By Saskia Sassen and Jeanne Theoharis
Today, we along with more than 400 other faculty sent Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City a letter calling for the resignation of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul J. Browne. Faced with skyrocketing numbers of NYPD stop-and-frisks and revelations of the department’s widespread surveillance of Muslim life, in particular on college campuses throughout the city and the Northeast, we have joined other faculty to say enough is enough: Such rights abuses do not keep us safe, and they indiscriminately criminalize young people of color. The leadership that promoted these policies should face sanction.
Mario Tama, Getty Images
A student from NYU attended a town-hall-style meeting on the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims last week in New York City. The U.S. Department of Justice is considering whether to investigate the policy as a civil-rights violations.
According to Associated Press reports, in the decade since September 11, 2001, the New York Police Department transformed itself into a domestic counterintelligence unit. The NYPD Intelligence Division and its Demographics Unit engaged in extensive surveillance and mapping of Sunni and Shi’a Muslim communities in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey. The department secretly monitored and sent undercover operatives to Muslim student associations at local colleges—Brooklyn, City, Baruch, Hunter, and Queens Colleges, and LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, and St. John’s University—and universities around across the Northeast including Yale, Rutgers, Columbia, Princeton, Syracuse Universities, and NYU, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Pennsylvania.
A 2007 NYPD report on radicalization and homegrown terrorism laid out the theory the department was operating under: Identifying terrorism before it started required identifying signs of dangerous radicalization. As signs of such radicalization, the report included giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling, and the wearing of urban hip-hop gangster clothes; turning to traditional Islamic clothing; growing a beard; becoming involved in social activism and community issues. And thus the NYPD went whitewater rafting with students from SUNY at Buffalo, worried about “militant paintball trips” at Brooklyn College, and used its cyberunit to troll through student Web sites and chat rooms. It sent undercover operatives to take notes and ask questions at “ethnic hot spots” like restaurants and bookstores, and at mosques. All, Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have repeatedly insisted, to keep us safe.
At the same time, the number of stop-and-frisks by the police has rocketed over the decade, reaching an all-time high in 2010 of 600,601 stops. Of those stops, 87 percent in 2010 were of black and Latino people. While the department claims that the stops are about fighting crime and maintaining public safety, only 0.13 percent of last year’s stops resulted in the discovery of a firearm, and only 7 percent resulted in arrests. Thus the greatest accomplishment of the stop-and-frisk policy has been to communicate to young black and Latino New Yorkers that they are all possible suspects, all the time.
Contrary to NYPD claims that these programs—public and secret—are making the city safer, they actually imperil our society’s most cherished values: privacy, government openness and accountability, equal protection, and academic freedom.
When academic freedom is invoked, it has historically been taken to mean the freedom for professors to teach subjects unrestricted by political pressure or administrative constraint. But that is but a sliver of a wider issue. Academic freedom in the broadest sense is also a right of our students—the right to learn without fear, to struggle through and experiment with ideas without sanction or worry that their efforts will be broadcast or ridiculed. It is the freedom to grapple with unpopular and uncommon ideas and be confronted with ideas far outside their own, to form relationships with other students of trust and friendship, to have a community that they can move through and feel safe in to enable their growth and development.
All that has been compromised by the New York City Police Department, jeopardizing our students’ educations.
In the wake of the recent revelations—and in the climate of mistrust of Muslims that gave rise to the NYPD actions—we have increasingly seen changes in our classrooms. Differences that harm our students, our universities, and the society in which we live. Students ask in class if they are being spied on. They tell us in private of their fears about speaking in class. They come to office hours in tears because they now look with suspicion at new members of the Muslim Student Association for fear they might be the police, and that is not the way they want to look at other Muslims. And they, Muslim and non-Muslim students, courageously speak out and begin to organize against the police practices and the climate they foster—and they welcome faculty to join them. We as faculty have a responsibility to speak out as well.
The NYPD’s defenses of its programs make clear that only certain people’s rights are up for grabs. Bloomberg and Kelly have not said that all of our children have been spied on, all of their Internet chats read, all of their persons searched. Rather, they have argued, the people who need to be under surveillance are under surveillance, the people who need to be frisked are being frisked.
Morally and factually wrong, that claim imparts a devastating lesson—that certain people are worthy of rights and protections while others are not. That our public officials will proclaim the need for very different standards of treatment for people based on their race, background, and religion.
And so, from a diversity of disciplines and rank, from public and private universities, we stand with other faculty today to teach a different lesson: As has been the case through history, change only happens when people demand it. When our students’ rights are systematically violated, we will not be silent. The leadership of the NYPD must be held accountable.
Saskia Sassen is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.