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The Horrifying Impacts of NYPD Ethnic Profiling on Innocent Muslim Americans

A new report describes the concrete ways a clandestine spying program has caused individuals and communities to suffer.
Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

America's largest city, an ethnically diverse, politically liberal melting pot of more than 8 million people, routinely violates the civil liberties of its racial and ethnic minorities.

New York City's "Stop and Frisk" policy, the subject of class action lawsuit, annually ensnares hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers, a majority of them black and Latino. Complaints about searches sans probable cause are constant. Listen for yourself as a 17-year-old Harlem boy is stopped, called a "f****** mutt" and threatened with a broken arm. Read about the part of "Stop and Frisk" that was already declared unconstitutional in federal court. See the appalled street protesters. The visible activism and vocal dissent is as it should be.

But the sustained public backlash against "Stop and Frisk" is also a reminder that Americans know comparatively little about the Muslim Americans whose communities haven't just been disproportionately impacted by NYPD attention, but exclusively targeted in a deliberate, decade long policy of outright ethnic profiling.

As it turns out, many were too rattled to go on the record with complaints, and have spoken out for the first time only after being sought out by a coalition of civil-liberties organizations, which has compiled testimony that shows the high cost these innocents have paid merely for being Muslim in New York.

First, a bit of background:

The Associated Press brought the NYPD's clandestine spying on Muslims to the public's attention in a series of vital stories. Starting shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. These officers "put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity," the news agency reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that "the department's surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created 'additional risks' in counterterrorism."

NYPD brass and Mayor Michael Bloomberg defend these policies as counterterrorism efforts that are necessary to keep New Yorkers safe. As you ponder the specific costs of these policies, as evocatively described below, keep in mind one thing about the ostensible benefits: "In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques," the Associated Press reported, "the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation." They acknowledged, in court testimony, having generated zero leads.

Okay, now the costs.

"Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims," is available in its entirety here. The abstract objections to police officers spying on innocent Americans based on their religion are presumably familiar to readers, so let's focus on concrete costs to the innocent victims:

  • The week that AP published its investigation, "the students wouldn't come to the prayer room," the leader of a Muslim student group at a New York college said. "They felt they couldn't meet in their own space. The idea of being surveilled -- for a 19- or 20-year-old -- is a terrifying thing."
  • A young man "who befriended a fellow mosque goer only to find out that his friend was an NYPD undercover responded by severing his relationship with the mosque for a year. He has since returned ... but refuses to involve himself in the mosque's activities, or to befriend anyone. He just goes to pray, and then promptly leaves, believing that anything more might put him at risk." (Full article)
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