Bias on the Bench: Federal Judge Echoes Trump's Islamophobia

By People Powered Progress

People Powered Progress is a Twin Cities-based racial and social justice collaborative supported by a broad coalition of community organizations and leaders.

Federal Judge Michael J. Davis' is a man at odds with the Somali community in Minnesota. With Islamophobic comments, he employs tired stereotypes to describe an already marginalized, black Muslim community.

Upon granting an accused Al Shabaab supporter probation for cooperating with the government, Davis implied the Somali community is supporting terrorism by making “celebrities or humanitarians out of those who support terrorist organizations.”   Following Davis’ lead, Assistant State Attorney Charles Kovats remarked that the empty courtroom suggests the Somali community supports terrorism.  

Further, Davis’ conduct may violate federal court code of ethics. In 2013 while sentencing Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan in an Al-Shabaab funding case, Davis was questioned for questioning Muslim women’s beliefs. The lack of media attention to Davis’ bias and history of breaching the constitutional rights of Muslims in his court draws parallels to state-run media programs in dictatorship countries. In one bizarre exchange, Judge Davis suggested that Hawo’s decision to quit smoking was a sign of radicalization – highlighting the judge’s desire to demonize Islam at every opportunity.

During the trial and sentencing of Abdirahman Daud, Guled Omar, and Mohamed Farah, Davis turned his attention to the Somali community and said there is a jihadist cell in the Somali community, with its “tentacles spread out.” Davis accused some Somali attendees of giving the defendants “signals” and that the community knows there is a jihadist “cell out there.” Nothing was made of Davis' Islamophobic and anti-immigrant comments that undoubtedly offset any false notion that the trial and sentencing was not about Islam or the Somali community.

Similar to Donald Trump's rhetoric on "Minnesota's Somali problem," Davis has called Somalis inherently violent. Davis and Andrew Luger (former U.S. Attorney, who prosecuted the nine East African young men and patronized the Somali community by spearheading the Islamophobic Countering Violent Extremism/CVE program) have become MPR and the Star Tribune’s dominant voices on the war on terror. Conversely, the media shuns voices of resistance to the war on terror and counterterrorism propaganda and has dismissed the voices of Somali American youth.

By allowing for this trial to be as heavily politicized as it was, prosecution, media, and judges colluded to scapegoat a community which itself is the victim of over-policing, poor resource distribution, and xenophobic violence. The trial and sentencing of the three young men exposes the criminal justice system and its attitude towards the poor and disenfranchised.

Especially vexing was the lack of nuance with which these issues were treated by the Judge. The African-American community holds the trauma of at a time when the criminal justice system was used to minimize the demands of the civil rights movement and criminalize political dissent. This has resulted in the expansion of the prison system, and the warehousing of America’s poor in systems of confinement and monitoring. To enact the full scope of this legal system toward a powerless few whose actions were chiefly protected by the First Amendment is not only deeply troubling but also hypocritical. This is especially relevant when the political conversation is defined by the poles of a Trump White House and the Black Lives Matter movement.

By expanding the definitions of what can be called a crime, underscoring conservatives' talking points about “moderate” and “radical” Islam, the criminal justice system has enabled the disconnect between communities. Moreover, by denying the overtly political motivations of violent actors such as Anthony Sawina and Allen Scarsella—each of whom were given second-degree weapons convictions without a hate crime aggravation—the judicial system is unconsciously showing that our courts are incapable of prosecuting with justice and integrity.

The casual acceptance of Davis’ comments is a reflection of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-black culture in the U.S. justice system. Ironically, Davis asserted that the young men would be viewed “victims” of the system by the community and that they were not because the justice system is fair – an astounding assertion from a black man. Davis ignored the reality of the white jury that delivered the guilty verdict, and the biased rhetoric expressed throughout the case in the courtroom and in the newspapers. In fact, Davis abused his power, showing multiple signs of judicial overreach and influence, which ultimately resulted in a guilty verdict. The reality of Davis' ascendance to the federal bench speaks to a man with a corrupted worldview that excuses the racist historical legacy of the laws men like him enforce without critical analysis.

Davis’ blatant disregard of people of color’s history with the criminal justice system coupled with behavior during the trial and sentencing reveal a man who is legally incompetent and lacks the historical context to see outside of the prosecutor’s indictments, thereby vilifying the Muslim and immigrant community. The heavily-armed presence of law enforcement and bomb-sniffing dogs inside the courtroom further expose the racist, Islamophobic views towards the Muslim community. The Assistant State Attorney and Judge Davis' recent comments highlight a terrifying reality of government agents attempting to intimidate a community into silence - one that we cannot ignore.