New York City mayoral candidates participated in a May 5 forum on Muslim community issues at NYU. From left: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio; Comptroller John Liu; City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; and Rev. Erick Salgado. (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
It was a telling moment: asked at a forum who thought police surveillance of Muslims was unconstitutional, only two New York City mayoral candidates, John Liu and Erick Salgado, raised their hands to loud applause. The raised hands crystallized a sense that Liu was the Muslim community’s favored candidate. And it indicated that New York Police Department (NYPD) spying on Muslims still maintains support in parts of the Democratic establishment.
The snapshot of where the mayoral candidates stood on the issue occurred during a packed mayoral forum Sunday attended by over 300 people.
The forum, organized by the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) and the Islamic Center at NYU, was the first time ever that mayoral candidates participated in an event devoted to the Muslim community, which boasts 105,000 registered voters. It was moderated by veteran journalist Errol Louis, the host of NY1’s “Inside City Hall” show and a columnist for the New York Daily News.
Six of the candidates who showed up were Democrats and one was an independent, though all the mayoral contenders were invited. (In total, ten people are running for the job.)
“The Muslim-American community, the Arab community and the South Asian community are a political force that hasn’t been reckoned with, but need to be reckoned with. And if anyone is to win a mayoral election, it has to be with the support of our community,” said Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the AAANY.
But it was clear that not all the candidates thought it was worth the political cost to come out in full support of the Muslim community–at least on the issue of police surveillance, a topic that the candidates debated for over 15 minutes. There was broad agreement on the need for religious freedom, Muslim school holidays to be included in the school calendar and strong mayoral leadership against hate crimes. Some disagreement arose on issues of academic freedom and debate over Israel/Palestine as well as what to do about the NYPD’s expansive program of spying on Muslims. In the years after 9/11, the police department embarked on a program of mapping out mosques and businesses, eavesdropping on innocuous conversations among Muslims and infiltrating student groups. The surveillance program has chilled political activism and religious practice in the Muslim community.
Most candidates spoke out against surveillance of Muslims, though the front-runners in the race to be the Democratic candidate avoided denouncing the spying.
Sal Albanese, a long-shot candidate, said that the NYPD should follow the legal guidelines governing surveillance and that “you just can’t helter-skelter go out and surveil groups without abiding by the law. And also, as was pointed out, it is counter-productive to alienate communities.” Former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who ran for mayor in 2009 and almost beat Michael Bloomberg, did not say the surveillance was unconstitutional, though he strongly denounced the program. “ To single a group out, to follow people, to infiltrate mosques…to be able to do all of those things, is it right? Absolutely not. Should it be done? Positively not. Would I allow it? Definitely not.” It was the strongest remarks on the issue yet from Thompson, who has previously expressed muted concerns.
The two top Democratic candidates–current Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn–did not mention the word surveillance in their response. Both of them have shown support for NYPD surveillance in the past. “Unless we know that laws were broken or someone’s civil liberties were violated, I do not think the NYPD should stop the practice,” Quinn said in a statement last February. A month later, de Blasio said: “I believe that the NYPD is currently limiting its work to the pursuit of specific leads and that there is a substantial legal review process connected to those decisions.”
After slamming Mayor Bloomberg for “fear-mongering” on stop and frisk, de Blasio presented three things at the forum that he would do on policing as mayor: ensure that there was a “strong” Inspector General, an independent office that would oversee the police and investigate rights violations; pass a bill that would ban racial profiling; and install a new police commissioner.
Keeping up his strategy of attacking Quinn from the left, he criticized the City Council Speaker for “want[ing] to keep Commissioner [Ray] Kelly” and not pushing to “pass the racial profiling bill.” Notably, Quinn did not deny that she would keep Kelly, a highly popular figure in the city who instituted the surveillance program, on as commissioner. Quinn also vowed, “in the weeks ahead,” to help “pass the Inspector General bill into law.” The bill, first introduced in June 2012, was held up for months in the City Council–because of Quinn. The move is a way for Quinn to cover her left flank in the Democratic primary. Quinn also defended her position against the racial profiling bill, saying it would open up the state courts to claims of racial profiling that would create “confusing rulings where we already have [federal] court jurisdiction.”
It was left to current City Comptroller Liu, currently polling fourth behind Thompson, de Blasio and Quinn, to deliver the line of the night on surveillance. “No offense to you guys here–how can anybody think that it’s OK to surveil or spy on people just because they’re Muslim?” said Liu. The remarks were likely to bolster support for Liu, who has made it a point to visit mosques on Fridays, among Muslims.
The reluctance among Quinn and De Blasio to strongly slam surveillance targeting the whole Muslim community likely stems from the fact that the program retains majority support among voters in the city. In contrast, the much maligned stop and frisk policy of the NYPD has become more and more unpopular. Despite Quinn and de Blasio’s remarks, it was significant that the issue was being debated, as it has not been a top priority for mayoral candidates.
Disagreements weren’t limited to the issue of NYPD surveillance of Muslims.
Debate over the much-talked about Brooklyn College panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel broke out in response to an audience question. Save for Liu, the top candidates doubled-down on their positions. “If you look at Brooklyn College, that wasn’t a question of freedom of speech, it was a question of should the college Political Science department be sponsoring a forum that, in that case, that pushed hate,” said Thompson, who said that both sides should have been represented at the panel that featured Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, two proponents of BDS. Thompson spoke out against the BDS panel before it occurred alongside Dov Hikind, a right-wing (though a Democrat) pusher of Islamophobia linked to Jewish extremist groups. Thompson was booed at the forum for the answer, and it prompted a rejoinder from Albanese.
“What you don’t want is telling academics what should be taught, be said on a campus. I believe in more speech,” said Albanese. After De Blasio agreed with Thompson–and said that public colleges in particular should provide all viewpoints–Albanese said, “let me say this…Bill was just pandering.” After Albanese’s remarks, Thompson added, “if the Political Science Department is sponsoring the Klan, I want to have both sides put forward. That’s all I said.”
Thompson, De Blasio, Quinn and Liu signed a letter organized by Congressman Jerry Nadler that spoke out against BDS and said that they were “concerned that an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue…By excluding alternative positions from an event they are sponsoring, the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate.” A second letter from the same group backtracked slightly.
At the forum, Liu backtracked further on his actions in the lead-up to the BDS panel and noted that the Political Science Department routinely sponsors a variety of events, which garnered applause. “It was a very quick letter, we were given very short time to do it, something that in hindsight I shouldn’t have signed, and that’s why we had the second letter to clarify our position.”
When Quinn doubled-down on her position and said that it was important to have “both sides” of the debate on BDS at the event, the crowd booed once again.