The Stranger continues its serialized coverage of the James Ujaama trial. For our previous coverage, please see www.thestranger.com/specials/ujaama.html.

"Ujaama might be the bad guy," the concerned voice on the other end of the phone said. "Remember September 11?"

It was 8:00 a.m. My boss was calling to tell me he'd seen the James Ujaama tape on KIRO TV and that all my reporting--my sympathetic "lefty stuff" about Ujaama's civil rights and my criticisms of the federal judge and the creepy USA PATRIOT Act--might be off the mark.

I usually take my editor's frequent panic attacks with a grain of salt. (And of course I remember September 11, Dan!) However, this time I'd actually heard the exact same concerns from someone I know down at city hall.

The city haller had seen the KIRO spot too, and he wanted to know what I thought of Ujaama now.

This guy had liked my previous articles. He had done work with black youth at Garfield High School, and Ujaama had supported those efforts. My city hall guy was bothered that John Ashcroft was "pointing the finger at a Muslim brother." He agreed that Ujaama's rights were being jeopardized in the Ashcroft era.

However, just as my editor was swayed, the KIRO report changed the equation for my friend at city hall too. (If you want to see the original tape that KIRO ran snippets of, you can find it at johnathangaltfilms.bravepages.com.) Ujaama, my city hall friend fretted, had spoken sympathetically about bin Laden. "Sheik Osama bin Laden," Ujaama says on the tape flagged by the FBI at Ujaama's November 12 court hearing, "was framed and forced into isolation, having to leave his own land, his family. Then used as a scapegoat to arrest many Muslims."

The fact that Ujaama may be a dunce or a demagogue certainly isn't grounds for a federal indictment. Never mind that bin Laden has hardly been "framed"; let's stay on point here, people. Whether you agree with Ujaama's POV or not (and I don't), you can't trash someone's civil rights just because that person thinks Osama bin Laden was framed. Moreover, there's never been a question that Ujaama is radical. Having radical politics, however, is not illegal.

"It's not a crime to speak freely in this country," Ujaama's attorney reminds us. "I hope we haven't gotten to the point where we put people in prison for what they say."

Unfortunately, the KIRO broadcast seems to have prejudiced the public against Ujaama. Setting up the spot by saying that Ujaama may be a man "sympathetic to terrorists" (as if "sympathy," rather than actively giving "material support to," is the issue), and then splicing footage of bin Laden together with footage of Ujaama speaking--and finally showing Ujaama banging his hands on a table, but failing to air what Ujaama's actually saying at that moment--clearly worked on viewers to raise suspicion of Ujaama to a code orange.

It turns out, however, what Ujaama was actually saying as he provocatively banged his fists against the table and flayed his arms around (while a KIRO voiceover stressed that Ujaama was "accused of conspiring to help al Qaeda") was hardly a plot to blow up the Space Needle.

Here's what Ujaama, wearing a skullcap and bushy beard, was yelling: "The slander of Muslims. You mention Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan. I prayed next to a sincere believing Muslim... because he laid down his mat and he invited me.... And we didn't even speak the same language. We couldn't even speak the same language. So, I hate it really bad when somebody says something of a slander against our Muslim brothers."

So, as KIRO talks about Ujaama aiding al Qaeda, Ujaama is actually talking about racism against Muslims.

Look, don't get me wrong. As Ujaama's story comes to light, it's obvious that he spent serious quality time with radical London cleric Abu Hamza (an accused terrorist), but this tape of Ujaama speaking next to Hamza hardly adds a new dimension to the case.

What do I think of Ujaama now? I think exactly what I've learned from covering his hearings. The feds have used sealed evidence and vague testimony to jeopardize Ujaama's civil rights. Certainly I think Ujaama hung out with Abu Hamza, and that Ujaama subscribes to Hamza's radical views (and perhaps bin Laden's); but I also think we have to maintain the moral high ground and not stoop to the kind of lynch-mob tactics--and al-Jazeera propaganda--that the terrorists we oppose subscribe to themselves.

josh@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger