From Islamophobic surveillance to ‘stop and frisk’: Organizers decry criminalization of their communities in NYC

by Alex Kane on January 30, 2013

Islamophobic subway ads, “stop and frisk” and the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) surveillance program--what’s the connection? Activists and experts spoke out last night to make explicit the links between all of these seemingly separate strands of discrimination in the city.

A packed house of some 125 people gathered in an Upper West Side church January 29 to hear about Islamophobia and “stop and frisk” in New York City. The event was organized by the Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition (JAIC), a grassroots group dedicated to being a Jewish voice against the scourge of anti-Muslim sentiment that has found a home in some Jewish establishment organizations. The event, titled “Making Connections and Organizing for Change: Anti-Muslim Hate Speech, Police Surveillance and Stop and Frisk,” reinforced the burgeoning coalition between Black and Latino groups working on “stop and frisk,” Muslim activists working on Islamophobia and Jewish activists supporting that work. The diverse crowd who showed up spoke to that coalition.

The panel was moderated by Marjorie Dove Kent, the dynamic head of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JREJ), a member group of JAIC. Other speakers included: Muneer Awad, the head of the Council on American Islamic Relations of New York (CAIR-NY); civil rights lawyer Alan Levine; community organizer Frank Lopez; and Linda Sarsour, the director of the Arab American Association of New York.

“None of these acts of Islamophobia,” like Pamela Geller’s anti-Muslim subway advertisements, “are isolated,” said Levine. The civil rights lawyer who authored a National Law Journal article on why NYPD surveillance was unconstitutional said that acts like Geller putting up hateful subway ads are encouraged by the NYPD’s assumption that Muslims are a suspect class of people.

“The defense of the surveillance program by the police chief and the mayor gives force to Pam Geller’s bigotry,” said Levine. CAIR-NY’s Awad made a similar point in a brief interview with me after the panel (I showed up a little late and missed his talk). “It’s not just anti-Muslim hate crimes,” said Awad--it’s the entire culture of Islamophobia that has developed and institutionalized in the city.

Lopez, a poet and filmmaker affiliated with the organization Brotherhood/Sister Sol, detailed how “stop and frisk” practices by the NYPD have criminalized whole communities in the city. “Stop and frisk” refers to the police practice of stopping and patting down city residents suspected of a crime. But it is a policy that has overwhelmingly fallen on the Black and Latino communities in the city, and is now being challenged by a series of civil rights lawsuits aimed at radically changing the NYPD practice.

The NYPD’s wholesale surveillance of Muslim communities was perhaps the main focus throughout the night, but links between “stop and frisk” and the surveillance program were made explicit. “For me, whether you’re spying on the Muslim community, or stopping and frisking Blacks and Latinos, it’s the same thing,” said Sarsour, a Palestinian-American Muslim who is a prominent figure in the fight against Islamophobia in New York. “Let’s stop separating the issues,” she said, noting that both surveillance and “stop and frisk” amounts to criminalizing communities of color. Sarsour also noted that a significant chunk of the New York Muslim community is Black.

Those connections have already been taken up by activists in a concrete way. Much of the question and answer session was dedicated to discussing and advocating for a set of bills to reform NYPD practices that are currently pending in the City Council. Known as the Community Safety Act, the bills would create an Inspector General for the NYPD; ban profiling by the police department; protect against unlawful searches; and require officers to identify and explain themselves to the public. It is meant as a corrective to what many see as an out of control NYPD that is unaccountable to the city residents they serve. The coalition working on pushing through these bills, which has considerable support in the City Council, is called Communities United for Police Reform, and it includes civil liberties organizations, Black and Latino groups, Muslim groups and Jewish groups.

But New York is a town where the mayor holds much of the power in city government, and so the mayoral candidates’ positions on these bills and issues is of paramount importance. Bloomberg is a lost cause, and is fully behind the NYPD’s practices and its chief, Ray Kelly. But Bloomberg’s term is up this year, and a new crop of candidates are angling for the seat.

Sarsour noted that “stop and frisk” has been elevated into a major issue for the mayoral candidates, but spying on Muslims has not.

As public advocate, an office dedicated to being a watchdog over city government, Democrat Bill de Blasio has spoken out against how “stop and frisk” is currently used. So have other Democratic mayoral candidates, including the presumed front-runner and current City Council speaker Christine Quinn, comptroller John Liu and Bill Thompson. (Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota has defended “stop and frisk,” which garners higher support among white New Yorkers when compared to minority New Yorkers.) But on Muslim spying, it’s a different story. De Blasio and Quinn have defended the surveillance program, as Levine noted. Thompson has stayed silent, while Liu, who is under investigation by the federal government because of his fundraising practices, has criticized the NYPD’s spying.

Quinn remains likely to win, though, and she has reportedly said she would keep on NYPD chief Kelly at the helm.

“On NYPD spying, nobody’s really that good,” said Sarsour. “People don’t want to touch Muslim spying.” Perhaps one reason behind the different positions are the poll numbers: a recent poll says that 53 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of “stop and frisk,” a number that is likely a result of the prominent organizing being done against the practice. But the majority of New Yorkers back the NYPD’s practice of surveilling Muslim communities.

But Sarsour also noted that there are 20 open City Council seats, making it a crucial year in New York City politics. Sarsour urged audience members to vote based on police accountability issues.

Sarsour also closed out her remarks by noting that there are reasons to be hopeful, even as Islamophobia continues to crop up in New York. She was heartened by the ongoing campaigns to place anti-hate advertisements in the subway as a way to counter Geller’s recent anti-Muslim subway ads.