Mission Viejo, CA

Police Killing of Bassim Chmait

Revolutionary Worker #1271, March 20, 2005, posted at rwor.org

Douglas Bates, an off-duty Migra agent, shot Bassim Chmait in the head with his pistol in brutal cold blood without a word of explanation in the courtyard of the Madrid Apartments in Mission Viejo, California, in the early morning hours of February 5, 2005. There were witnesses—friends of Bassim and neighbors of the killer. The Orange County Sheriffs came within minutes and found Bates in his apartment with the gun that ended Bassim’s life.

Bassim Chmait was 20 years old. His family had come to the United States from Lebanon when he was one year old.

Bassim’s friends put together an account of what happened. It was late on a Friday night, at 1:30 a.m., when Bassim went out with three friends. They were walking to a party in the Madrid Apartments, laughing and out for a good time. Somebody threw a soda can at them, and one of them knocked it aside. At that moment, they saw Bates coming at them, gripping a gun with one hand and waving a badge with the other. He was screaming, "You do not want to fuck with a cop, do you?!" He smashed the gun into the head of one of the young men, knocking him down. Bassim stepped in front of the gunman, shielding his friends, trying to chill out the situation. Bates pressed his gun against Bassim’s head and pulled the trigger.

As Bassim’s friend cried out in shock and grief and tried to minister to him, the killer turned and walked back into his apartment as if nothing had happened. When the Sheriffs showed up, they went into cover-up mode. They didn’t question Bassim’s friends. They didn’t talk to the neighbors who had witnessed the murder and were still standing around the door of Bates’s apartment. They went in and talked to the killer.

When is a smoking gun not enough? When the shooter pulling the trigger is a cop. Douglas Bates is an officer of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a huge federal agency set up after 9/11 and given sweeping political police powers. Bates worked for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)— La Migra .

The Sheriff’s Department "investigation" was a whitewash. There was no chase, no weapon, no "hand reaching for the waistband"— none of the usual justifications that the police come up with when they kill someone. So what could they say in this case? A spokesperson for the Department said, "There was no clear evidence of a crime being committed, so there was nothing to book him on." Days later the Sheriffs added, "As soon as a deputy believes all the elements of a crime are there, and he or she has reason to believe that a crime has been committed, then he or she will arrest a person."

"Just imagine if it had been reversed," one of Bassim’s relatives later said. Everyone knows how the authorities would react if a young Arab American—or any other ordinary person—had killed a cop.

"No clear evidence of a crime being committed" has become the official story, despite the fact that Bates was caught literally with a smoking gun in his hand. The Orange County Register wrote about "two conflicting stories" about what happened to Bassim. The Register said one of them was "based on reports by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department," without mentioning that its source was the shooter himself. The Sheriff’s reports claim that Douglas Bates came out of his apartment to "investigate a disturbance," and was in "a scuffle" when he shot Bassim.

According to relatives of Bassim, the cop changed his story at least once. He first said that Bassim and his friends were "gang members"—as if that was a valid reason for gunning down anybody in cold blood. Later, his story was that the shooting was an accident.

Bassim Chmait was a few months short of his 21st birthday. He has one older brother and a sister, 15, who was born in this country. He was a student at Santiago Canyon College. But the life that ended so cruelly is not captured in these statistics.

"He was a poet," his sister Diana said. "He sang about life, about hard life. Such a good poet. It’s not like a song that you just hear. It’s a song you want to hear over and over again, just to hear the words that he said. It’s so moving."

"He never had problems with anything in life," a friend recalled. "Everything that came in life, he overcame it with a smile on his face. His nickname when he was younger was in Arabic, and it meant ’smile.’ "

Word of Bassim’s murder spread through the night as friends and relatives called to tell each other. Word that the killer had not even been arrested also spread.

Four hundred people came to his funeral, of all ages. Weeks later, the tragedy of his death continues to weigh heavily on people. Bassim’s father has had to receive medical care because of all the stress and grief. Hassan, a family spokesperson, told the RW, "Why would anybody just shoot a person?. If only you could imagine the agony and the pain this person has inflicted on the family. He was loved by so many people."

People started weekly vigils at the Madrid Apartments, where Douglas Bates is still living. They created a website, www.justiceforbassim.com, to commemorate his life and spread news of protests. They are demanding that the authorities arrest Bassim’s murderer. On February 22, they organized a march to the office of the District Attorney to protest the cover-up.

At one recent vigil, a woman said she was attending her first protest. "I also live in Mission Viejo," she told the RW, "and I have a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old. It doesn’t make sense that they can take the law into their own hands. We want to make sure the streets are safe and that justice is done." People held up large photos of Bassim and signs saying "We won’t rest ’til the arrest." The chairman of the Arab-American Committee for the local Republican Party was among those at the vigil.

Mission Viejo is in southern Orange County, south of L.A. County. It’s a residential area with broad roads leading commuters to the freeways. Years ago, Orange County was known as "Reagan Country," a white, conservative enclave. But in the global migrations of humanity of the last few decades, it has become more multi— cultural. One of Bassim’s friends described it as "a melting pot, with different nationalities everywhere, which is good because you see different cultures, you see how everyone expresses themselves. Everyone is different but they’re all the same. And they come together out here. You still have your problems like every city."

It’s the kind of area people move to in the hope that their kids will be safe and have good schools to go to, according to Nader Abuljebain of the Orange County/L.A. branch of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).The ADC has protested the killing and the government’s response.

The murder of Bassim Chmait is part of a string of attacks on Arabs and Muslims (and people who might look like Arabs and Muslims), many carried out by Homeland Security. Two prominent Muslim clergy—Abdul Jabbar Hamdan of the West Coast Islamic Society in Anaheim and Imam Wagdy Ghoneim, a world-renowned scholar on Islam and the imam of the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim—were arrested in raids on their homes by immigration agents in the past year. Imam Wagdy was forced to accept deportation last December. Abdul Jabbar Hamdan is being held on trumped-up immigration charges from 20 years ago. He was recently denied bail.

Bassim’s uncle spoke for a lot of Arab and Muslim people who are questioning their ideas about the U.S.: "Homeland Security is supposed to protect us from all that’s going on, and it’s not doing it. We are being intimidated, terrorized. It seems we are getting more affected by our own government than by what the terrorists have done."

"The ironic thing," Nader Abuljebain of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee explained, "is that we came [to the U.S.] to protect our civil liberties. It’s the only reason we came to this country. It’s not for any financial reason. We used to make much more money when we were back home. But to lose these values, to lose civil liberties, just because we are of Arab origin, or of Muslim faith, this is very disturbing, and makes you reconsider what’s going on. If this is the land of the free, then I should have my civil rights and be protected. This is what we are facing now."

People are determined to keep struggling for justice for Bassim. A young woman named Kim told the RW on her way to the vigil, "He was a really loyal friend. He’d always take care of you. Like how he stood in front of his friends that night he was killed. But he always did stuff like that, to try to help people out. He’s a hero."