Muslim Ice Cream Truck Drivers Claim They're Being Targeted by Racist Police in Michigan

A pair of ice cream truck drivers in Hamtramck, Michigan charge that police treated them "like dogs" after they were falsely arrested and detained for two days without being given anything to eat or drink.

Oct 12 2016, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user ddolga

The fleet of Yemeni-owned ice cream trucks that cruise Hamtramck, Michigan's streets during the summer months are a source of joy to the city's children, most of whom are also Yemeni or Bangladeshi.

While somewhat DIY in aesthetic, the odd trucks are part of what gives the small, immigrant enclave that's physically surrounded by Detroit its own flavor and appeal.

But one of the trucks is now at the center of a civil rights dispute in Hamtramck (pronounced "Ham-tram-ick"). Its owner and his brother say the city's police unfairly targeted his ice cream truck as part of a broader effort to rid the city of Yemeni immigrants and Muslims.

In a complaint filed with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the brothers, Mohammed Wassel and Omar Wasel, who spell their last names differently, charge that they were falsely arrested and accused of insurance fraud. The complaint also states that the brothers were detained for two days without being given anything to eat or drink, or access to a telephone. Police treated the pair "like dogs" because they're Muslims, Wassel tells MUNCHIES.

"They're racist, and it's not their first time [harassing Muslims]," he says.

Following their release, the brothers hired an attorney and notified the Arab-American Civil Rights League, the latter of which filed a complaint with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in August. It opened an investigation in late September.

A Commission spokesperson told MUNCHIES that once the investigation wraps up, it will try to broker a resolution between the two sides. Failing that, it can hit the Hamtramck Police Department with fines and order cultural sensitivity training.

The investigation could also be the first step in a lawsuit against the department, should the brothers choose to go that route with a private attorney.

Hamtramck Police Chief Anne Moise declined to comment on the case.

"Our officers are professional, they treat everyone the same; our policy is to treat everyone with respect and dignity, but I can't comment on specific accusations at this time," she tells MUNCHIES.

The case comes at an interesting moment in Hamtramck. Last November, the city's residents elected the nation's first Muslim-majority city council. Reporters from around the world continue landing in Hamtramck to write about life under a Muslims-majority city council during the age of Trump-fueled Islamophobia.

Many locals were upset with reports from outlets like the BBC and Washington Post, which they felt exaggerated the level of tension between the Muslim population and Polish community that ran the city for the last 100 years. The new complaint, however, is evidence that Hamtramck isn't friction-free, and attorneys for Wassel and Wasel say it's part of a pattern of the city's police targeting Yemenis.

"There have previously been issues with the police … within Hamtramck's minority community," said Arab-American Civil Rights League Attorney Rula Aoun. "This is more of an awareness action."

According to the complaint, Mohammed Wasel was ticketed in March for an expired license plate, and police subsequently impounded his truck. When Wassel and Wasel went the station to present their insurance and reclaim the truck, they were told they needed more proof and documentation.

The brothers returned the next day, at which time the desk officer was "rude and threatened that if we presented fake insurance, he would arrest us," Wassel wrote in the complaint. The brothers assured the officer their insurance was legitimate, presented it, and were immediately arrested.

Wassel charges that officers were "unnecessarily aggressive" and "laughed at me and humiliated me." He tells MUNCHIES the officers called him names like "Mr. Fake Insurance Man," and the brothers say they weren't provided food nor water, and were denied access to a telephone and medicine.

"They didn't tell us anything the whole time. They treated us like criminals. They treated me like I killed somebody, and all the cops called me names," he said. "When we tried to tell them something, they tell us to shut up. They think they caught somebody big, but they were wrong."

When the brothers' State Farm Insurance agent arrived at the station to vouch for them and provide further evidence that the insurance was real, he was turned away.

Police eventually released Wasel and Wassel within the 72 hours that departments can legally hold suspects without charges. Attorneys for the brothers say it's not standard procedure for officers to detain individuals over expired tags. Wassel tells MUNCHIES he's further frustrated by the department's lack of remorse for its false accusations.

"They didn't even say sorry. They didn't say nothing to us, or apologize to us. They treat people like shit, you know?"