New York Muslims Fight Back Against Police Department's Institutionalized Paranoia About Islam

Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a message to New York City's Muslim community: don't worry that the New York Police Department showed an anti-Muslim film to around 1,500 officers, because top cop Ray Kelly “probably visits more mosques” than many Muslims in New York.

Speaking at a press conference in Queens, Bloomberg continued his defense of Kelly: “He has reached out to this community as he has reached out to lots of other communities. We have things regularly at 1 Police Plaza for clergy people of each religion, including Islam. And we'll continue to do that.”  

But Muslim community leaders and activists, backed by a diverse coalition of allies, are having none of that. They want Kelly fired. And they say this latest incident shows how anti-Muslim sentiment has become institutionalized in the NYPD. 

A rejoinder to Kelly's defense was already on display at around the same time Bloomberg spoke, at a January 26 press conference on the steps of City Hall. Protesters held signs labeling Kelly a racist. Anger was in the air, and Muslim activists and allies repeatedly called for Kelly's resignation; for “corrective training” for the officers who viewed the film; and for independent oversight of the NYPD. As chants of “Kelly must go” rang through the air, some activists demanded state or federal oversight of New York City police. 

“This outrage is a violation of the honor of our city and those who protect it,” said Cyrus McGoldrick, the civil rights manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations' New York chapter. 

The battle is centered around an Islamophobic film titled The Third Jihad, which was shown to police officers on a continuous loop during “the sign-in, medical and administrative orientation process,” according to police documents obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice. The film, which is filled with violent imagery and posits that mainstream Muslim groups are in fact secretly plotting to take over the U.S., was financed by the Clarion Fund, a right-wing organization with links to Israeli settlers. Compounding the NYPD and Bloomberg administration's problems is the fact that Kelly willingly agreed to sit down for a 90-minute interview for the film and that NYPD spokesman Paul Browne lied about Kelly's involvement and how many officers saw the film. 

This is hardly the first time NYPD's problematic relationship with the city's Muslims has come to light. But what makes the episode significant is the media firestorm it has created over the spokesperson's lies at a time of increasing awareness of police abuse due to Occupy Wall Street-related arrests and brutality. Muslim activists are looking to capitalize on that energy as they confront the NYPD in the weeks ahead. 

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the NYPD has had a fraught relationship with the city's 800,000-member Muslim community, one of the fastest growing religious communities in the city. Billions of dollars have been spent to make NYPD one of the most powerful forces in the fight against terrorism. But the NYPD has been routinely accused of harassing and entrapping Muslims in terrorism-related cases. The final straw for many Muslims came when an Associated Press investigative series published last summer exposed an arbitrary spying program, implemented with CIA help, that targeted virtually all of New York's Muslims. A “demographics unit” established at the NYPD has “monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs” in Muslim communities, as well as mosques, the AP reported. It was also revealed that the NYPD spied on Muslim student associations on college campuses.  

Revelations of the spying program dealt blows to a Bloomberg administration whose relations with the Muslim community were at a relative high note when the mayor defended the Park 51 mosque project near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.  

“These practices paint a dangerous picture of the ways in which law enforcement engages with Muslim communities under the banner of national security,” reads an August 25, 2011 statement from the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition. “These McCarthyite spying techniques threaten the civil rights of all Americans, and deepen the long-existing rifts between communities of color and police in the United States.” 

Then came the most recent revelation about the showing of The Third Jihad. Although the Village Voice first reported on the story last January, a Jan. 23, 2012 New York Times report, based on police documents obtained by the Brennan Center, has received a lot more attention due to the AP expose on the NYPD's spying program. 

“Seeing that propaganda like this is being used in training is almost logical in light of Associated Press reports on the NYPD's comprehensive and warrantless surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers,” said CAIR-NY's McGoldrick.  

After the most recent revelations broke, Browne's lies about the NYPD film screening became a hot media topic. The AP ran a January 30, 2012 article titled “New York Police Spokesman Comes Under Fire.” The two free daily papers in New York led with the story after it broke, and some city council members have called for more oversight of the NYPD as a result of the incident. Protests calling for Kelly's resignation have kept the story in the news, and an editorial, an opinion piece and a column in the New York Times were published in recent days criticizing the NYPD. 

A burgeoning alliance between black and Latino activists working against “stop-and-frisk” police tactics, Muslim activists and Occupy Wall Street could keep the momentum going. Jumaane Williams, a black city council member and OWS supporter whose own run-in with NYPD has turned him into an outspoken advocate against police abuse, spoke at the rally and denounced the NYPD's “corrosive culture.” 

The coming together of long-time anti-police brutality activists and OWS was chronicled in The Awl in a report by Michael Tracey. Titled “A Fresh Movement Against the NYPD's Culture of Misconduct,” the article detailed how OWS has reinvigorated New York's anti-police brutality movement. As Tracey shows, the alliance is natural given OWS' experience with police brutality—something communities of color have had to combat for decades. And OWS' attention to police brutality has also been a boon to Muslim activists. 

On October 21, 2011, a CAIR-NY-organized day of prayer was held in Zuccotti Park. Although it attracted little attention outside the anti-Muslim blogosphere, it was a sign of an alliance to come. 

“CAIR-NY’s endorsement of Friday Prayer at Occupy Wall Street stems from a conviction that many of the issues brought into the international spotlight by Occupy Wall Street affect Muslim communities disproportionately,” read a statement announcing the action. “Especially in light of the recently exposed NYPD surveillance in Muslim Student Organizations, we need to unite in our repudiation of government corruption and our rejection of the political effort to marginalize our voice.” 

A month of organizing followed the prayer action, and a much larger rally at Foley Square against the NYPD spying program was held in November with hundreds of people, including a contingent from OWS. Muslim youth broke into chants of “We are the 99 percent” as they marched to NYPD headquarters to make their discontent known.  

“It's really critical we create this broad-based movement,” said Faiza Ali, a community activist and organizer who attended the November rally. “On the whole there's a general distaste for the police department and the way they've been operating, especially recently given the police brutality issues being raised at Occupy Wall Street...All of these issues are connected, and [we have] the support of Occupy Wall Street on this issue.”  

Muslim activists like Imam Talib 'Abdur-Rashid, the spiritual leader of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, say the public pressure on Kelly and the NYPD won't stop until corrective action is taken. Speaking at the January 26 press conference, Abdur-Rashid promised more public protests on these issues in the coming weeks and laid out the stakes.  

“We are facing the specter of a 21st-century COINTELPRO,” he told reporters. And activists say the fight is just beginning.   

“This is part of a long-term strategy,” Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American activist in the NYC Muslim community, recently wrote. “We are not just reacting anymore.” 

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