The Horrifying Effects of NYPD Ethnic Profiling on Innocent Muslim Americans

A new report describes the concrete ways a clandestine spying program has caused individuals and communities to suffer.
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Reuters

America's largest city, an ethnically diverse, politically liberal melting pot of more than 8 million people, routinely violates the civil liberties of its racial and ethnic minorities. New York City's "Stop and Frisk" policy, the subject of class action lawsuit, annually ensnares hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers, a majority of them black and Latino. Complaints about searches sans probable cause are constant. Listen for yourself as a 17-year-old Harlem boy is stopped, called a "fucking mutt" and threatened with a broken arm. Read about the part of "Stop and Frisk" that was already declared unconstitutional in federal court. See the appalled street protesters. The visible activism and vocal dissent is as it should be. 


But the sustained public backlash against "Stop and Frisk" is also a reminder that Americans know comparatively little about the Muslim Americans whose communities haven't just been disproportionately impacted by NYPD attention, but exclusively targeted in a deliberate, decade long policy of outright ethnic profiling.

As it turns out, many were too rattled to go on the record with complaints, and have spoken out for the first time only after being sought out by a coalition of civil-liberties organizations, which has compiled testimony that shows the high cost these innocents have paid merely for being Muslim in New York.

First, a bit of background:

The Associated Press brought the NYPD's clandestine spying on Muslims to the public's attention in a series of vital stories. Starting shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. These officers "put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity," the news agency reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that "the department's surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created 'additional risks' in counterterrorism."

NYPD brass and Mayor Michael Bloomberg defend these policies as counterterrorism efforts that are necessary to keep New Yorkers safe. As you ponder the specific costs of these policies, as evocatively described below, keep in mind one thing about the ostensible benefits: "In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques," the Associated Press reported, "the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation." They acknowledged, in court testimony, having generated zero leads.

Okay, now the costs. 

"Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims," is available in its entirety here. The abstract objections to police officers spying on innocent Americans based on their religion are presumably familiar to readers, so let's focus on concrete costs to the innocent victims:
  • The week that AP published its investigation, "the students wouldn't come to the prayer room," the leader of a Muslim student group at a New York college said. "They felt they couldn't meet in their own space. The idea of being surveilled -- for a 19- or 20-year-old -- is a terrifying thing."
  • A young man "who befriended a fellow mosque goer only to find out that his friend was an NYPD undercover responded by severing his relationship with the mosque for a year. He has since returned ... but refuses to involve himself in the mosque's activities, or to befriend anyone. He just goes to pray, and then promptly leaves, believing that anything more might put him at risk."
  • Multiple imams reported that they "avoided providing one-on-one consultations because they could never be sure that a question posed by a congregant is a sincere one, or whether it is an attempt by an informant to elicit opinions that he or she will then pass on to their handlers." Said one, "The relationship of trust and confidentiality between an imam and his congregation is no less sacred than that of pastors, rabbis or others .... The actions of the NYPD have compromised this sacred relationship .... It not only weakens the capacity of some Muslim religious leaders to serve as advisers in sensitive matters, but it also compromises their effectiveness as partners in the struggle against extremism. After all, how can a leader give guidance in matters that he or she is hesitant to discuss in any way, for fear of covert monitoring or entrapment?
  • The authors note that "almost all our interviewees noted that appearing Muslim, or appearing to be a certain type of Muslim, invites unwanted attention or surveillance from law enforcement." Said one, "There's always been a sense of stereotyping about dress. But now the veil thing has become more than just about being different. It has become charged with suspicion."
  • Parents are anxious about the effect on their children, and nag them accordingly. A college student said "his parents did not want him to go to Muslim Student Association events or wear his Muslim hat." Another student "who wears the niqab, or face veil," noted that "her mother asked her to stop wearing all black because she worried her dress would draw police scrutiny."
  • Many regular mosque-goers have decreased their attendance, "and those who attend do so to just pray and leave, looking over their shoulders for eavesdropping spies the entire time. One young woman who is responsible for organizing youth activities in her mosque noted how congregants have internalized the need to self-edit religious Sunday school curriculum: 'It's very difficult, it's very hard, you don't know what to say, I have to think twice about the sentences I say just in case someone can come up with a different meaning to what I'm saying.'"
  • "Interviewees stress that the ever-present surveillance chills -- or completely silences -- their speech whether they are engaging in political debate, commenting on current events, encouraging community mobilization or joking around with friends. Political organizing, civic engagement and activism are among the first casualties."
  • Said a community organizer, "We're Arabs, we talk about politics all the time .... Politics is all we do! Every coffee shop, it's either Al Jazeera or a soccer game on TV. This new idea that we must be suspicious of those who speak about politics -- something's wrong." The authors add that "business owners, mosque leaders and community members alike actively censor conversations, event programming, and internet usage in hopes that avoiding certain political content will keep them and their respective religious and social spaces off the NYPD's radar." And one business owner stated, "I don't allow Al Jazeera on in our hookah bar. Particularly when things flare up in the Middle East. We can't control what people start saying in response to the news, and we never know who else is in the bar listening."
  • A Sunday school teacher explained that she is afraid to criticize the very policies that target her community: "I don't talk about the NYPD on Facebook. we'll put articles up, but we will never comment on them, put our own words. Maximum we'll say 'it's sad that this is happening.' But we will never show our anger, that we're really, really angry. Some people aren't afraid, but I am."
  • Said one young man, "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."
  • A community organizer states that "almost every rally and public forum I've attended in the last year begins with some type of disclaimer or call-out of informants and undercovers who might be in attendance and recording the conversation. Most speakers don't even know if such a disclaimer protects them in any way, but I feel it to be a necessary announcement so that the audience participants are conscious of the environment in which we are organizing."
  • "Those we interviewed also expressed concern with how terms and expressions they use in their native languages might be literally translated and misinterpreted by law enforcement. A prominent Queens business owner explained how a common Arabic phrase to denote excitement could be mistranslated into English to convey that the one is so excited that he will 'explode.' The business owner explained that such phrases, commonly used to denote emotion, are seldom used anymore."
  • The presence of informants who are Muslim or posing as Muslim has made everyone in these communities paranoid and mistrustful of one another, one interviewee explained: "Every other store on this street could be an informant. You start wondering about each one: how did this person get his liquor license so quickly? Or how come the cops aren't saying anything about this guy who is well known to be selling alcohol under the table, or to minors."
  • Said the authors, "Ironically, those who have been approached by the NYPD become objects of suspicion among their own peers. Interviewees who had been contacted for questioning by the FBI or by the NYPD were worried that others in their community might find out, resulting in their being viewed by their peers and neighbors with either fear or mistrust. One young man whom NYPD detectives visited at home, questioning him in front of his neighbors, describes his subsequent social marginalization: 'Nobody will trust you with things that they did trust you with before .... Trust is gone. My own neighbor -- he doesn't say it, obviously no one says it. But I feel like it's on their faces. They
    know something's not right because they were there when the NYPD visited us. I assume he figured out it was just a fishing expedition, but I generally feel that they don't want to deal with us.'"

For some reason, I found this passage among the most affecting:

Nearly all interviewees thought they knew someone who was an informant or an undercover officer. The reasons provided were diverse and contradictory, reflecting the widespread internal suspicion that surveillance has triggered within the American Muslim community. Someone viewed as overly religious was suspect, while another who frequented the mosque without seeming particularly religious was equally suspect .... Two interviewees recalled incidents where they falsely accused someone of being an informant, leading to potentially devastating reputational consequences for the accused. One of the students who was on a whitewater rafting trip that was attended by an undercover officer thought he could tell who that undercover was through a process of elimination. When invited to do so during a press interview on national television, he ventured a guess. He was wrong. In his interview, he still expressed remorse: 'I have to give him a call and apologize.'

A second interviewee recalled with regret how he was suspicious about a new member of the mosque whom he noticed suddenly became very involved and active in his mosque's administration. He discussed his concerns with others at the mosque. Later on, he found out that the same man had recently lost his job and had time on his hands. He described his feelings of guilt when he noticed that his warnings had led others to be wary of this man.

There's lots more in the report. I skipped whole categories of harm in my already-too-lengthy excerpting. Suffice it to say that the NYPD's surveillance program significantly affected the lives of its targets for the worse, making them frightened, paranoid, mistrustful of one another, less willing to participate in the civic process, and more inclined to practice their religion in isolation. If Catholics or Jews were targeted by a municipal police department in this way, utterly changing the dynamic of their faith communities for years on end, Americans would be outraged, doubly so if the surveillance produced zero leads and no evidence of averting any serious crime.

Yet somehow Bloomberg presides over all this, defending it after the fact, and remains a darling of the center-left, constantly getting adulatory treatment from the establishment press. "First, as somebody who has lived in New York for almost thirty-five years, I have to say your stand on the non-mosque that's not at Ground Zero marked the first time I've ever written a mayor to say thanks for doing the right thing," wrote Kevin Baker, interviewing Bloomberg when GQ declared him a Man of the Year in 2010. And he was right to praise him for that stand. "Your speech did a great job of tracing the fights for immigrants' rights, the fights for religious freedom in New York, all the way back to the Flushing Remonstrance of the seventeenth century," Baker continued. "Is New York City the place, more than any other, where we have fought it out over who gets to be a full American and what that means?"

It's self-congratulation I wish NYC deserved, but it doesn't in this case. Said Bloomberg in reply, "New Yorkers, I don't know that they like each other or socialize together, but they go down the same steps to the subway, they hail a cab at the same corner, they buy their coffee at the same Starbucks, their newspaper at the same kiosk -- and so people who look different, act different, sound different, smell different, dress different, whatever, they are not threatening, because you are next to them all the time." Quoth the report, "NYPD's Assistant Chief Thomas Galati testified that merely speaking in certain languages, particularly Urdu and Arabic, could trigger surveillance." Do you know what magazine story I'd absolutely love to see William Finnegan write? Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County and Michael Bloomberg's New York: compare and contrast.

What does it say about American liberalism today that two of the most significant municipal programs abrogating the civil liberties of racial and ethnic minorities thrive in a deep blue city that also happens to be the media capitol of the country ... and the guy presiding over it remains popular? Just now he's predicting drone surveillance in New York City's future. For what it's worth, NYC Muslims, Bloomberg has never even entertained any principled objections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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