Surely, he reasons, a Palestinian who already has been labeled a tool of terrorism by the United States, who for nearly 15 years has resisted a relentless government campaign to be rid of him, surely he will be among the first swept up. This is why Hamide watches the street. He is waiting, as he will recall years later in an interview, for the sedans with multiple antennae, the agents in their windbreakers. In 1987 they had surprised him at dawn, bursting into his apartment a dozen or so strong, guns drawn. This time he is ready.

"OK," he mutters to himself. "Come and get me. I've got my shoes on. Come and get me."

But the agents do not come, not on this day, not on any day since.

Instead, for Hamide and other members of the L.A. 8, the case simply will stagger along as it has from the start, with more legal filings and cross-filings, more revisions of the charges, more meetings with the lawyers, more paperwork to add to the heaping pile. And also, more time to ponder what they see as the central mystery of their peculiar legal predicament.

"Why? This is the biggest question," Hamide says. "Why us? And why is the government so persistent in this case? We honestly don't understand."

*

The Los Angeles Herald Examiner announced the arrests with a headline stripped across its front page: "War on Terrorism Hits L.A." When they recall that headline today, 18 years later, members of the eight will make a point of noting that the Herald Examiner no longer exists.

Their case has outlasted the paper -- along with five U.S. attorneys general, the McCarthy-era anti-communism law under which they were originally charged, the Soviet Union, numerous Middle East peace initiatives, Yasser Arafat, the coming and going of numerous "marathon" legal struggles, the Rodney King trial, the O.J. Simpson case, the Clinton impeachment, and their youth.

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