Raking the Coals of Bigotry: How the NYPD's Surveillance Apparatus Targets Muslims
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The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge sits on a bustling avenue steps away from the subway in the southwest corner of Brooklyn. Walk by the white building on a Friday afternoon, and nothing seems out of the ordinary. There are men waiting outside to enter the building to pray, while life goes on as usual around the building. Like any other mosque in New York City, the call to prayer blares out of loudspeakers five times a day; it's the Islamic Society's normality that makes its designation as a front for extremism and violence all the more jarring.
On August 28, the Associated Press disclosed that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) had been labeled the Bay Ridge institution — and 11 other mosques — “terrorism enterprises.” The designation, which allows the NYPD to infiltrate the mosque and record religious sermons normally protected under the First Amendment, evinced no expressions of shock from Zein Rimawi, the 59-year-old Palestinian-American co-founder of the mosque. The place where he goes to pray has been under the watchful eye of the police since at least 2003. He's used to it by now, though he's still angry that the surveillance exists.
A week after the AP story, we sat in an office at the mosque, surrounded by Qur’ans and a shirt reading “Free Egypt” in protest of the July 3 coup in that country. Rimawi calmly explained to me the presence of NYPD informants inside his mosque that day — “at least three of them,” he noted. I asked him how he could tell who was an informant, and he told me that in a tight-knit Muslim community like Bay Ridge, everyone knows each other. It's easy to spot who's out of place — especially if they're asking a ton of questions.
His experience is by no means unique. Across New York City's 800,000-person strong Muslim community, police infiltration by way of undercover officers or informants — usually people with criminal backgrounds who strike a deal with the NYPD — has become routine. The September 11 attacks sparked the NYPD's transformation from municipal law enforcement agency to domestic intelligence service. Talk to Muslim leaders and activists, and stories of encounters with informants pour out. What emerges from these tales is a portrait of a police force that has tentacles reaching into every nook and cranny of New York City's Muslim world, chilling activism, speech and association.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, is convinced that an NYPD informant came into her office last year to burrow in and feed the cops information about what her group does. The 20-something man, who gave his name as “Emad,” had called her office in mid-2011 to ask about graduate school in the US. Sarsour told him there were social workers who could help him, and the phone call ended. But “Emad” didn't give up. Soon after the initial call, “Emad” caught Sarsour on her way back into the office after she stepped out to grab coffee. She invited him in to her work area, but he forgot his backstory. The jig was up, and she told him she knew who he worked for: the NYPD. Sarsour threw him out of the office. While she fended him off, the experience shook her. “Do other nonprofits deal with that?” Sarsour asked me. “Does somebody get up in the middle of a non-profit and say, ‘We think this is an informant?’ I feel like, right now, that’s exclusively a Muslim thing.”