by Seth Freed Wessler
First came the shock. Then the deep retrospective anxiety.
“I’ve spent the last four days rethinking every single interaction I’ve had here. Everything I’ve said in Middle East Studies class … in the cafeteria,” said a student at Columbia University who asked he not be named. “I don’t even know if you might be the police,” the same student told me, as I scribbled his words in my notepad. Everything is now tinged with a layer of doubt.
New Yorkers gather in Foley Square to protest the profiling of Muslim communities in New York. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
The feeling of paranoia about being watched swelled up for Muslim students all over the northeastern United States last weekend when they found out that indeed they had been monitored, regularly and with troublingly free license, by the New York Police Department. The Associated Press reported on Saturday that the NYPD had monitored the Internet exchanges and postings of Muslim students on at least 16 colleges and in a number of cases the police sent undercover agents to actively spy on Muslim student associations, known as MSAs.
The revelation was just the latest in a rapidly accumulating body of information on the NYPD’s extensive program to map and spy on Muslim communities in New York and the Northeast, without any suggestion of wrongdoing in those communities. On campuses as far from New York City as the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, the unchecked NYPD surveillance has sent a wave of anxiety through Muslim student groups.
A Sense of Shock
“We had no reason to believe this sort of thing was happening,” said Faisal Hamid, a 20-year-old history major at Yale who is the vice president of the university’s MSA. “After surprise, many of us were really scared we’d been monitored, that there were files with our name on it.”
Hamid is one of nearly a dozen Muslim students who said that they now worried they might be watched wherever they go. “Is the person next to me in a Friday prayer or another activity an informant taking our name down?” asked Hamid.
The AP released a 2006 NYPD document along with its story last weekend. The document was marked with the word “SECRET” and titled “Weekly MSA Report,” prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. As the document’s name suggests, the surveillance was a regular practice in the NYPD, which has since 9-11 expanded its internal anti-terrorism activities.
Diala Shamas, a former Yale Law student who is now a legal fellow at a City University of New York School of Law program called CLEAR, or Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, told me, “We’re talking about widespread and routine surveillance absent the pursuit of specific criminal leads. The policy has taken the NYPD to grocery stores, neighborhoods and also to student organizations—to all parts of communities’ daily lives.”
“We’ve got a generation of students who are growing up thinking that they can’t express themselves freely, that they always need to watch what they say,” Shamas added.
Hamid said that international students were struck with a particularly acute fear. “This was most pressing for international students because many of them have visas that could be compromised if there is a file with their name on it,” said Hamid. “If they cannot enter the country anymore, people have said, they’re lives would be ruined.”
Yale’s administration responded to the NYPD report with uncharacteristic outrage.
“I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms,” wrote Yale president Richard Levin on Monday, “that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States. Also I want to make sure our community knows that the Yale Police Department has not participated in any monitoring by the NYPD and was entirely unaware of NYPD activities until the recent news reports.”
Hamid told me that the MSA at Yale was appreciative of Levin’s response, but he says, it does not assuage students’ anxiety of being watched. “We just don’t know how far it goes, if it’s still happening, and what it will mean.”
A Widening Net
Jawad Rasul, a 24 year old film student from Queens who attends the City College of New York knows that he was watched, and at close range. The AP report recounts an undercover officer who joined the MSA at the City College of New York and even accompanied 18 of the students on a 2008 rafting trip. The NYPD informant noted the names of all the students and wrote in his report, “In addition to the regularly scheduled events (Rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature.”
Rasul was named in the report. He said the rafting trip was just one of many community activities the MSA had that year sponsored. “There’s nothing to say really about the trip, expect that it was a group of Muslims,” he said.
In retrospect Rasul now thinks he should have known that the group was being monitored. “What makes us think that we know who it was,” Rasul said of the spy, “is that he was an older person, nobody saw him taking classes even though he said he was taking engineering classes. He said he had a job but somehow he was available for all the trips.”
Muslim students at City College of New York and at seven other campuses within the city limits have known that NYPD informants have watched them since October when a previous AP story reported the surveillance there. The new report released over the weekend illuminates some of the breadth of that surveillance. It also exposes the broader NYPD program that’s reached significantly outside the confines of New York City, into upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
The targeted universities outside of New York City include Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Clarkson University, Rutgers University campuses and numerous State University of New York campuses.
The NYPD’s domestic anti-terrorism program also has tentacles reaching far beyond campus groups. On Tuesday, the AP reported that in 2007, the NYPD sent officers from its “Demographics Unit” to Newark, where officers took pictures of “every mosque” and eavesdropped in “Muslim businesses.” The police found no criminal activity.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker reacted Wednesday with an unequivocal rejection of the NYPD program. “If anyone in my police department had known this was a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion,” Booker said, “that strikes at the core of our beliefs and my beliefs very personally, and it would have merited a far sterner response.”
On Thursday, the AP released yet another installment of its investigation based on more documents from the NYPD, this time providing a striking level of detail on the department’s surveillance of area Mosques. The report recounts how cops, known inside the department as “mosque crawlers,” targeted the region’s mosques “with tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations.” The NYPD took down liscence plate numbers of worshippers and attached video cameras to telephone poles outside religious spaces.
Despite increasingly irrefutable evidence that the NYPD is systematically violating the civil liberties of Muslims solely because they are Muslim, city leaders have continued to insist the practices are merely common public safety work.
“The Police Department goes where there are allegations, and they look to see whether those allegations are true,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reported the New York Times.
A spokesman for the mayor did not answer questions from the New York Times about whether the surveillance program was ongoing.
Police spokesperson Paul Browne, who is fresh off of controversy for lying to the public about the department’s use of an anti-Muslim training video, also refused to answer questions about whether the campus spying program continues today. Like Bloomberg, Browne defended the surveillance programs in general, noting that the NYPD’s spying on college students was justified because, “Some of the most dangerous Western Al Qaeda-linked/inspired terrorists since 9/11 were radicalized and/or recruited at universities in MSAs.”
The equating of MSA membership with violence is broad to the point of absurdity. Like all other student groups, MSAs are often large organizations with fluid memberships. But the absurd conflation has become public policy in New York. In 2007, the NYPD released a report called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” It articulates a broad rational for spying on Muslim community spaces, including “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah bars, butcher shops and book shops.” It essentially holds that Islamic religious practice, or even the plain congregation of Muslims, can lead to radicalization and violence.
Nor has the department stopped at spying. In numerous instances since 9-11, the cops have engaged in entrapment. In many cases, the NYPD, often with the FBI’s help, has devised plots to attack city targets and pushed the plans on vulnerable young men with no history of terrorist involvement. Once some previously law-abiding, if disgruntled person offers even the vaguest support for the cops’ terror plot, they swoop in with a triumphant “sting” and foil the danger they’ve created.
Several years before the City College rafting trip, Jawad Rasul believes the NYPD tried to draw him into a fake plot like this. It was 2006 and Rasul was an impressionable 18 year old taking classes at a community college. He says an older man who called himself Kamil Pasha befriended him, offering him a job at a catering company.
“We became friends,” Rasul told me. “But after maybe eight months he disappeared, telling us that he was going to see his family because they had arranged a prospective wife. But then he reappeared in the news. We realized that he was an undercover agent for the NYPD when his name came out in the newspaper.”
Pasha’s name appeared in connection to the case of Shahawar Matin Siraj. Pasha and another officer had prodded Siraj toward an NYPD-concocted plan to detonate a bomb in New York City. Siraj at points refused to actively participate in the plot, saying, “No, I don’t want to do it.” But after repeated pushing, he finally agreed to act as a lookout. Siraj was soon arrested and charged with conspiracy. He was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for a crime that existed only in the cops’ minds.
Asserting Rights Before a Lawless Police Force
Jawad Rasul says he was never at risk of being entrapped because he would never have agreed to do anything illegal, but the experiences of being trailed by by two different informants has changed how he acts in the day to day. To get ahead of those watching him, Rasul says he’s tried to be as transparent as he can about his life. “What I do is constantly update my facebook profile because someone told me that the anti-terror and other law enforcement agencies don’t like surprises. So to keep the pressure off me I update everything on my wall with anything I am doing because I know they are most likely watching me.”
Other students are just figuring out what it all means and how to respond.
On Wednesday night, over a hundred Columbia University students gathered at a community forum organized by the Columbia Muslim Student Association and several other religious student groups. Speakers talked about a growing feeling of insecurity. Several said they worried about speaking openly in class or among friends.
Maliha Tariq, a premed student who is vice president of the Columbia’s MSA told me, “I’m worried that students won’t feel comfortable practicing their right to freedom of speech or practice religion.”
Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Columbia’s Muslim religious life advisor, said, “We’re being bullied by the NYPD. We need someone to step up and say, ‘Stop bullying our kids.’ “
The night before, on Tuesday, 40 students gathered in a room at Fordham University where Diala Shamas and a colleague from the City University of New York Law School’s CLEAR program conducted a know-your-rights training. The central points of the workshop, which included a couple of skits reenacting interactions with police, were basic: If approached by a police officer, you have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney and the right to be presented with a warrant before police search your home.
“There’s no sure fire way to protect yourself from surveillance,” Shamas said after the session, “but what we’re trying to do is provide an immediate response to this targeting so these students know their rights at a basic level. These are ways to minimize the damage and also break a silence that can fester around these issues.”
After the training, one of the students was not so sure if his new knowledge would help. “I’m happy to know my rights,” he said, putting air quotes around the last word, “but basically it’s like the NYPD doesn’t know we have them. Or they don’t care. Yeah, I think they don’t care.”