by Maria Rohaly with comment from Joanne Michele
I’M LATE, BUT MY FRIENDS ARE BEAUTIFUL.
The week leading up to our second protest in front of the Japanese Embassy, March 28, had been so incredibly busy that I found myself writing one of the day’s statements on a piece of paper pressed against the steering wheel at every red light I hit en route to the protest. I was late with my statement, and I was on the verge of being late for the protest too.
I was irritated about having to rush the writing of what I think is an important argument, that is, that we need to see Jamal not as an unlucky isolated case of someone who happened to get busted by Japan’s immigration authorities, but rather we need to see him as an intended target of a systematic campaign by the Islamic Republic to reach out beyond its borders to silence voices of dissent abroad. Conveniently, as you will read later, the Islamic Republic validated this argument by making an appearance at our protest against Japan at the Japanese Embassy.
Anyway, I was completely frazzled by the time I pulled up to the curb on one of Mass Ave’s sidestreets 10 minutes before the protest was supposed to start, trying to figure out how I was going to unload a trunk full of signs, wooden stakes to hold the signs (plus one for the black heart of this uninvited regime), duct tape, a lawn chair for those whose legs tire from standing too long, a bag full of cherry blossom stems, and trays of Iranian sweets from Yekta market in Rockville. Plus I still had two or three more sentences to write to finish off the statement.
I need not have worried. Not 60 seconds had elapsed between the time I cut off my own engine and I heard the deep purr of another engine behind me. I was greeted with warm smiles, hugs, and a slick black military-grade megaphone, perfect for ensuring that demands for freedom, equality, and humane governance are heard for blocks in every direction. Soon after that, two more friendly faces appeared: Majid and another WCP member. Before I knew it, the car was emptied of protest gear, and our little group of friends was making its way down the sidewalk towards the Japanese Embassy.
GREETING THE POLICE DETAIL & SETTING UP THE PROTEST
Our Secret Service police escort was there already, and as we stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the Embassy, I waited on the sidewalk’s edge for the responsible officer to approach, ensuring that I set not a toe on Japanese territory. The officer chuckled and said, “I guess you know the drill,” and proceeded to ask me questions about the protest and jot down the answers. (My favorite part is when they ask you if you are going to engage in any civil disobedience [which is illegal] or if anyone is planning on getting arrested. I guess it strikes me as funny to confess such intentions to an officer of the law prior to engaging in the unlawful act.)
After promising to be an obedient protester, I turned towards the protest tree (under which we always pile our excess stuff), and saw Joanne Michele and Mehran approaching from the opposite direction. We all converged in front of the Embassy, exchanged happy greetings and made introductions. We then set about the work of getting the wooden stakes in the ground for the signs. (Note for next time: tape signs to stakes AFTER the stakes are pounded into the ground; don’t forget the mallet for driving the stakes in. However, if you do forget, we found that we could effectively get the stakes in the ground by thwacking them with another available stake. By the way, stakes are a great deal at Lowe’s Home Improvement: 25 of ‘em for six bucks!).
SIGNS AND SLOGANS
I should note that we implemented one of our lessons learned from the last protest: we increased the number of signs that were specific to Japan and its illegal deportation of Saberi to the Islamic Republic. We also had to start putting “Jalal Amanzadeh Nouei” on the signs along with Jamal Saberi. This is because we learned that the Japanese authorities are pretending not to recognize Jamal Saberi as his usual name; they only recognize efforts on his behalf when they are made in his birth name, Jalal Amanzadeh Nouei.
Many of the slogans on our signs were the same as last week; however, this week our protest had a cherry blossom theme, and our signs reflected that. On March 27, 1912, the mayor of Tokyo gave the mayor of Washington DC hundreds of flowering cherry trees as a gesture of friendship between the Japanese and American people. It was a lovely gesture, and the cherry trees, which were planted around the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial, have become central to annual springtime celebrations in Washington DC, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The cherry trees continue to symbolize reciprocal friendship between the American and Japanese people. We think that this is a real gift from one nation to another, and a much more respectable gift than the one that Japan is currently offering the Islamic Republic: the gift of Jamal Saberi’s life, and one which they have no right to give. Thus, we decided to commemorate the 98th anniversary of Japan’s giving of this gift of cherry trees, remind Japan of their more honorable gift-giving traditions, and encourage them to do more gifting with cherry trees, and forget altogether about gifting the Islamic regime with Saberi’s life, and the lives of some 300 other Iranians detained in Japanese prisons prior to deportation. Therefore, we included references to cherry trees in our March 28 protest signs, including the use of stems of cherry blossoms to remind Japan of their better selves:
“Japan! Give gifts of cherry trees, not refugees! Don’t deport Saberi to Iran!”
“Deportation to Iran is execution by Japan! Free Jamal Saberi/Jalal Amanzadeh Nouei!”
“Japan! It is illegal to deport human rights activists to Iran for torture and execution! Free Jalal Amanzadeh Nouei!”
“No blood for oil! Stop aiding dictators in Iran!”
“Trade cars not people!”
“Japan must not deport Saberi to Iran!”
“Iran’s refugees have rights: Asylum, Protection, No Forced Return”
“Japan hunts refugees for Khamenei”
Once we had all the signs up, it was time to get out the megaphone and start shouting our chants. This week we had a brand-new, shiny-black extra loud megaphone (it even has a record and playback function, for lazy protesters). Joanne Michele had printed copies of the chants so everyone would know what we’d be shouting, and she handed those out. Our protesters were ready to shout – they had noticed people going inside the Embassy building, and Majid indicated that we should take advantage of their presence and chant really loudly to make ourselves heard. So we just went ahead and started hollering the first few chants.
Something that we did this week that was more effective that what we did last week was that I led the chant, and then for the echo, I put the loudspeaker in front of Mehran. Last week, it was just me shouting on the megaphone, and then the echo (where everyone else repeats the chant) came without amplification; it seemed audiologically imbalanced between the call and the response. But it sounded very good to have the response amplified this week, and I think we should continue to do it this way. Seems like we were as loud as we thought, too – Kevin was a little late in arriving, and he said that he could hear us shouting blocks away as he walked toward us from the place he had parked his car. We used many of the same chants we had developed from the week before, but we sounded better this week because we had had practiced them once already. Japan better get ready because we are going to be rocking the neighborhood when we come back for the third week in a row. :) Below are the chants we used on March 28:
Safe Haven, Yes! Deportation, No!
Human Rights, Yes! Deportation, No!
Jamal! Jamal! With dignity, stand tall!
Japan! Japan! Jamal is a human!
No forced return!
These are the rights of a refugee!
These are the rights of Saberi!
No blood for oil!
Toyota, Honda, Sony TV
If you don’t want boycott
Hatoyama and Obama
Must do what’s right:
Comply with human rights!
Zendaniyeh siasi, azad bayad gardad.
United Nations pay more attention!
Deportation is execution!
Justice for Immigrants!
Freedom for Refugees!
Together we stand, together we fight! We demand human rights!
Free all political prisoners in Iran!
Free all political prisoners in Japan!
What is the difference
Between these two governments?
Zendaniyeh siasi: political prisoners MUST BE FREE!
In Iran, Japan and Turkey!
WE WON’T LEAVE TIL THEY’RE ALL FREE!
MAKING OUR CASE TO A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY
While we were shouting and holding our signs for drivers going by to read, one car drove by honking the horn in support. The car had very interesting-looking federal or diplomatic tags. The same car passed going in the opposite direction about 30 minutes later, again showing enthusiastic support by honking. It made me very happy to think that there’s someone in a significant position in the government that supports Saberi’s cause.
I will repeat the same observation from last week, and that is that I LOVE the people in this neighborhood. These folks were genuinely engaged and interested in what we were talking about. Pedestrians stopped to read our signs and listen to our chants. Traffic slowed to a crawl in front of the Japanese Embassy so drivers and their passengers could read our signs, and no one honked to try to make them hurry up and drive faster – in a city with a reputation for some of the worst traffic in the country, this is rather miraculous. Protesting in front of the Japanese Embassy is very gratifying in that way, and makes the prospect of ongoing weekly protests enjoyable indeed.
After we shouted for about 15 minutes, it was time to start reading the statements we had composed for this week. Joanne Michele took the megaphone and launched into her statement, letting Japan know that “We’re back!” and demanding that the UNHCR get its act together and take up its duties with respect to Amanzadeh Nouei. She also reminded Americans of our responsibility, as beneficiaries of refuge ourselves, to extend our care and support to Iranian refugees in their time of need.
JOANNE MICHELE SAYS: Oil agreements, resistance to sanctions, and the Arab League’s wish for “unity” with Iran are akin to circumstantial evidence, but Japan and Turkey have shown clear cooperation with the regime. Turkey’s ties with Iran have become increasingly evident, as displayed by the condition and intimidation of refugees in Turkey. I want actual answers… I want to know why the UN hasn’t stepped in and I want to know why the US and EU haven’t spoken out against human rights violations in Turkey.
Next was my statement, which pointed out that the fight for Jamal is both a struggle for human rights for everyone, and a battle against the Islamic regime’s systematic campaign to silence dissent outside its borders by using the tools of the justice system of the free world to implement its repression abroad.
THE REGIME COMES TO PARTY
Ironically, it was while I was reading this statement about the Islamic regime’s campaign to silence voices of dissent abroad that I noticed a trendy-slick car (maybe a Scion), approaching our group. The car held three young Iranian men wearing suits. They did a slow drive-by in front of our demonstration while one of the passengers trained a digital video camera on our protest. It was obvious that representatives of the regime had decided to crash the party, bringing their camera in an effort to intimidate us into silence. We later received confirmation that indeed one of the young men seen in the car was employed by the office of the Islamic Republic’s (I refuse to say Iranian) Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy.
(For those who don’t know, representatives of the Islamic regime in the United States often take photos and video of protesters demonstrating in the US and elsewhere for the purposes of intimidation and also to send such documents back to Iran. When Iranians living in the US go back to Iran to visit friends and family, the Islamic regime screens them for participation in anti-regime protests and if they find an Iranian who has participated in a protest abroad, they confiscate that person’s passport, denying them the ability to leave the country, and they often detain them. No one knows how frequently this is happening, but the stories are rampant throughout the Iranian community and have had the effect of silencing voices of dissent in Iranian communities in the US.)
Now, Japan would have us believe that the Islamic Republic has no interest whatsoever in Saberi’s case, and yet… and yet… why else would representatives of that criminal regime turn up at a protest against JAPAN’s anti-refugee practices in front of the JAPANESE Embassy? The Islamic Republic is so wedded to its use of tools and methods of repression that it can’t even strategize in its own interests. The Islamic Republic showed its hand clearly at our demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy. It declared its interests for all of us to see, and there is no going back from that, no unringing of that bell. Importantly, Japan can no longer deny involvement of the Islamic regime in Saberi’s case, and thus cannot possibly deport Saberi to Iran without bringing down on its head the scorn, disgust and derision of the entire international community.
JOANNE MICHELE SAYS: Japan is also clearly aware of the movement. They first tried to dodge it by saying “Jamal Saberi” is not threatened with deportation. Then they tried to say his 20 years of activism wouldn’t make him a threat to the regime, that he wouldn’t be in danger of violence and execution, and that his deportation had no outside ramifications. The Islamic Republic’s attempt at intimidating American protesters has just nullified this excuse.
I thank you, Islamic Republic, for acting so predictably. You made our case for us. And you didn’t even have to. As Joanne Michele later noted, we’ve posted photos of our protest online for the whole world to see, as we always do. You could have downloaded them and saved yourself a trip to the Japanese Embassy. Yes, but we all know that having our beautiful, smiling and free faces pinned to your wall was not your intent. Your intent was to intimidate, to silence, to make us shut up.
But you see, dear people at the Islamic Republic’s Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy, we Americans LOVE our First Amendment rights and we like to use them at every opportunity. We are rabidly averse to having them trampled on or threatened in any way. So you see, what you did at our protest not only was wrong, unacceptable, and repressive in a way that is representative of every disgusting thing that the Islamic Republic stands for, but darlings, you picked the wrong target on the wrong turf. You might be able to pull that crap with the poor people whose families you are holding hostage in Iran. You might be able to terrorize them into silence with your implied threats of detention, torture and execution of anyone whose thoughts might stray to a fantasy of a free Iran. But you can’t pull that shit in my backyard, in the heart of my nation, where we cherish our rights and don’t take kindly to having them threatened by anyone, least of all when they are threatened by a crude, wretched, black and ugly dictatorship that slaughters beauty in bloom and buries it, bloody, in a dark and hidden hole, while continuing to sow death and misery wherever its cold touch reaches.
In other words, we don’t play that.
JOANNE MICHELE SAYS: Saberi’s case clearly shows Japan’s willingness to forsake human rights for security, whether economic or from the perceived nuclear threat. Any notion of independent action was obliterated yesterday when the regime goons showed up. If Saberi is inconsequential to Iran, why send their people from the Pakistan Embassy in the United States to the Japan Embassy in the United States to stop a Sunday afternoon protest? I want to know who told them we were there, and why the Pakistan Embassy agreed to intimidation tactics. This regime should not be recognized as legitimate. They have lost the right to be represented, even by proxy, in the US and other countries.
I am furious that they have any right to do this on American soil. It shows their insane hubris. How dare they infringe upon my rights as an American, in my own country? We haven’t let pass without comment their abuse of the human rights of their own people – what makes them think we’d stand for that here? I must say that am grateful for the presence of the US Secret Service yesterday, and want to note that the US security present were respectful.
I can say with confidence that the Free Jamal movement is having an impact. Iran’s actions in DC show that they are aware of the situation and that it matters to them. For this reason alone, I am further motivated to get out there as often as possible.
BACK TO JAPAN
After the first two statements were read, we decided to do some more chants, then read the third statement. Right before we started with the third statement, a large black Suburban with heavily tinted windows pulled up with a Japanese Embassy staffer inside. Kevin Scott and I were occupied with reading the third statement, but Joanne Michele was watching the staffer and noticed how uncomfortable he was with our presence. Not angry, but embarrassed and uncomfortable.
JOANNE MICHELE SAYS: I saw an immediate impact on the Embassy worker present yesterday. While Kevin was reading a harrowing account of torture in Evin Prison, a black Suburban pulled into the Embassy lot and its driver moved as if to exit the car. He rolled down the window and could clearly hear the words of a victim of the Islamic Republic regime. Although he had been ready to exit, he suddenly he found a pile of papers incredibly important. After he shuffled through those, and another stack, made a phone call, and backed the car further away, he decided to read the Sunday paper for the duration of our protest. Security was already present; he was not slyly keeping an eye on our actions. This was a man with shame on his face. This human emotion is essential to Jamal Saberi’s case, to the refugees in Turkey, and to the daily violence in Iran. For one man, these peaceful protesters and refugees are no longer just names on a paper or trade fodder with dictators. Every human being that we can give a voice to is another mark against the regime.
The third statement addressed the latest excuses that the Japanese government was giving for why it was refusing to grant refugee status to Saberi. They say that Jamal’s political activities in Japan are not ‘important’ enough for the Islamic Republic to do anything against him, and that the party to which he belongs, WPI, is not really big or important in Iran.
Sorry, Japan, but when the Islamic Republic sentences a 20 year old boy (Mohammed Amin Valian) to death because on one day, he shouted “Down with the Islamic Republic!” and threw a stone, honestly, what will they do with a man who has spent 20+ years of his life publicly exposing and indicting the crimes of this regime of 150,000 executions?
No one is going to buy Japan’s excuses. Japan has no ground left to stand on with regard to the Saberi case, if it ever had any to begin with. Someone said the other day with reference to Japan that 1,000 years of honorable reputation can be destroyed in a single day. Japan should really think about that while it is deciding whether or not to grant Jalal Amanzadeh Nouei his clearly-deserved refugee status.
CLOSING DOWN THE MARCH 28 PROTEST
We had completed our job for the day. Our group, half Iranian, half non-Iranian, half male and half female, with a diverse range of political orientations, was satisfied with work well-done in a spirit of friendship and unity of purpose. Together we carefully cleaned up the area that we had occupied during the protest, and shared the sweets from Yekta. We thanked the officer on duty for keeping such good watch and bid him farewell. We walked back across Massachusetts Ave to where my car was parked and we loaded it with all our stuff. I’m going to have to rename it the Protest-mobile. :)
Hugs, kisses, and farewells were shared, along with promises to meet again the following Sunday in front of the Japanese Embassy at 1pm, Easter and Sizdeh Bedar or not. If these holidays are meant to herald a time for new life, then how better can we spend them than in an effort to secure the life of Saberi and, by extension, so many others impacted by Japan’s precedent-setting decision?