Religion under fire?
ACLU complaint says ‘suspicious activity report’ unfairly targets local man
Wiley Wayne Gill is a 28-year-old Chico State grad who came here from the Tulare County town of Exeter in 2008 to attend Chico State and now works at the university as a custodian. About a year after coming to town, Gill converted to Islam, apparently intrigued by a class he’d taken.
Around the same time, the federal government began encouraging state and local law enforcement agencies to collect “suspicious” information that could be perceived as possible lead-ups to terrorist activity, according the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The suspicious activity reports (SARs) are now stored and shared by federal databases created by the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.
Today, Gill is the subject of an SAR written by a Chico police officer in 2012 and filed with the federal government for access by the FBI and other federal agencies. Gill is also listed as one of five plaintiffs in a complaint filed last July by the ACLU against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice.
Gill, who is described by those who know him as a quiet, shy and caring person, did not want to be interviewed for this story, though he has been quoted in national publications including The New York Times and The Nation magazine. The story has even run in Great Britain’s Daily Mail.
ACLU attorney William Edwards said Gill is uncomfortable with his current state of affairs and does not want to address the story locally.
“The problem with Wiley right now is that he’s just feeling really sensitive about all this stuff,” Edwards explained in a recent phone interview. “I think he was OK with some of the more national coverage that this lawsuit garnered when we initially filed it, but I think he is a little wary of local coverage that sort of impacts his daily life a little more than a story in The New York Times.”
According to the ACLU complaint, Gill’s troubles began in September 2010, when two Chico police officers knocked on his apartment door and asked him about “anti-American statements” he had made. One of the officers said there was already a file on Gill but would not elaborate on the alleged statements or say who had supplied the information. The officer further told Gill he wanted to make sure that he didn’t turn into another Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Gill, according to the ACLU suit, remains baffled as to how he initially came to the attention of the police.
Then, in early 2011, according to the SAR, the officer who wrote it said he had made a “professional” visit the local mosque while dressed in “full patrol uniform.”
“During the visit I found the members to be welcoming and appreciative of the visit with the exception of one subject later identified as …” Gill’s name as well as those of the mosque and the officer are redacted throughout the SAR, which goes on to say that Gill “was hesitant to interact with law enforcement, avoided eye contact and appeared to be eavesdropping while I spoke with other members.”
“[B]ased on his appearance (full beard and traditional garb) he is a full convert to Islam at the young age of 26,” the SAR says.
On May 20, 2012, the ACLU complaint reports, Gill, who was unemployed at the time, heard a knock on his door. He opened it and was confronted by two officers with their guns drawn, yelling “Chico Police Department!”
“I had tunnel vision. The only thing I could see was their guns,” Gill told the online publication TomDispatch.com.
The officers told him that they were investigating a domestic violence incident—which the SAR says was “later determined to be unfounded”—and that they had reason to believe the suspect had fled into Gill’s residence. They asked if they could conduct a search. Gill, according to the complaint, “was reluctant to grant permission, but felt he had no choice under the circumstances.” During the search the officer reportedly discovered that Gill’s “computer displayed a screen titled something to the effect of ‘Games that fly under the radar,’ which appeared to be a ‘flight simulator type of game.’”
The SAR goes on to say “full conversion to Islam as a young WMA [white male adult] and pious demeanor is rare. Coupled with the fact he is unemployed, appears to shun law enforcement contact, has potential access to flight simulators via the Internet which he tried to minimize is worthy of note.” It was this incident that led to the SAR, which characterizes Gill as a “suspicious male subject in possession of flight simulator game.”
Two months later, according to the ACLU complaint, an officer called Gill and told him to shut down his Facebook page. Gill told the officer he would not do so and that he believed the police wanted him to take it down because it contained references to Islam. The officer did not comment but told Gill he was on a watch list.
SFGate.com reported last July that during a press conference held outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco announcing the ACLU complaint, Gill said, “Yes, I play video games, and yes, I am Muslim. Neither of those things are criminal or terrorist.”
The ACLU’s complaint says that the DOJ’s “overly broad standards for reporting suspicious activity opens the door to and encourages religious profiling.”
Those standards, the complaint says, led to the police treating Gill “as someone engaged in activity with a potential nexus to terrorism.”
Linda Lye, the lead ACLU attorney in the case, said the case started with a public records request, which resulted in the release of more than 1,700 SARs.
“We wanted to let people know about the great concerns we had and how we’ve been deeply troubled by the suspicious activity reporting program since its inception,” she said. “The public records confirmed our worst concerns that because the standards were so low we saw racial and religious profiling and a lot of targeting of First Amendment protected activity.”
The Chico Police Department is not named in the complaint and Lt. Dave Britt said the department cannot comment due to the pending litigation. He said at this point the matter is in the hands of the city attorney’s office. When contacted this week, City Attorney Vince Ewing said he was unaware of the complaint.
On Jan. 8, the federal government moved to dismiss the case based on what Lye called “technical arguments.”
“One of their big ones is that we don’t have standing to bring the suit because it is speculative,” she said. “But what they ignore is the fact that all of our plaintiffs have actually been the subject of a suspicious activity report and have actually been swept up in the surveillance program that is being challenged in this lawsuit.”
A judge is expected to make a decision in the next few weeks.