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On Tuesday, the NYPD announced it would dismantle its Demographics Unit, the controversial squad of plainclothes officers tasked with monitoring and gathering intelligence in New York’s Muslim neighborhoods. The announcement was greeted with a mix of praise (for the move, considered long overdue) and skepticism (that the department would actually end the practice of mass, suspicion-less surveillance of Muslims).
The NYPD’s announcement came a week after Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his intelligence chief, John Miller, met with Muslim advocates, according to the New York Times.
The Demographics Unit, first revealed by the Associated Press in 2011, sought to root out terrorists among us. Instead it severely damaged relations between the NYPD and New York Muslims without, by the department’s own admission, ever generating a single lead.
What did the failed surveillance program look like in practice? Data artist Josh Begley created a visual aid using images from NYPD documents obtained by the AP, most dated between 2004 to 2009. Begley terms the arresting web mosaic “the visual vernacular of NYPD surveillance.”
Reached by email, Begley tells the Voice he started the website, profiling.is, on Sunday, two days before the NYPD made its announcement.
“The photographs come from a range of places — restaurants, bookstores, cricket fields, mosques, internet cafes — and most of the images are quite banal. What I find striking are the ones that contain glimpses of the photographer; a rear-view mirror capturing the bottom of an officer’s face. What do these photographs say about the people taking them?”
Profiling.is bears a certain resemblance to another of Begley’s projects, PrisonMap; it offers a bird’s-eye view of prisons around the country. (He also runs the Twitter account @dronestream, which issues a tweet for every reported drone strike.)*
“Toni Morrison says, ‘the subject of the dream is the dreamer.’ In the case of the New York Police Department, I think the subject of the map is the mapper,” Begley says. “But the NYPD has done more than just map Muslim communities. By using informants and spying on student groups, they’ve caused a generation of young people to grow up fearful of their local police force.”
Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York, one of the advocates who met with Bratton and Miller last week, echoed that sentiment. Speaking to the Times on Tuesday, she called the NYPD’s surveillance “psychological warfare in our community.”
“Those documents, they showed where we live. That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community.”
Asked about his reaction to Tuesday’s news, Begley pointed to a statement given by Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
“The Demographics Unit was only one component of a huge, discriminatory surveillance program that has sent informants and NYPD officers to spy on mosques, charities, student groups, and other mainstays of New York Muslim life,” Shamsi said on Tuesday. “We look forward to an end to all aspects of the bias-based policing that has stigmatized New York’s Muslim communities and done them such great harm.”
*An earlier version of this story said Begley was the creator of Dronestagram, the Instagram account that posts bird’s-eye views of the sites of drone strikes. That account is actually run by James Bridle. We regret the error.