The NYPD's war on Muslims

David Judd reports on the latest revelations of the NYPD's illegal program of surveillance against mosques and Muslim student groups.

Protesters against police surveillance of Muslims gather in New York City's Foley SquareProtesters against police surveillance of Muslims gather in New York City's Foley Square

NEW DOCUMENTS made public recently reveal that the New York Police Department's (NYPD) program of spying on Muslims has reached far beyond New York City.

The existence of the program, run by the secret Demographics Unit within the NYPD Intelligence Division, was exposed before, though the NYPD has never admitted its full extent. According to the Associated Press, however, the targets of the NYPD's spying included Muslim students at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University and "13 other colleges in the Northeast."

In addition, the Associated Press provided new details on the content of reports sent by NYPD informants--referred to as "mosque crawlers"--to their higher-ups. The details prove that both NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lied about the nature of the surveillance, which included, according to reports, "police targeting mosques and their congregations with tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations."

According to the Associated Press:

The NYPD Intelligence Division snapped pictures and collected license plate numbers of congregants as they arrived to pray. Police mounted cameras on light poles and aimed them at mosques. Plainclothes detectives mapped and photographed mosques and listed the ethnic makeup of those who prayed there.

The revelations have sparked widespread anger. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez called for a federal investigation, as have 34 members of the House of Representatives--though these politicians continue to back the wider "war on terror," in which warrantless surveillance and racist profiling play an integral part.

Several universities where Muslim student associations were targeted by the program, including Yale, Columbia, the University at Buffalo and City College of New York (CCNY), have issued statements condemning the NYPD's actions.

Officials at CCNY, where an undercover cop actually joined Muslim students for a whitewater-rafting trip, asserted that the school "does not accept or condone any investigation of any student organization based on the political or religious content of its ideas." The president of Yale, Richard Levin, denounced the spying in a statement:

[P]olice 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.

The Yale Muslim Students Association has been an important source of support for Yale students during a period when Muslims and Islam itself have too often been the target of thoughtless stereotyping, misplaced fear and bigotry.

New York City Council member Jumaane Williams, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and other Muslim and civil liberties groups have already called for the resignation of New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne over another scandal involving NYPD Islamophobia: the department's use of an viciously racist and Islamophobic film, The Third Jihad, as a training tool for nearly 1,500 recruits.

Earlier this month, hundreds marched from New York City's Foley Square to NYPD headquarters, chanting, "Ray Kelly must go!"

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BROWNE, KELLY and their boss Mayor Bloomberg have been caught lying repeatedly about the NYPD's anti-Islam tactics.

Bloomberg, for example, has claimed that the police only follow leads related to specific threats, and that "we don't stop to think about the religion." Kelly, too, has claimed, "We simply follow leads." However, according to a report from the Associated Press:

Former and current law enforcement officials either involved in or with direct knowledge of these programs say they did not follow leads...

In 2006, the NYPD ordered surveillance at the Masjid Omar, a mosque in Paterson, N.J., a document shows. There's no indication that the surveillance team was looking for anyone in particular. The mosque itself was the target. "This is reportedly to be a mosque that is attended by both Palestinian and Chechen worshipers," the document reads...

Police were instructed to watch the mosque and, as people came and went from the Friday prayer service, investigators were to record license plates and photograph and videotape those attending.

The mosque's imam, Abdelkhaliq El-Nerib, told the Associated Press, "To track people who are frequent visitors to the mosque simply because they are coming to the mosque negates the freedom of religion that is a fundamental right enshrined in this country's Constitution."

Browne actually denied the existence of an NYPD Demographics Unit--even after documents referring to it had been leaked. He also denied that Kelly had any involvement in the filming of The Third Jihad, despite the fact that the New York Times reported Browne himself had arranged with the film's producers for Kelly to sit down for a 90-minute interview.

The NYPD has taken heat already this year for two incidents of police violence in the Bronx: the brutal beating of an unarmed man by a crowd of officers and the fatal shooting of another unarmed man in front of his family in his own home.

This is part of a steady stream of NYPD scandals over the past several months, ranging from the nationally televised beating and pepper spraying of peaceful Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, to a surge in illegal arrests for marijuana possession despite the fact that simple possession supposedly has been decriminalized, to a series of arrests of police for corruption and other felonies.

Such abuses have helped to spark a campaign against "stop and frisk," an NYPD policy under which cops stop and harass people in the street--more than 80 percent of them Black or Latino and at least 90 percent of them innocent of any crime.

Activists also point out that NYPD harassment of Muslims is related to this larger pattern of abuse by the NYPD. On February 22, activists gathered in Harlem at a meeting sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which featured Jazz Hayden of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of the ISO, Alfredo Carrasquillo of VOCAL-NY, and Rev. Bernard Walker, the father of Jateik Reed, a victim of NYPD brutality in the Bronx.

Meeting attendees drew connections between the constant harassment of Blacks and Latinos by the NYPD under the "stop and frisk" program, and the surveillance and demonization of Muslims.

As one activist against stop-and-frisk, himself a Muslim, stated, there's a need for solidarity among all communities impacted by NYPD brutality and harassment.

Gary Lapon contributed to this article.