Do foreign languages pose a threat to national security? Are public displays of Arabic writing overt expressions of support for Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Can this happen in New York City, where hundreds of different languages are constantly spoken and displayed in public places?
Stephanie Schwartz, a student at Hunter College, was stopped October 9 while riding on the Staten Island ferry by a security guard wearing a Department of Transportation uniform. The guard had taken exception to her shirt, a black T-shirt with the slogan “We will not be silent” written in English and Arabic. Schwartz claims the guard told her that she’d “better not wear that shirt here anymore” and that it wasn’t appropriate for “high security places.”
Schwartz was wearing the same shirt as Raed Jarrar, an architect of Iraqi descent who was compelled to cover up his shirt before boarding a JetBlue flight on August 12. Other passengers had “complained about his shirt” to airline officials.
Schwartz and the Coast Guard differ on exactly what happened on the October 9 ferry boat incident. She claims that after the initial incident with the security guard she was surrounded by a patrol of four Coast Guard petty officers whom she had seen speak to the security guard earlier. Chief Petty Officer Tom Sperduto, a Coast Guard spokesman in New York, maintains that Schwartz was sitting close to the engine room door, one of the posts where officers routinely station themselves during their ferry patrol.
Sperduto confirmed that the security guard voiced concern to the Coast Guard officers about Schwartz’s attire but were apparently unaware that the guard had questioned Schwartz’s right to wear a shirt with English- Arabic lettering. They told the security guard “she has the right to wear whatever shirt she wants,” Sperduto said.
But the incident didn’t end there. On October 23, about 100 people, including members of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the International Socialist Organization, the Granny Peace Brigade and other activist groups gathered in lower Manhattan on October 23 decided to join Schwartz for a second ride on the Staten Island ferry with Schwartz. Many were wearing the controversial shirt.
After boarding the ferry, the mingled with the late-afternoon commuter crowd and chatted with other passengers curious about their shirts. Though notices for security to report to the passenger deck were issued over the PA system, the ride to Staten Island was peaceful. No one was confronted about their garments.
The demonstrators voiced indignation amongst themselves and to other passengers at Schwartz’s treatment and what they perceived as the overbearing actions of the ferry security and the Department of Homeland Security (of which the Coast Guard is now a part). “Our First Amendment rights are under attack–it’s crazy, you can’t express your dissent, your opinion,” said Diana Seiffert.
“The ferry is a high-security area, but protecting our ports and waterways has nothing to do with a T-shirt,” Schwartz said. “No one could explain to me why a shirt with Arabic on it is a threat,” she said.