The T-Shirt Wars

The T-Shirt Wars

Demonstrators wearing a controversial T-shirt tested the limits of free expression on the Staten Island Ferry.


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.

The shirt, which Schwartz first saw at a Washington, DC, protest against Israel’s war in Lebanon, is “a great way to speak out against the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment that’s been running rampant since 9/11.” Citing the climate of fear and intimidation in New York’s Muslim communities like Midwood and Bay Ridge, she described her experience as benign compared to Raed Jarrar’s. “The fact that I’m white and Jarar is Arab had a lot to do with their different reactions,” she said.

By the time the ferry docked at the St. George Terminal on Staten Island’s north shore, the sun was down. Despite falling temperatures, another group of protesters wearing the same T-shirts met the crowd stepping into the waiting area for the ride back. “I thought I would show the ladies [the Grannies, presumably] that Staten Island isn’t as weird as everyone says it is,” quipped David Jones, who described himself as a Native American of Ramapo descent. “I was surprised that Stephanie had gotten hassled for wearing a T-shirt. The Coast Guard only ride the ferry during moments when Bush thinks that it’s necessary to up the ante,” he said.

Laurie Arbeiter, Susan Kingsland and Caroline Parker, of The Critical Voice artists’ group that designed the “We will not be silent” shirt, were also present, distributing versions of their creation in Spanish, Farsi and German along with Arabic and the original English. The slogan was first displayed at a protest on March 20, the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

“We needed something to get the message out, and the White Rose’s mantra was it,” said Caroline Parker, referring to members of the student resistance group in Nazi Germany.

The experiences of Schwartz and Jarrar “criminalize a people and demonize a language,” Arbeiter observed. “What they’re trying to do is create fear.”

Touching on a primary theme of the protest, Susan Kingsland observed the parallels between anti-Arab and anti-Latino xenophobia: “We did the Spanish translation because the groups most affected by detention and deportation were Spanish speakers and Arabic speakers.” There was also a consensus that Muslims encounter high levels of scrutiny and discrimination these days. “I think that Middle Easterners are put under the lens, but we had seen this happen in America before. Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II, to the shame of this country,” said Ahmed Shirazi, an Iranian who immigrated to the US in 1963.

The jaunt back to Manhattan took place without incident, though a pair of Coast Guard boats did pull up alongside the ferry in the middle of the harbor. Kingsland expressed her gratitude to those who had participated in the ride: “It’s hard to fight this struggle alone, but the turnout in support of Stephanie is inspiring. It’s unfortunate, but these circumstances are bringing people together.”

As the riders disembarked in Manhattan, a safety official watching the crowd file off the ferry smilingly asked Parker for a shirt. She obliged.

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