By Cassandra Fenkel and Khadija Hasan
The Muslim community of New York City continues to be shrouded in a veil of fear, paranoia and mistrust, thanks to the NYPD surveillance program. Suspicion lurks around every corner as community members and mosque-goers have to be careful of what they say and wear even amongst each other on a daily basis. Presiding over all this mayhem is Mayor Bloomberg, who appeared to be the patriot of ethnic and religious freedom during the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, but now believes that such counterterrorism moves are necessary to keep New York City safe. With Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the City Council’s vote to pass the Community Safety Act, he has made it clear that the controversial stop and frisk practices of the NYPD are above the law. However, at CAIR-NY and countless other organizations across the city, we do not see it that way. As the elections are upon us today and Bloomberg’s era draws to an end, perhaps the mayoral candidates can offer a different reaction to the “Stop and Frisk” program and the necessity for the passing of the Community Safety Act.
First and foremost, the “policing practices” of the NYPD do not deserve special treatment - as the FBI, CIA, and other federal organizations throughout New York City are subject to oversight and independent monitoring. While Bloomberg seems to think that the Community Safety Act will lead to an abundance of frivolous lawsuits (a great way to create jobs for the increasing numbers of unemployed law school grads!), what the Community Safety Act really does is put resources where they are most needed. It clarifies how policing should be carried out. Instead of wasting manpower on racially based Stop and Frisk that usually amount to nothing, the Community Safety Act clarifies that frisking is warranted if an officer witnesses a specific and observable suspicious behavior, such as the outline of a handgun in a back pocket. Instead of installing surveillance cameras in a neighborhood of a certain ethnic character, the Community Safety Act clarifies that enhanced neighborhood surveillance should take place in the area where crimes are known to occur.
With the passing of the Community Safety Act, New York area Muslims and civil rights activists always need to remain optimistic for how they can shape future New York City politics to be more inclusive and effective. In order to address the ten percent of the total electorate constituted by Muslim voters, the Arab American Association of New York and the Islamic Center at New York University hosted a mayoral candidate forum this past May. Although the Republican candidates were invited but were not present, six Democratic candidates along with Independence Party nominee Adolfo Carrion were in attendance.
Certain issues were unanimously agreed upon, such as permitting city workers to wear religious clothing to work and eradicating bullying of religious minorities at schools. All candidates promised to safeguard religious freedom, if elected, as well as the right to construct houses of worship where zoning laws allowed. In addition, they vowed to include Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha as holidays on the public school calendar, a resolution on which has already been passed by the City Council and rejected by Bloomberg.
When it came to the matter of identifying which of the candidates thought that the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims was unconstitutional, only Reverend Erick Salgado and Controller John Liu raised their hands, while ex-Controller Bill Thompson found it disgraceful. Liu also offered his support for the passage of two police reform bills aimed at limiting the excess power of the NYPD. The two bills will form an inspector general for the police to investigate abuses and allow NYC residents to sue the police for racial profiling. Such an inspector general, if established, will really bring the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program under an unflattering spotlight. Although this package received strong support from Black, Latino and Muslim communities, it was vetoed by Mayor Bloomberg, but both bills passed with enough support to overcome the veto. Yet Bloomberg had tried to “flip legislators’ votes.”
Although Christine Quinn promised to establish an inspector general to monitor the NYPD of elected, she did not endorse the bill empowering citizens to sue the police over racial profiling. The fact that the candidates were able to provide some viable solutions can be appreciated, like when Bill de Blasio vowed to pass both the NYPD inspector general and racial profiling bills, and to replace present Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
As expected, Bloomberg disdains the mayoral hopefuls for criticizing the NYPD Muslim surveillance program and went as far as to question their intelligence. He believes his police department is not doing anything illegal since they are not tapping lines and such. They are only looking and listening into areas of public domain. Irrespective, the forum can still be said to be a good introduction of the mayoral candidates to the Muslim community, but Bloomberg argues that all this is being said for the campaigns and none of them are feasible policies.
With elections for Mayor and City Council taking place today, now more than ever your votes matter. Make democracy work for you. Take the time to educate yourself about the candidates for this year’s elections, and make the choice to elect the officials who will fight against predatory policing and stand up for civil rights.
Khadija Hasan and Cassandra Fenkel are Government Relations Interns at CAIR-NY.