Defending the First Amendment on Capitol Hill

 know how to intentionally risk political arrest. I’ve done it many times before, though not in the past ten years.

(My most recent political arrest was in June 2003, when — while studying for the bar exam after graduating from Stanford Law School — I helped blockade the Bechtel headquarters in San Francisco to protest the company’s seizure and privatization of water in Iraq in the initial months following the invasion that spring. Here’s a photo that USA Today ran on June 19 of me kicking rhymes while getting handcuffed). 

That was in 2003. When I went to Capitol Hill for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this February 26, I had no intention of seeking arrest.

I specifically chose not to interrupt or disrupt the hearing — yet found myself detained afterwards, anyway. All I did was ask a crucial question of vital public interst that no Senators have demonstrated the independence to raise themselves.

I could go on about shooting the messenger (i.e., the irony of leaving in handcuffs after asking a question about corruption, while the officials whose criminal actions have gone unpunished continue to walk free with taxpayer funded paychecks), but I particularly want to focus here on the circumstances surrounding my unlawful arrest. 

While losing several hours on a busy work day was an annoying inconvenience, I recognize my privilege in responding to it from a position of strength. At this point, my aims center on invalidating the regulations under which I was arrested, to ensure that others have a right to ask senior officials tough questions without facing similar consequences.

After the hearing concluded, Senators, their aides and the witnesses walked towards the front of the room. I stood in the back of the room to ask Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about his now infamous evasion of a straight answer (if not outright lie) under oath before the Senate intelligence committee in March 2013.

As the video shows, I raised my question from the back of the room as witnesses, senators, and their aides filtered out through the front. As I spoke, a Capitol police officer standing between me and those exiting the hearing chamber read me a warning — apparently the only one now required — before placing me under arrest.

At the moment that officers turned me to escort me out of the room, I found myself somewhat surprised, having paid little attention to the only warning I received on the understanding that several were required before imposing arrest. I was so surprised, in fact, that I was stunned into silence until my ally videotaping the incident suggested that I keep talking.

After a few hours, I received a citation charging me with “crowding, obstructing, incommoding” someone, presumably James Clapper. But I neither crowded, nor obstructed, nor incommoded, anyone. Is it conceivably possible to “obstruct” someone from a distance when they’re walking away from you?

Nor was my question particularly offensive. I simply raised the same issue that multiple members of Congress, and a large majority of the American public, have already noted: “Why do you stand above the law?”

My particular aim was to contrast the impunity for serious crimes by public officials impacting the rights of millions of Americans (not to mention billions of people around the world), on the one hand, with the relentless prosecution and vicious persecution to which communities of color are subjected across the countrry for activities that harm no one.

While we’re working to ensure that #BlackLivesMatter, police officers who shoot unarmed people should get some company behind bars from other criminals paid in taxpayer dollars. Senior officials who have lied to Congress to protect their jobs and unconstitutional powers — including not only the Director of National Intelligence but also CIA Director John Brennan and former NSA head General Keith Alexander — should be among them, right behind Jay Bybee, the federal appellate judge who authorized international human rights abuses as a Justice Department lawyer in the Bush administration before hiding his record from the Senate in order to be confirmed to the bench.

“Justice” attains bizarre connotations when the most serious crimes go unpunished, while only our most vulnerable and powerless people are subjected to vicious penalties, even for violating the most relatively trivial laws (if even that).

On the one hand, a few hours in the company of the Capitol police is hardly an onerous burden relative to those others have endured at the hands of police departments. On the other hand, there was a criminal in that hearing room — one posing a threat not only to public safety, but even worse, to freedom — but it wasn’t me. And his crimes are far worse than merely obstructing anyone.

And, as it happens, my circumstances happen to present excellent facts on which to mount a constitutional defense if I’m prosecuted, which would give me a hook to challenge the regulation authorizing my arrest. Under well-settled law, restrictions on the time, place, or manner of political speech must be reasonable (under a multi-part analysis) to satisfy First Amendment principles, and the Senate’s new restrictions on dissent are the furthest thing from that.

I feel eager to confront a potential prosecution on March 18. Let me know if you’d be willing to attend my court appearance, or even just write about it. 

DJ set at Bossa in DC

I spun this funky, dreamy, jazzy, and occasionally tribal deep house set at Bossa in DC on February 6, 2015 for a friend’s birthday party alongside my friend Raha Wala. I lost track of the mix while juggling ensuing trips to Miami, Havana, and Brooklyn, before rediscovering (and feeling surprised by how much I dug) it…

…mere minutes before asking questions — about corruption, mass surveillance, and #BlackLivesMatter that no Senator has been willing to raise — landed me in handcuffs on Capitol Hill. Read more here.

Arrested for asking questions about corruption

I’d been back in DC for less than 14 hours before I found myself standing up in a Senate hearing chamber to ask Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a question that somehow never came up during his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

I asked a simple question of a public official in a public setting that no elected member of Congress has had the independence to ask: how can you lie to Congress and get away with it? It’s a disturbing sign of our draconian times that posing that question is an alleged crime while Clapper’s lies to Congress remain unpunished and tacitly rewarded. Welcome to America!

Two years ago, around this time of year, Clapper famously appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and made a self-serving false statement under oath — which one might describe as a criminal lie reflecting institutional corruption — in response to a serious question from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that eventually drove a global controversy after the Snowden revelations proved Clapper’s statements to be (in his own subsequent words) “too cute by half.”

Sen. Wyden’s office asked Clapper (in writing in advance of the hearing) whether the NSA spied on millions of Americans. Clapper gave a convenient answer on camera, then Snowden proved it wrong. From the DNI’s perspective, Clapper was bending the meaning of English to suggest that “collect” somehow means to “analyze,” ignoring two centuries of constitutional history to the contrary to erect a system of mass surveillance of precisely the kind that our nation railed against during the Cold War.

Clapper eventually admitted his statement was less than entirely true, downplaying it as the “least untruthful” response he could offer given the legal constraints imposed by the presumptuous, bloated, and anti-democratic national security classification system and its incompatibility with public hearings.

But why should secrecy trump transparency in the first place?

The SSCI was founded in the wake of the 1970s Church committee investigation that unconvered wanton, rampant, and unchecked domestic intelligence abuses by the FBI and CIA — including a preposterous plot to drive Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to an early death. It’s the one part of the government that has an effective chance to check or balance the otherwise unaccountable secret actions of executive branch agencies. (For law geeks: Judicial doctrines like the state secrets doctrine, or restrictive standing on which SCOTUS relied to dismiss Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l, ensure that the courts will not get involved untill their independence is re-established.)

A SSCI that did its job would, in the face of proven lies by the DNI, demand at least the removal (if not the prosecution requested by multiple members of Congress, including the author of the PATRIOT Act, and a majority of the American public) of an executive branch official whose unreliability were so publicly demonstrated. At the 2014 CATO surveillance conference broadcast on C-SPAN a few months ago, I had a chance to briefly interview the DNI’s chief lawyer (at 59:50):

I basically asked a senior government official how he rationalizes the presence of separate — and very unequal — systems of justice in America. On the one hand, we plebes are subject to arbitrary violence even prior to adjudication (i.e., police murder with impunity for allegedly selling cigarettes, or drone assassination for speakingout against US policies without ever raising a weapon).

Yet sometimes the hand of justice seems remarkably restrained: powerful officials escape not only arbitrary violence in retaliation for suspected crimes but also any pretense at justice, facing neither judges nor prosecutors and even continuing to draw taxpayer funded paychecks and pensions despite committing vastly more serious crimes documented on the public record — like the CIA committing torture, then destroying evidence, then hacking the Senate to steal its documents, then filing false charges with the Justice Department, and then lying about all of that to try to cover it up!

Litt (whom I professionally admire and respect, and whose willingness to have this exchange in public I deeply appreciate, especially given its sharp distinction from his boss’ apparent reluctance) admitted to giving “bad legal advice,” though he dismisses as “kind of annoying” the insistence among observers around the globe that in fact “Clapper lied.”

Here’s the crucial question: why are they both still serving in government? And why isn’t Clapper either in jail or facing a jury?

Eric Garner’s alleged infraction was trivial relative to Clapper’s proven crime against the American public, the Constitution, and the very future of freedom of thought — yet Garner was killed without a trial, which Clapper has never even had to face.

False claims about the scope of mass surveillance went beyond the lawyerly impulse to bend language. We are talking about the creation of a corrupt enterprise diametrically opposed to the founding constitutional vision that inspired the world to follow our example. 

While my name reflects my Asian origins, I grew up in rural Missouri. I was a Boy Scout. I tried to enlist in the Marines when I was 12 to “fight the Commies.” 

What drove me to such patriotic zeal was the specter of authoritarianism behind the Iron Curtain, of which mass surveillance — like indefinite detention, and arbitrary profiling, or torture with impunity (all of which are also unfortunately well established here in the US) — is a defining cornerstone.

As a quasi-refugee fleeing religious intolerance in my native country, freedom is not an abstract concept to me. Freedom is embodied, for instance, in the opportunity to have a private conversation with a friend, or business partner, or lover or life partner. Freedom is embodied in the right to a trial before someone kills you. And freedom is embodied in the principle that everyone plays by the same rules. 

If we’re going to lock up three million Americans (mostly of color, principally for reasons that in a growing number of states aren’t even criminal anymore), we should be willing to increase the prison population by a few dozen more. And whether Litt, Clapper, and others complicit in covering up constitutional crimes (like Judge Jay Bybee or law professor John Yoo) ever face a prison sentence, they should at least face a judge like the rest of us.

If no prosecutor will force these questions before a judge, then Senators should ask them. And if no Senators ask them, well then…who will?

And why is posing a question about corruption now a criminal act, while the underlying acts of corruption — using taxpayer dollars to spy on grandmothers and children, violating fundamental freedoms of incalculable worth, and then lying about it to cover it up and avoid unpleasant consequences — are perversely rewarded?

I’m proud of posing the question I did after yesterday’s hearing, and look forward to a court date on March 18 if anyone is stupid enough to prosecute me for this.

After getting some actual work done, I’ll write separately about:

  • the interesting circumstances surrounding my arrest, what they indicate about the incoming Senate leadership’s restrictions on dissent, and a chance to support rights to free speech and journalism on Capitol Hill.
  • the bizarre and life-changing whirlwind that took me through San Francisco for 10 days, DC for 4 (when I recorded this live DJ set at Bossa in Adams-Morgan), Havana (on which I plan to expound at some length, including at this event in DC on March 6) for a week, Miami for another 3 days, DC for only another 3 and then Brooklyn for 3 more (bookended by renegade underground parties in urban caverns!) before returning home a few hours before the hearing I was arrested after.  
  • congressional briefing at which I’ll be speaking next month to re-introduce H.R. 1466 / the Surveillance State Repeal Act, a proposed measure to curb mass surveillance first developed (in part) by former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act when it was first imposed back in 2001.


Check out a series of 9 sick remixes of NSA vs USA, or download the open source stems from which to construct your own. You can also download the extended dance floor mix from Soundcloud.

NSA vs. USA was written to be a teaching tool as much as a dance track. Below are annotated lyrics, with links to articles and reports you can read to learn more. The first step in helping “build a movement, raising your voice” is to learn history and get informed.

The next is to connect. Reach out if you need help or ideas on how to get involved!

Many thanks to everyone involved in helping enable this project, the media outlets that have covered it, the tremendous music producers from around the world who contributed remixes, the courageous Edward Snowden whose revelations forced a long overdue debate, and — most of all — the millions of Americans who, every day, “build a movement, each raising our voice.”NSA vs. USAVerse #1 (thought crimes, oppression by rotation)The NSA breaks the law every dayit doesn’t matter who you are or what you saythey monitor your phone calls and emails anywayCorrupt Congress and courts paving the way There’s a lesson you’ll learn someday……watch what you say.They spy on your mind, record your calls for posterityCommit daily executive crimes with impunity. They’re the authorities, here to keep us safe…Until the boot ends up on your face. NSA CHORUSIt’s the NSA against the ConstitutionWe the people are the ones our government is abusing.We can force any agency to make a new choicewhen we build a movement, each raising our voice.Verse #2 (lies, NSA reach, FISA, military-industrial complex)They lie about the origins of the evidencethey lie about the numbers of Americans watched — immense,
too large for them to calculate, they sigha self-serving lie by the government’s eye computing power unmatched in historypresuming the power to wiretap humanityit’s insanity how large the hubris loomsthe government’s watching you in the bathroom and they lie about it at every opportunitysustained abuses of every community.Unity across Washington DC:all three branches against you and me. See, Bush signed a secret presidential decree.Obama talked a big game, but presidentially,did everything he could to entrench the Bush LegacyA complex composed of military, industry Eisenhower 60 years before anticipated it’d berising in the wings for generations, growinga crisis in democracy sowing.The future’s at stake. You can start by knowing NSA CHORUSVerse #3 (Palmer Raids, COINTELPRO)For a hundred years, since World War Ithe FBI versus free speech has held the gunConstitutional rights on the runthe Palmer raids the first but not the last one Fast forward 40 years to the real red scareMcCarthy did a number but the FBI was there.They were everywhere. They knew what you wore to bedThey prosecuted people for the thoughts in our heads. What does it mean to monitor thoughts?Spying means a lot more than watching what you boughtit’s the Feds always knowing what you’ve got in your headnot only whoever with whom you share your bed But whether you’re compliant or a threat insteadA head, like MLK, to be “neutralized.” That’s the word the FBI used: decades of liesexposed, revealed as institutionalized  Beyond trying to drive Reverend King to suicide,no one even knows how brother Malcolm died.Fred Hampton killed in his own house, inside!The feds bombed earth activist Judi Bari and lied and those lies go all the way up the chain of command.The agencies lie to judges when on the stand.The Director, the head honcho, the man,claims his lies were unplanned and that he didn’t understand   FBI CHORUSIt’s the FBI against the ConstitutionWe the people are the ones our government is abusing.We can force any agency to make a new choicewhen we build a movement, each raising our voice.Verse 4* (Snowden, secrecy, Congress, budget)How would a Patriot act, in fact?He’d drag Congress out back, and beat it with a bat.Like Revere rode through the streets, warning of attack,Snowden, 250 years later, back again the alarm. You can bet the farm that the agencies on democracy inflict harm,hiding secret crimes — works like a charm!Congressional dysfunctionality far  and wide go the attacks on cyberspaceand the telephone system, every call that you placemonitored: caller, receiver, profile, race, ideology, temperament, sexual taste Noticed a budget crisis? Heres the waste:billions every year to our country debase.Don’t settle for half ass, keeping spying in place.The agencies need to be erased. Acronym CHORUSAgencies against the ConstitutionWe the people are the ones our government is abusing.We can force any acronym to make a new choicewhen we build a movement, each raising our voice.Verse #5 (Thought crimes, COINTELPRO, corruption, DHS)Some fools think Edward Snowden is a traitorBut they ignore everything that happened later:Congress lied to by executive officials.We’re talking ‘bout corruption in the capital for shizzle. Democracies fizzle when their people are watchedthat’s why the NSA’s got to be stopped,and the FBI too. Don’t forget what they do.Entire agencies arrayed against you, raiding the homes of peaceful activists,setting in motion predictable plot twists,arresting democracy to bind her wrists.The constitutional coup already happened: it’s DHS biometric data collectionsurveillance drones, automatic license detectionDepartments of corrections eclipsing universities.We must all resist…or we’ll be history Closing CHORUSAgencies against We the PeopleDon’t stoop, don’t grovel to no government steeple.We can force our government to make a new choicewhen we build a movement, each raising our voice.  * available only on the extended Dance Floor mix

It shows who we are (February 2015)

In my favorite place yet
I learned a great deal
for many millions together
can do amazing things

I learned a great deal
Cuba’s revelatory history
can do amazing things
were we in the States aware

Cuba’s revelatory history
it shows who we are
were we in the States aware
we’d do something about it.

It shows who we are
when our empire throws elbows
we’d do something about it
if it impacted us

When our empire throws elbows
it undermines everything
if it impacted us
we’d be less hedonistic

It undermines everything
pitted against each other
we’d be less hedonistic
if we related as neighbors

Pitted against each other
as we’re taught from day one
if we related as neighbors
no challenge too great

No challenge too great
for many millions together
as we’re taught from day one
in my favorite place yet

Artist-activists from Ai Wei Wei to Alli McCracken

My visit to the phenomenal @Large exhibit on Alcatraz, envisioned and remotely coordinated by Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei, came on the heels of a mid-life crisis. The timing could not have been more poignant.

During my time on Alcatraz exploring the inspiring exhibit, the Burning Man organization published “Bringing the 10 Principles Home,” a blog post I wrote profiling a series of inspiring Burners in DC and in the Deep South. Beyond merely celebrating counter-culture through art, these homegrown heroes:

present moving illustrations of how our socio-cultural revolution in the dust can inform and inspire the default world. They practice the 10 Principles — and the various skills we build during our gatherings — to build conscious counterculture in the default world, and shift the latter in a more humane, peaceful, and sustainable direction.

Do you know other artist-activists building a brighter day? If so, please drop me a line to point me in their direction.

It felt eerie to watch my social media feeds light up with posts about this article at precisely the same time that I was stunned into speechlessness by the foremost artist-activist of our epoch. Suffice it to say serendipity abounds in the bay area!The ferry ride to Alcatraz from the SF pier is gorgeous. Reaching the island, one gains the initial impression that it’s an idyllic summer camp…as it might have been, were its earliest prisoners not Hopi Indians forced into detention for refusing to send their children to US government indoctrination camps. The origins of the facility both surprised and astounded me, and brought home Ai’s profound genius. The first exhibit we witnessed brought the installation into immediate and sharp focus, depicting the faces of dozens of whistleblowers, dissidents, and exiles in Legos across the inside of a large room. A giant wing overlooking the scene evokes liberation, though in the ironically appropriate setting of a confined (though expansive) room. Climbing the hill to the remainder of the exhibits in the main prison area offered the juxtaposition of magnificent views and the overwhelming inexorability of iron walls, built on a sacred native site to detain natives in the service of the empire that attempted to enslave and then committed genocide against them. We heard various sound installations, including freedom songs from artist activists around the world played from inside the walls of prison cells. The commonalities among their struggles, the themes of merely wanting to be free, and the universality of their need to raise creative resistance in seemingly every country around the globe resounded as much as their voices, haunting the space like ghosts. Another exhibit brought us into the prison infirmaries and showers, where we heard Tibetan chants alongside those of the native Americans removed from their lands to make space for the westward expansion of a proto trans European-American empire. Writing letters to an American CIA whistleblower in prison for releasing classified information about torture — while those omplicit in human rights abuses continue to run amok (drawing government paychecks as law professors and judges, of all things!) — brought home and back to the present the timeless themes raised in the exhibit, impressively crowd sourced in its construction from half a planet away.  Ai’s work moved me to tears, and made my plans for later this year (which I hope will make me only more effective in the movement to liberate the U.S.) seem like an auspicious chance to add my own thread to his tapestry.

[Update: Waking up a few Fridays later to discover Ai among my latest Twitter followers in the wake of my arrest in the Senate was a personal highlight I will be hard pressed to surpass]

Do you feel inspired by Matt Grason’s grassroots local organizing addressing climate change, or Alli’s non-stop direct action organizing promoting peace & justice, or Rica’s colorful and vibrant sculpture highlighting food security and transparency, or Melvin’s work expanding after school programs and serving the interests of low-income black residents of Jackson, or Ai’s world-historical work organizing everyday supporters into powerful projects for human rights? If so, follow their example by raising your voice creatively. 

If you need ideas, please reach out and tell me a bit about your interests. I’ve got networks in most parts of the country and am always eager to connect allies to their neighbors.

Bumpin beats for my colleagues

My office is so amazing that our staff holiday party started at a theater, where we all went to see Star Wars on the afternoon of its debut! I went to the theater straight after talking at a rally against hate at Civic Center, where I reflected on how being the targets of ignorant vitriol is (perhaps counter-intuively) making Muslims in the U.S. even more quintessentially American than we already were.

After the movie, we shared dinner together before I spun this set—which later reached #15 on Mixcloud’s funky chart—to christen our new office. Having just watched Star Wars Episode VII together, I tried to honor the occasion by including the Cantina Band song from the original Episode IV, as well as Jamiroquai’s Use the Force. But my favorite part of the mix has to the mashup I put together as an ode to my colleagues.

ShantiSalaam (2006-07)

From December 2006 through January 2007, I joined two dear friends (Hawah and V:shal) for a two month voyage across South Asia promoting Hindu-Muslim harmony. At the time, I wrote a series of blog posts recounting our adventures, which I’ve collected and posted here:

  1. My first day in India
  2. The Universe greasing our rails
  3. Eating without utensils 101
  4. Kismet
  5. Why not?
  6. Eid or Christmas?
  7. Gushing
  8. The Maelstrom that is Mumbai
  9. Mookuhdur
  10. Transitions
  11. Hyperdrive
  12. Dancin’ in the Street
  13. Time on my hands
  14. Improv in a dojo

The ShantiSalaam tour was my first time ever visiting India, and my first trip to Pakistan since 1974, when my parents brought me shortly after I was born in England. We moved to the US in 1976 and, mostly due to  bigotry against religious minorities in both Pakistan and the UK, never returned.

It was a profound honor to visit my native region in the context of a mission combining my passions for art and peace. I was humbled by the reception we received from every smiling face we encountered, and was especially grateful for the chance in Srinagar, Kashmir to play (after organizing) the first concert in 17 years not sponsored by the Indian government. The tour was an inspiring –though ultimately fleeting — moment in time for many, and it will always remain among the highlights of my life.

Rhyming about Gitmo, torture, and the New Jim Crow

Today was the 13th anniversary of military detention at Guantanamo Bay. After joining inspiring allies from Witness Against Torture (many of whom fasted for a week and came from all across the US) at a vigil at the White House, we marched to DC Superior Court, where I busted this rhyme about the inversion of criminal justice in America. The guilty remain free and run amok, while innocents are imprisoned en masse.