Muslim community under siege: Groundbreaking report documents how NYPD surveillance chills free speech and activism

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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New York City residents demonstrate against the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims (Photo: Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslim communities has chilled the exercise of constitutional rights and has strained community ties, placing an entire religious community under siege by the police, according to a groundbreaking report authored by members of the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The report, the most comprehensive accounting yet of how the NYPD’s practices are harming the Muslim community, is based on original interviews with 57 New York City Muslims. The authors state that the NYPD’s spying program targeting Muslim Americans creates “a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life.” Additionally, the surveillance program has “chilled constitutionally protected rights—curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing” and has also “severed the trust that should exist between the police department and the communities it is charged with protecting.”

From its impact on curtailing religious practices and free speech to how it affects Muslims on college campuses, the report, titled “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims,” paints a disturbing picture of how a police force with no accountability has targeted an entire religious community.

But it’s a program, as the report notes, with nothing to show for it–other than a Muslim community that feels under siege. The fact that the surveillance has not helped stop terrorism doesn’t matter to police chief Ray Kelly, who vowed to continue “intelligence gathering.”

“The only way” to stop terrorism is “through intelligence gathering. That’s why it’s essential that the Police Department’s efforts to defend against terrorism be proactive and that we find those who are in the earliest stages of planning violent acts,” Kelly said yesterday, according to the Huffington Post. Kelly’s comments come 9 months after a top NYPD officer admitted that no leads had come from the intelligence gathering the NYPD has engaged in since the September 11 attacks. The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports that the program has cost the city over $1 billion, according to a City Council member. Kelly added that he had not seen the new “Mapping Muslims” report yet, though members of the Muslim community personally delivered it to police headquarters on Monday.

Police reporter Leonard Levitt, in an article on the new report, documents why  the NYPD’s surveillance program is futile:

Earlier this year, Kelly publicly acknowledged at a seminar at the YMHA that his vaunted oversees spying service, which has stationed detectives in 11 cities around the world, had produced not a single tip about potential attacks against the city. [See NYPDConfidential, Jan. 14, 2013.]

Kelly has also maintained that the NYPD’s spying on Muslims “only follows leads.” He has yet to explain why officers from the Intelligence Division spied on Buffalo’s Somali community in 2007 and 2008 when its local law enforcement liaison reported that there was no evidence of terrorism criminality in that community. [See NYPD Confidential Feb. 27, 2012…]

The focus on lone-wolf threats has led the NYPD to pursue mentally unstable young men, at least two of whom have histories of psychiatric treatment.

So while the spying program targeting Muslims has generated no criminal investigations, it has had a major impact on Muslim American community life. The NYPD has collected intelligence on where Muslim “hot spots” are in the city and in the larger Northeast. They have sent “crawlers” into mosques to monitor sermons and record what attendees say. And the police have gone after young Muslims to ask them to spy on members of their own community by “creating and capturing” inflammatory rhetoric and then sharing it with the NYPD.

All of these aspects of the NYPD program, instituted after 9/11 and first exposed by the Associated Press and by Leonard Levitt, are having a profound impact on how Muslim Americans in New York go about their daily lives.

Devout Muslims who formerly attended mosques have cut back. “People tell me ‘I’ll make my salaah [prayer] at home.’ They mention the [NYPD] camera right outside the mosque as the reason,” one Brooklyn imam told the report’s authors.

“I used to go to the masjid [mosque] quite a lot. That stopped as soon as they [the NYPD] knocked on the door,” added 26-year-old Ahsan Samad, who is a resident of Brooklyn. And “looking Muslim”–wearing a hijab, a niqab or growing a beard–is now also something members of the Muslim community are afraid to do.

“I’ve seen this emerging again: the number of young women who are not wearing hijab, young men shaving their beard, people changing their names. These decisions are made in part based on psychological trauma that these people are experiencing,” Debbie Almontaser, a prominent community leader, says in the report.

Political organizing has been curtailed as a result of the NYPD’s surveillance program. The NYPD has admitted that speaking Arabic or Urdu, or talking about political events in the Middle East, is enough to get Muslims spied on. “I come from a family of activists. My parents, when I first told them the Associated Press story is about to break, my dad told me don’t do anything about it. That was the first time my dad ever told me anything like that. This was the first time in my own family where safety trumped what was the right thing to do,” community organizer Ali Naquvi told the report’s authors.

Organizing on college campuses, in particular, has been hit hard by the NYPD’s surveillance. “For college students, typically aged between 17 and 22, the prospect of dealing with surveillance by a police department, infiltration of events and extracurricular activities by informants, and the potentially devastating academic, professional, and personal repercussions can be overwhelming,” the “Mapping Muslims” report states.

“Israel/Palestine and Muslim youth culture are the two topics where you feel the air goes out of the room. Students get anxious. The conversation is uncomfortable, the atmosphere changes in the room,” a professor at Hunter College, Carla Bellamy, states in the report.

Mistrust of others in the Muslim community has also increased because of the NYPD’s spying program.

Many Muslim New Yorkers, according to the report, are wary of other Muslims they do not know because of suspicions they could work for the NYPD. The report documents a number of stories of how the NYPD has targeted young Muslims to become informants. One Muslim high school student told the report’s authors how the police had contacted her school’s principal. At first, the student thought it was because she had complained to the principal about someone who was following her. It turned out the police were interested in her online activities and her friends. After the initial conversation with NYPD agents at her school, the same agents came to her home while her parents were not there and rifled through her belongings. Young and broke, the police thought they could coax her into spying on her community. “[The detective] said the department can provide you with a place, a job if that’s what you’re looking for, an apartment, we can give you your freedom,” the woman told the report’s authors.

And then there’s the fact that the surveillance program has poisoned Muslim-police relations. There is “extensive collaboration between the precinct-level police doing beat work and the Intelligence Division, as the Intelligence Division mined precincts’ ‘local knowledge’ of the communities they are meant to serve and to protect,” the report says. “For example, the Citywide Debriefing Team, a unit within the Intelligence Division, was tasked with going to precincts or jails to question – or ‘debrief,’ in NYPD terms – arrestees of Muslim or Arab background. As [our] clients’ experiences confirmed, upon being taken to the precinct – for a traffic violation, or even for filing an identity theft complaint – individuals have been met by officers or detectives from another unit and questioned about their community, and their religious or political beliefs.”

The “Mapping Muslims” publication concludes with a number of recommendations, which include: a halt to the NYPD surveillance program; the expunging of police records collected on Muslims; an investigation into violations of police guidelines; the passing of legislation to bring “oversight and accountability” to the NYPD; and more.

The report states that their “grave findings necessitate urgent action by policymakers and grassroots activists alike.”


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