On Sunday afternoon, seven mayoral hopefuls gathered for a forum co-hosted by the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) and the Islamic Center at New York University. Community organizers hailed it as an historic moment. Nearly three weeks after the Boston bombings–and in the heat of the debate on civil liberties that ensued–moderator Errol Louis posed the question to the candidates: By a show of hands, which of you think the current NYPD surveillance program is unconstitutional?
John C. Liu and Reverend Erick Salgado, both Democrats, raised their palms in front of a room of roughly 400 members of the Muslim, South Asian, and Arab American communities. “How could you think it’s okay to surveil or spy on someone just because they’re Muslim?” Liu asked.
“It is counterproductive to alienate communities, because if you do that, it means a less-safe city,” Salgado added.
Not every mayoral candidate was present–many, Louis pointed out, turned down the invitation. Noticeably absent were Republican candidates, with the near-exception of Adolfo Carrión, a former Democrat turned Independent hoping to run on the GOP ticket.
Still, all candidates present–including Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, and John Liu–stressed the need for a new and different kind of relationship between the NYPD and the Muslim community, emphasizing zero tolerance for racial profiling. After the AP discovered in 2011 that the NYPD had been sending “rakers” and “crawlers” into New York cafes and mosques to monitor activity of the American Muslim community over the past decade, community organizations and civil liberties groups raised hell–hosting rallies, boycotts, FOIL requests, and “Know Your Rights” workshops across the city. Several NYPD-monitored Muslims in New Jersey also filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the surveillance program infringed on their civil liberties. That case, however, is still pending.
A report put out by CUNY’s CLEAR project in March qualitatively highlighted the Muslim community’s fear and mistrust of the administration and NYPD as a result of the program.
“Everybody I see in the mosque, if they act a little abnormal, I always wonder whether they’re an informant, or just a regular person,” a Muslim Sunday school teacher told CUNY researchers. “This is really sad: sometimes when we get converts, and they are finding all this interest in Islam, I start wondering if they’re an informant.”
Bill de Blasio laid out a three-point plan to address these concerns. “Just in this week, the mayor of this city gave a speech which I can only describe as fear-mongering, trying to resent the notion that if we respect people’s civil liberties, if we change the overuse of stop and frisk, that somehow it’s going to be a less-safe city,” he said. De Blasio went on to propose that the city implement a bill to prevent racial profiling, hire an inspector general for the NYPD, and find a replacement for current police commissioner Ray Kelly. De Blasio also criticized Christine Quinn for saying she would keep Kelly on board.
“I believe we can keep this the safest big city in the America and put policies in place that are going to bring the police and the communities back together,” Quinn replied, adding that she was for the inspector general bill. “But I do have concerns about giving the state court the potential to rule on issues of racial profiling. The federal court is involved in the Floyd case, as they should be. And I have concerns adding more courts into this will create confusing rulings where we already have court jurisdiction.”
In 2011, the White House released a paper outlining how the federal government might better community policing practices and partner with local organizations to prevent violent extremism. “Countering radicalization to violence is frequently best achieved by engaging and empowering individuals and groups at the local level to build resilience against violent extremism,” it read. “Rather than blame particular communities, it is essential that we find ways to help them protect themselves.”
“I think passing the banning of racial profiling is an important step for the community,” AAANY’s executive director Linda Sarsour told the Voice. “Right now, relations with the NYPD are not good. And if the NYPD tells you that they’re good, they’re only good with a few select members of our community.”