Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD chief Ray Kelly (Photo: AP)
Ray Kelly, the current head of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and a potential future mayoral candidate, has a problem. Month after month of revelations unearthed by the Associated Press (AP) has painted a damning picture of his police force’s massive and arbitrary spy operation targeting Muslims.
So now, Kelly is embarking on a public outreach effort to bring Muslim leaders over to his side. He’s had some success, and the likes of Zuhdi Jasser, an anti-Muslim activist, have publicly praised his actions. But Muslim activists highly critical of Kelly and the NYPD’s spying have called the public outreach a “sham” effort that has excluded the very people who have been requesting meetings with the NYPD over Muslim community-police relations.
Kelly has withstood months of withering criticism of the NYPD’s efforts to monitor and catalog virtually every aspect of Muslim life in New York City and elsewhere. Last week, Kelly met twice with Muslim leaders at One Police Plaza. The leaders came out of the meeting singing Kelly’s praises. Mayor Michael Bloomberg received the message; on his weekly radio show, Bloomberg said that “almost all of the Muslim groups he has spoken to in recent weeks are supportive of New York City's surveillance programs,” the AP reported.
Muslim activists, though, say that’s simply not true. Last Friday, I spoke with Debbie Almontaser, a prominent Muslim leader in New York who was formerly the head of the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school. Later that day, Almontaser was set to participate in a press conference denouncing the meetings and the NYPD’s surveillance program.
Debbie Almontaser (Photo: WNYC/Flickr)
Almontaser, currently a coordinator and board member for the Muslim Consultative Network, was invited to the first of the meetings with Kelly. She rejected the offer, though, because she was only given 24 hours notice, and found it “insulting” that the NYPD was picking who to meet with.
“Police Commissioner Kelly has hand selected individuals” to meet with, said Almontaser. “He has just intentionally disregarded the call for a meeting or giving a courtesy invitation to individual leaders from the coalitions that have been asking for meetings for the past year.”
Almontaser also raised questions about the leaders meeting with Kelly. “Those leaders that he met with are leaders in their own right, providing services to individuals in their community,” she said. But “whether or not these people have the expertise of being able to critique legal, constitutional matters that infringe on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, that has yet to be determined. Because if they were able to critique this surveillance project, and they read the extensive documents that were released by the Associated Press, they very well would see that this project is really infringing on our civil liberties.”
As for the claim that, in general, Muslims are supportive of the NYPD spy efforts, Almontaser also said that was false. She noted that the coalitions organizing last week’s press conference--the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition and the Islamic Leadership Council of New York--represent over 65 organizations.
Kelly’s public outreach efforts came the same week as yet another damning report from the AP was published. The latest AP article definitively shows that the NYPD spied on people just because they practiced Islam--a detail that contradicts Bloomberg's previous statements. The article was based on once-secret documents that show the NYPD compiled detailed information on Egyptians, Syrians and Albanians in the city. From the AP:
The New York Police Department collected information on businesses owned by second- and third-generation Americans specifically because they were Muslims, according to newly obtained secret documents. They show in the clearest terms yet that police were monitoring people based on religion, despite claims from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the contrary...
In late 2007, however, plainclothes officers in the department's secretive Demographics Unit were assigned to investigate the region's Syrian population. Police photographed businesses and eavesdropped at lunch counters and inside grocery stores and pastry shops. The resulting document listed no threat. And though most people of Syrian heritage living in the area were Jewish, Jews were excluded from the monitoring.
"This report will focus on the smaller Muslim community," the report said.
Similarly, police excluded the city's sizable Coptic Christian population when photographing, monitoring and eavesdropping on Egyptian businesses in 2007, according to the police files.
"This report does not represent the Coptic Egyptian community and is merely an insight into the Muslim Egyptian community of New York City," the NYPD wrote.
In response to the report, Almontaser said: “They are just specifically targeting Muslims, period. This is absolutely unacceptable and unconstitutional.”
The AP revelations are likely to keep streaming out. Still, Muslim activists have an uphill battle to fight. A Quinnipiac University poll released today reports that 58 percent of people surveyed support the NYPD’s dealings with the Muslim community.