Michel Shehadeh is one of the defendants in the 10-year old LA 8 case. The following are excerpts from an interview with him conducted by Joan Mandell on February 8, 1997.
You have been wanting to write something about the case. Have you always wanted to be a writer or were you motivated by the case?
When the case started, I was studying journalism at the California State at Long Beach. I had wanted to be a film director. Before I left Palestine, I wanted to be an actor. My father told me, if you have the talent you can be an actor, but you should learn a profession in case you do not make it.
I studied engineering under pressure from my mother’s family. They had an engineering company in Kuwait. They wanted me to study engineering to take care of the business.
My father was a well-read man and he loved films. He would often tell us stories from the books he read and the movies he saw. He got this from my grandmother — she was the instigator of reading. Because of her, I became an addicted reader at a very young age. In Birzeit, where I grew up, going to the movies two or three times year was a big treat. We did not have a television. We did not even have electricity. I can’t explain the magic and excitement of riding on the bus to go to the movies in nearby Ramallah. We would plan the trip for three or four weeks ahead of time, and after we would talk about it for six months.
We even used to make our own movies. We would go into a dark place, with a piece of white cloth, and make a screen. Then we would go behind it, with cardboard and sticks, light candles and make our own characters and do the narration. We would reenact the movies we saw in the theaters.
Around the age of 14, things changed. I became politically aware. I joined a youth club. Because of my passion for movies, I became head of the art committee, where I wrote and produced plays, which we would perform in the village and sometimes toured to other villages.
Did you continue your cultural activities in the United States?
When I got here, I was shocked by the distorted information on Palestinians, and even more by the level of hostility. At Niagara University, where I was studying initially, no one knew where Palestine was or that it even existed. I was the only Palestinian or Arab there. There was no community. I organized a monthly forum on campus for the few foreign students to talk about their home countries. After the first forum, I was called into the office of the dean. He said, “If I was back home, I would have been a lieutenant in the Israeli army, so cut this bullshit.” Coming out of the experience of the Israeli occupation, I was shocked and concerned. This was a person of power. He could threaten my studies, my stay in America. So I quit the forum.
When I came to Cal State, the student body was different. There were many foreign students. I joined coalitions to understand their issues and we learned from each other how to organize.
There were many other student activists. Why do you think you were singled out?
It is very simple: I was a vocal person. I was organizing. I was educating about the Palestinians and criticizing US policy in the Middle East. We were achieving a certain degree of success. At Cal State, we were the first university to get a decision from the students, faculty and administration to declare sister university status with Birzeit University. We were making front page news for our activities. We were visible within the community, organizing haflas (social events) and so on. The FBI and other enforcement agencies were spying on these activities.
In a report by Frank Knight, from the FBI office responsible for the Arab American community here, he reports that he, along with another agent from New York, was inside one of these haflas in a secret chamber, taking photographs, taping and taking notes. He submitted a 64-page report based on his surveillance as evidence that we are terrorists. If anything would prove our innocence, it is these reports. He claims that we were chanting and singing “militaristic songs,” dressed in “terrorist clothes,” so therefore we must be terrorists. The judge said that it was “outrageous” for someone, who does not even speak Arabic, to go to these haflas and decide these people are terrorists on the basis of the tone of their songs and the color of their attire.
Given this, and with all the changes in government administrations over the years, why does this case continue?
The motivations differ. Basically, there are three types of people on the government side of the case. First there are the zealots, who say: “We are Americans, and by being here and being different, you are endangering Americans and we are getting rid of you. Everything that does not conform to majority thinking is dangerous. You do not have to do anything wrong. You just have to think differently, and then you are a threat to national security.” The second type are those who are just doing their jobs. They want to guarantee their pay check at the end of the month, and are worried about budgets. The third type are those who see the truth, and want to stop the case, but they are in weak positions. In the courtroom, they simply state the facts, with no editorializing, and when they lose they do not look too disappointed.
The same government figures are in the courtroom year after year: Frank Knight of the FBI; Michael Lindeman, the INS attorney; and so on. Aside from these government representatives, no one in the courtroom seems to have had anything but sympathy for your case.
This is the strength of the LA 8 case. There is no controversy. It is the government against everyone else. Even conservatives, such as Judge Wilson — a Reagan appointee — said that the government’s actions border on the “outrageous.” Even the news media, from the Los Angeles Times to the most conservative, have editorialized their opposition to the case with titles such as “Is This Case For Real?”