Protect the Protest Launches Legal & Organizing Resilience Training Program: Interview with Fatema Ahmad of the Muslim Justice League

I am being sued and need a lawyer.

If you have been sued as a result of your advocacy, we can help.

As the Executive Director of the Muslim Justice League, an abolitionist organization that seeks to dismantle the criminalization and policing of marginalized communities under national security pretexts, Fatema Ahmad is no stranger to state scrutiny and repression. Recognizing the continual intensification of attacks on organizers and activists in her community, both by the state and right-wing actors, Fatema collaborated with Protect the Protest to organize the first in a series of trainings on legal and organizing resilience. 

The training series is a new project of the Protect the Protest coalition through which we connect with frontline communities to provide them with information, resources, and support regarding SLAPP suits and other abusive legal tactics that are used to silence those that exercise their right to free speech as they speak out in defense of themselves, their communities, human rights, and the land and water they fight to protect. 

Answers edited for clarity and length. Fatema spoke with Audrey Caines, PtP’s Program Coordinator. 

To start, could you tell us about the types of threats and obstacles that people in the communities you’re connected to face and how it was that you realized this type of training could be beneficial and got connected to PtP? 

MJL had reached out to Palestine Legal [a member organization of PtP] looking for some guidance about a potential SLAPP suit. When they, in turn, reached out about a training opportunity on SLAPPs, I honestly felt excited both because we had been facing a potential lawsuit, and generally are always thinking about potential legal attacks we may face as a Muslim organization, we’re always thinking about how we may be taken down by the state [and/or other actors]. It felt important both for our own growth regarding this issue [SLAPPs] that we were already thinking about, but I think the other part of it is that we’re focused so much on policing and surveillance by the state, especially the FBI, or police and what to do about that. And [because of MJL’s community connections] we have a sense of what kinds of attacks other folks are facing too. So it felt really important both for our own growth and to really build capacity, it really did feel like this would build some capacity in the movement. So that it’s not just expertise concentrated with MJL or just legal organizations that we go to for support, it seemed like a really cool opportunity to build the skills of other folks too. And I think in particular what came to mind for me was what kind of attacks am I seeing based on people who’ve been reaching out for help around or what I’m noticing and organizing around and Palestine, abolition and anti fascist organizing felt like three big areas where we’re seeing both state repression and right-wing attacks of various forms. So those were the three movement areas that we were thinking about [when we reached out to organizers and activists to participate in the training]. 

Having collaborated with PtP on the training and having received feedback about it, what sort of impact do you think it had? And were there particular topic areas that people felt they really benefited from or connections that were made where people walked away from the training feeling like they had more relationships and tools moving forward? 

I think it was really powerful. And even people who couldn’t make it [the training] were telling me ahead of time that they really loved the idea. And really wanted to know how they could follow up to get the resources and information. And some folks were like, “Hey we’re facing a lot of attacks, but can’t make this training, but want to know what other folks are facing?”. I think a big part of it for people was making real connections with other organizers and to see that people are facing similar things. Even if it’s a different issue area or different type of organizing. And that, even if people are facing different types of attacks, that we can have each other’s backs. I think one of the biggest takeaways was that we can’t do this in isolation, right? Even if you’re thinking about your digital security or how you would respond to legal attacks, even if it just seems like it’s just happening to you, your response has an impact on your community. And so being able to make these connections with each other and think about how do we make communal decisions? How are we showing up for each other? That felt like a really powerful part of it, for me and for other folks. And I think there were a ton of concrete skills, like the “magic words” [what to say or not say if approached by police]] that Lauren provided from the Civil Liberties Defense Center that were super helpful for people to be like, “okay, this is exactly what I need to know in these situations (related to law enforcement).” Also, we aimed our outreach at established organizers, so people who do already have a lot of the 101 knowledge about some of the training topics, folks who already use Signal. And they’re abolitionists, they’re not engaging with the police, but they’re also often the folks who are supporting their community members and are seen as, like, experts that have people come to them [for advice, etc.]. So I think it was helpful for both advancing people’s own skills and giving them some thoughts about how they’re going to take it back to other folks [in their communities]. I think some of the Palestinian folks were talking about how they could take this [training information] back [to their communities] and do a digital security or doxxing training for Palestinian youth in their spaces. Because those [surveillance] are such big issues for them. So that was cool to see people feel like they personally got a lot out of it and they can take these things back to their communities. 

Awesome. On that note, is there anything you can think of or that you heard from other participants that could make this type of training more effective moving forward? Specifically, setting people up to be able to bring information and resources back to their communities. Anything that you, upon reflection and post-training, can think of that would be useful to change or adjust? 

I would tell people that PtP did a really great job of working with us to make this the right training for our local context. As a local organizer, you know, we hate when big organizations or national organizations show up, and offer something, and it makes no sense for what you’re doing, or it’s not really connected. But, you know, this worked really well because we planned it in a way that made sense for what was happening in Boston. And everybody’s facing attacks, right, even like, in liberal Boston, we’re facing so much. And I think it only worked because we put so much thought into what would be most useful in this moment for, you know, the local movement. 

And then, is there anything specific that you took away [from the training] about SLAPPs themselves, you know, information new to you about SLAPP lawsuits, or anything you heard from other people about their general level of awareness of what SLAPPS are, and if they felt like they were able to take away information from the training about both what they are, but also how to think through protecting yourself and protecting your community, and (get the mouse hit the mouse–I refuse to edit this out)? 

I think most people don’t even know what a SLAPP suit is, like most organizers honestly, unless you’re doing Palestine-based organizing for example, where it’s happening frequently enough that you’ve probably heard of an example. And I think that even then, people might have a very limited understanding of what that could look like. So I thought this was really helpful. One, for people to even think about like, wait, we can be sued by different actors, even a corporation, and that it might just be to tie us up and take away our capacity to do our organizing. I think people often think about state repression like COINTELPRO infiltration and that type of surveillance, and I’ve seen a lot of organizers just not think about these sorts of legal attacks. So I thought it [the training] was super helpful for most people to even understand what that can look like. 

Anything else that you want to speak to or cover that I didn’t ask about? 

I think what I would want to add is, maybe it’s partly COVID, but just a huge part of this was getting people together in person felt so wonderful. It felt really great to meet you all in person, the folks who came out from PtP. I think for all of us here in Boston we, as MJL, wanted to do this kind of broad movement space [training], we brought together people who aren’t typically organizing together. And it was a highlight for folks to have people brought together from different organizing spaces, not just connecting to each other, but also connecting what types of attacks we’re facing and see where some issues are popping up in local organizing. Like none of us had more than inklings that these [attacks] were going on, but actually concretely sitting down together and being like, “wait, yeah this is a growing [threat].” We’re all feeling more attacks and we really need to do something about it. Yeah, I think that was a highlight for all of us.