Tag Archives: NYPD

Wanted at #OccupyWallStreet: Coalition building across NYC communities

This article originally appeared in Waging Nonviolence.  It’s also worth checking out the response of journalist Nathan Schneider, who has been providing the best coverage of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests.

The burgeoning #OccupyWallStreet protest made headlines again on Saturday night when hundreds of demonstrators were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  And once again, the tried-and-true media narrative of protesters vs. police is played up.

It could be argued that the story here is not about police arrests and should instead be about the growing movement occupying public space across the United States as a symbol of disgust with the U.S. economic system.  That’s true, but you can’t expect corporate media to focus on the real story.  What’s also true is that the media’s focus on that narrative, and #OccupyWallStreet’s revulsion with the New York Police Department’s tactics, is an opportunity for coalition building with marginalized communities in the city.

Kai Wright, editor of the excellent ColorLines website, notes that the demonstrators are “largely young and white.” He also writes critically that the #OccupyWallStreet demonstrators have not included those “millions of people who have been kicked out of their homes, laid off or forced to work multiple part-time jobs, caught in predatory debt traps and, yes, so harassed by cops that they have petty criminal records that make them unemployable.”

Wright continues:

These millions are neither lobbying Congress nor marching across the Brooklyn Bridge; they’re trying to make it through the week without another crisis. They are also overwhelmingly and not in the least bit coincidentally black people. And I suspect that until we build our politics around their participation, we will continue to miss the point.

Wright’s point is salient, although there are certainly black people and those who have lost their homes now down at Liberty Plaza.  And there are probably few protesters at Liberty Plaza right now who would disagree with Wright’s call.  The question is how to garner the participation of those in marginalized communities and build strong links with the protesters who do come from those communities.

Labor’s willingness to get on board the occupation is one way.  The Transit Workers Union, which has come out strong for the protesters, has a largely Black, Latino and immigrant workforce.  But that’s not enough.

#OccupyWallStreet, which will continue to battle the police in the coming days, should be building bridges with communities who suffer the most from NYPD policing tactics.  Anger at the department’s “stop and frisk” policy, which is overwhelmingly directed at poor Black and Latino men in New York City, is high.  So is anger at the NYPD’s recently exposed spying program on NYC Muslim communities.  What’s a better way to connect the struggles of communities of color and the #OccupyWallStreet demonstrators than marching specifically against those policies and the heavy-handed NYPD tactics used on #OccupyWallStreet?

Last Friday’s protest against police brutality was certainly a start.  The upcoming October 22 protest against police brutality, an annual event, could be the next step.  #OccupyWallStreet should use existing anger at police brutality and connect the struggle against inequality to the struggle against police brutality.  After all, both the policing and economic systems in this country target poor people in communities of color.  Making those explicit connections could be a powerful boost to the growing movement to occupy Wall Street, and the United States.

Mosques, students and NGOs: Journalist blows the lid off police spying on NYC Muslims

Two weeks after an Associated Press investigation exposed the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s  “demographic units” used to spy on a wide array of Muslim New Yorkers, a journalist has published startling new details that reveal the breadth of that operation.  The details are sure to raise new alarms in the Muslim-American community in New York City (NYC) as the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approach. 

Leonard Levitt, a long-time writer on the NYPD beat, reports:

The New York City Police Department has been spying on hundreds of Muslim mosques, schools, businesses, student groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals, NYPD Confidential has learned.

The spying operation has targeted virtually every level of Muslim life in New York City, according to a trove of pages of Intelligence Division documents obtained by NYPD Confidential.

The documents do not specify whether the police have evidence or solid suspicions of criminality to justify their watching the Muslim groups.

The breadth and scope of the surveillance described in the documents suggest that the police have been painting with a broad brush and may have targeted subjects without specific tips about wrongdoing.

Specifically, Levitt reveals exactly who the NYPD spied on:

The NYPD’s spying operation has compiled information on 250 mosques, 12 Islamic schools, 31 Muslim student associations, 263 places it calls “ethnic hotspots,” such as businesses and restaurants, as well as 138 “persons of interest,” according to the Intel documents.

Police have singled out 53 mosques, four Islamic schools and seven Muslim student associations as institutions of “concern.” They have also labeled 42 individuals as top tier “persons of interest.”  

At least 32 mosques have been infiltrated by either undercover officers, informants, or both, according to documents, which are dated between 2003 and 2006 and marked “secret.”  

The NYPD has also been monitoring Muslim student associations at seven local colleges: City, Baruch, Hunter, Queens, LaGuardia, St. John’s and Brooklyn.

The department calls the two student groups at Brooklyn and Baruch colleges “of concern” and has sent undercover detectives to spy on them, the documents reveal.

The department defines a Muslim student association as “a university based student group, with an Islamic focus, involved with religious and political activities.”

The documents reveal that an Intelligence Division Cyber Unit has monitored MSAs at Brooklyn, City and Queens colleges.

The department also lists 10 non-governmental organizations as “of concern.” According to the documents, all 10 organizations have been spied upon by NYPD undercovers, informants, detectives with the Joint Terrorist Task Force or what the documents describe as a “secondary.”

On the NYPD list of 42 top tier “persons of interest” are: a corrections officer, a former imam, an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a lecturer at Brooklyn College and what the department describes as a “Brooklyn College MSA member [who] has expressed desire to be a suicide bomber in Palestine.”

The police have spied on all these people with either an undercover officer, an informant, or both, the documents say.

The spying operation–which appears to run afoul of a 2004 NYC law that prohibits racial and ethnic profiling by the NYPD–was created by former CIA agent David Cohen.  Cohen has previously been criticized for helping spearhead an expansive NYPD operation that saw the department travel the globe to monitor social justice activists ahead of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Muslim-American and civil liberties groups have slammed the NYPD operation.  A statement by the Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition demands:

• the New York City Council to investigate and oversee the NYPD’s operations, as well as a City Comptroller Audit;
• the Obama Administration to initiate a federal investigation into the extent to which the CIA has engaged in domestic spying within the United States, in violation of law and its manadate;
• Congress and the New York State Senate to hold hearings into the NYPD’s, FBI’s, and CIA’s  surveillance and policing practices in Muslim communities with a focus on the role of informants;
• Congress and New York State Senate to pass enforceable anti-racial profiling legislation;
• NYPD and the Department of Justice to revise their internal guidelines to disallow the use of surveillance and informants absent suspicion of specific criminal activity. 

The response to the relevations about the NYPD casting a large net over NYC Muslims is by no means the first time civil liberties and Muslim-American advocacy groups have clashed with the NYPD.  As I reported for the Gotham Gazette last November:

Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being “radicalized” into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are “more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, “Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.” In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting “a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents.”

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the “NYPD’s focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling.”

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

“It’s not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it’s leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place,” said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification “didn’t address all of [the Muslim community's] concerns. The way it was done — really kind of hidden there — makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”

A separate Associated Press article on the NYPD documents states that they “paint the clearest picture yet of how the past decade’s hunt for terrorists also put huge numbers of innocent people under scrutiny as they went about their daily lives in mosques, restaurants and social groups. Every day, undercover officers and informants filed reports from their positions as ‘listening posts’ inside Muslim communities.”

The expansive intelligence operation is representative of perhaps the most enduring legacy of the September 11 attacks:  the harassment and surveillance of the Muslim-American community and the alarming rise of a national security state that strips away Americans’ civil liberties. 

 

 

The NYPD’s Islamophobia Problem

Tom Robbins of the Village Voice has a disturbing report on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) use of an anti-Muslim video as part of its “counter-terror” training for police officers:

It was a spectacularly offensive smear of American Muslims. The film is called The Third Jihad. It is 72 minutes of gruesome footage of bombing carnage, frenzied crowds, burning American flags, flaming churches, and seething mullahs. All of this is sandwiched between a collection of somber talking heads informing us that, while we were sleeping, the international Islamist Jihad that wrought these horrors has set up shop here and is quietly going about its deadly business. This is the final drive in a 1,400-year-old bid for Muslim world domination, we’re informed. And while we may think there are some perfectly reasonable Muslim leaders and organizations here in the U.S., that is just more sucker bait sent our way.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for a probe into the NYPD’s use of the film. What’s more disturbing than the video itself, though, is the fact that the NYPD has a documented record of employing anti-Muslim tropes as part of its “counter-terrorism” program since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

As I reported in November 2010 for the Gotham Gazette, the biggest blemish on NYPD-Muslim relations came in 2007 with the publication of a report for the department titled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat“:

The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being “radicalized” into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are “more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, “Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.” In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting “a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents.”

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the “NYPD’s focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling.”

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

“It’s not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it’s leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place,” said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification “didn’t address all of [the Muslim community's] concerns. The way it was done — really kind of hidden there — makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”

And after Najibullah Zazi came to New York City in 2009 in an alleged failed attempt to carry out bombings on NYC transit targets, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, of which the NYPD is a member of, arrested Zazi and also conducted raids in Flushing, QueensHeather Appel of City Limits documented Flushing residents’ outrage at the FBI and the NYPD’s practices:

Almost two months after a suspected terrorist visited New York, setting off a chain of law enforcement activities including police raids of homes in Queens, activists are methodically collecting and recording complaints from Queens residents who allege a spectrum of harassment by law enforcement from verbal abuse to home entry without a warrant. The complaints will be logged by CUNY School of Law and given to Joseph M. Demarest Jr., the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York City office.

Ever since Najibullah Zazi, a Colorado resident born in Afghanistan who also lived in Pakistan and Queens, spent a night at the apartment of an old friend in Flushing, Queens, many Flushing residents have felt under siege by law enforcement. Zazi is in custody on terrorism conspiracy charges – after police found he had bought bomb-making materials and compiled bomb-making instructions on his computer – while his host for one night in September, Naiz Khan, is free. But others in the neighborhood say that since the Joint Terrorism Task Force raided several apartments Sept. 14 in an effort to find co-conspirators or evidence, everyday life has become more uncomfortable if you are – or might look like you are – Muslim or of Afghan or Pakistani descent.

As the above examples show, the most recent revelation of the NYPD’s flirtation with Islamophobia is no anomaly.

 

 

 

Beyond the Mosque: Bloomberg and New York’s Muslims

The following article originally appeared in the Gotham Gazette, an online-only publication focusing on New York City government and politics:

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly defended the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero last August even as polls showed most New Yorkers opposed the project, he garnered some favorable media coverage and praise for his stance.

A New York Times editorial called Bloomberg “the leader with the courage to make the case” for the center. Tom Robbins, a Village Voice columnist and frequent critic of the mayor, wrote, “Mike Bloomberg did a brave and good deed for this city” when he spoke out in favor of the project, known as Park 51. Errol Louis called Bloomberg’s speech on Governors Island defending the proposed center “the finest speech of his career.” And the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, praised Bloomberg for “defending the rights of Muslims and other Americans to build houses of worship.”

The mosque, while significant, is just one issue. Beyond that, many Muslim groups, faith leaders and activists who have applauded Bloomberg’s forceful defense of Park 51 say his administration has had a mixed and at times disappointing track record on policies affecting the Muslim community. Among other issues, they cite his failure to speak out on proposals for other mosques around the city, his refusal to provide a school holiday for Muslim holy days and the attitude of the police department toward Muslims in the city.

“We appreciate that Bloomberg came out and took a stand in a very difficult political moment, particularly a backlash against Muslim communities,” said Monami Maulik, the executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a grassroots activist group serving the South Asian community. “On the other hand, we also saw it as window dressing in many ways because the bottom line is that it’s the policies and practices that the administration puts in place that affects the members of our community day to day.”

A Range of Concerns

An estimated 800,000 Muslims live in the city, and their numbers are growing. Not surprisingly, they have an array of concerns — extending far beyond a mosque in lower Manhattan. Interviews with a wide array of Muslim community leaders indicate that the Bloomberg administration and the city’s Muslim community have a complicated and nuanced relationship.

“It is a work in progress,” said Adem Carroll, the former executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network and the former coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America’s 9/11 relief program. “He has hired some Muslims as commissioners who work very hard at being liaisons. He himself does not visit our community members very much, at least that’s the perception.”

Robina Niaz, the founder and executive director of Turning Point for Women and Families, a non-profit organization that seeks to address domestic violence within the Muslim community, said she has seen a “marked change in the last several months” toward the positive in how Bloomberg is perceived in the Muslim community.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, an African-American leader at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, describes the relationship between the Bloomberg administration and the Muslim community as “strained.” But he said, “There has been a demonstration of some political sensitivity on the part of that administration toward some issues of importance to the Muslim community.” For example, ‘Abdur-Rashid said, after a September 2009 fire badly damaged a mosque in the Bronx that served a large West African Muslim community, “the Bloomberg administration was a great help and assistance to them, helping them to find a temporary place to worship.”

However, a consensus exists that the Bloomberg administration needs to reach out more to the Muslim community, especially in a difficult political climate for Muslims.

“Just because he supported Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Park 51, that doesn’t mean every other issue should be taken off the burner,” said Niaz.

In an interview, Fatima Shama, a Palestinian-American Muslim who is the commissioner for immigrant affairs under the Bloomberg administration, forcefully defended the administration’s efforts.

Bloomberg “has engaged with the Muslim community more than any other mayor in this city,” said Shama, noting that she was the first Muslim hired to be commissioner of immigrant affairs. Shama also pointed out that Bloomberg holds an annual Iftar dinner, to mark the fast breaking during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Voice of Reason

With anti-Muslim prejudice seemingly on the rise across the country, many Muslims in New York would like the mayor to go beyond his speech on the mosque and community center near Ground Zero. In particular, they wish he would speak out on the battles over proposed mosques elsewhere in the city. In the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, the board of a Catholic Church blocked plans for a proposed mosque when, in the face of harsh condemnation, they refused to sell a vacant convent to a Muslim organization. In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a proposed mosque and community center has also sparked controversy.

“Bloomberg this time around chose to stand on the right side of history on the Park 51 controversy by making that eloquent speech, but I don’t think that he should stop there. I think he’s positioned uniquely as a mayor, as a national leader, to lead the charge against Islamophobia if he really wants to redeem himself in the eyes of Muslim New Yorkers considering that he’s failed them a few times,” said Debbie Almontaser, the founder and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school.

In 2007, many Muslims and other New Yorkers believe, Almotaser fell victim of that prejudice when a right-wing campaign targeted the school and Almontaser. Following an article in the New York Post that claimed she “downplayed the significance” of T-shirts bearing the word “intifada,” she was “forced to resign following a directive from Bloomberg, according to Almontaser. Earlier this year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that the Department of Education discriminated against Almontaser and “succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school intended to dispel.”

Almontaser’s resignation remains on the mind of many community leaders.

Perceptions of the mayor’s actions don’t stop at New York’s borders. While Bloomberg does not have a role in formulating foreign policy, many Muslim activists disapprovingly cited his staunch support for Israel, and specifically his January 2009 visit to Israel while the country waged an assault on the Gaza Strip in Palestine.

“His relationship with Israel, supporting Israel with no limits, hurts us,” said Zein Rimawi, a member of the New York City-based Arab Muslim American Federation. “Don’t forget: We are Arabs, we are Muslims, and the people in Gaza are Arabs and Muslims and we support them.”

Under Suspicion

In addition, Muslim leaders have concern about New York Police Department counter-terrorism practices in the Bloomberg era. Civil rights organizations like CAIR-NY and DRUM have of police harassment of Muslims in New York.

Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being “radicalized” into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are “more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, “Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.” In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting “a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents.”

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the “NYPD’s focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling.”

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

“It’s not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it’s leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place,” said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification “didn’t address all of [the Muslim community's] concerns. The way it was done — really kind of hidden there — makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”

The police did not respond to requests for comment. But Shama defended the department, saying it has many Muslims in the police force and also has a Muslim Officers Society whose mission includes promoting “a mutual understanding between the NYPD and the Muslim community.”

“I don’t think there are any broad brushes or generalizations in the report,” said Shama, when asked about Muslim community leaders’ criticism of the document. “But we do have a policy that if you see something, say something. … It’s a new day in a new country,” she said, referring to the post-9/11 world.

No Days Off

Bloomberg’s opposition to closing public schools on two Muslim holidays — Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha — disappointed many in the Muslim community — particularly after the City Council approved the change in the school calendar. In July 2009, the New York City Council passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the inclusion of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, two Muslim holidays, into the school calendar. Underscoring the issue, parent-teacher conferences this year are being held today, which is also Eid Ul-Adha.

The administration opposed the measure, saying that the school system can’t celebrate every holiday. “One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school,” Bloomberg has said.

Shama said the Bloomberg administration “absolutely listened to all the requests and concerns of the school holidays coalition” before taking its position. Despite that, ‘Abdur-Rashid said, the administration stand “left a very bad taste in the mouths of many Muslims.”

Faiza Ali, the director of community affairs for CAIR-NY, said her organization is still pursuing the issue. “We’re looking to the leadership of the mayor and chancellor…[to] re-tool the school calendar to fit the needs of the community,” she said.