Towards a police state in New York

Muslims in the New York City area experiencing major violations of their civil and human rights, says author.

NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly Speaks To The Media
The New York Police Department created a controversial "human mapping" programme targeting Muslims [Getty]

Joseph Goldstein’s New York Times article of February 3 outlines a request from US civil rights lawyers to federal judge Charles S Haight Jr for an independent evaluation of the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism techniques.

Writes Goldstein: “The lawyers said the police’s tactics have placed Muslim communities under surveillance in violation of longstanding federal court guidelines.” Among these guidelines is a prohibition on the retention of information collected during surveillance operations unless it pertains “to potential unlawful or terrorist activity”.

As the Associated Press revealed in 2011, Muslim populations in the New York area had been targeted by a pervasive spying apparatus known as the Demographic Unit, the fruit of collaboration between the NYPD and the CIA.

The network, which has since been promoted to the more politically correct title “Zone Assessment Unit”, relies on undercover officers and informants to perform critical national security tasks such as – the AP notes – “gather[ing] intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs often done by Muslims”.

According to Goldstein, the civil rights lawyers who filed the motion with Haight based their allegations on over 1,200 pages of reports on Zone Assessment Unit monitoring activities at Muslim establishments, including shops and cafes, where invasive demographic details were allegedly compiled and retained despite the lack of “potential unlawful or terrorist activity”:

“The NYPD is continuing a massive, all-encompassing dragnet for intelligence concerning anything connected with Muslim activity through intrusive infiltration and record-keeping about all aspects of life, politics and worship”, the court filing stated. “The NYPD operates on a theory that conservative Muslim beliefs and participation in Muslim organisations are themselves bases for investigation”.

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Of course, the absence of apparent “terrorist activity” is not always an obstacle for well-funded NYPD informants. The Egyptian informant Osama Eldawoody, for example, actively encouraged young Pakistani-American Shawahar Matin Siraj to undertake the bombing of a New York subway station – a plot for which Siraj was convicted despite his stipulation, recorded on tape, that he was against killing and that he would need to acquire his “mother’s permission” before signing on to the project.

These sorts of machinations lend a secondary, ironic layer of meaning to the so-called “homegrown threat” of Muslims “radicalised” in the West rather than abroad, a topic meriting especial hysteria from the NYPD.

In a lengthy 2007 police department report [PDF] complete with a colourful chart depicting “Trajectories of Radicalisation Inside the United States”, we learn about homegrown Syed Hashmi, a Brooklyn College alumnus who “travelled to the UK and joined-up [sic] with elements of al-Qaeda”. Hashmi is said to have become involved in “terrorist activities overseas” and then charged with “aiding the al-Qaeda plot to attack targets in London and… delivering military equipment and funds to radical Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan”.

A glance at other sources confirms the true heinousness of Hashmi’s mission. Particularly incriminating is a 2010 Huffington Post column entitled “Kidnapped by the State“, in which acclaimed author and professor Amitava Kumar explains:

[W]hen Hashmi was extradited to the US [from Britain], the FBI revealed that a man who had stayed at the detainee’s apartment in London had supplied “military gear” to al-Qaeda members in Pakistan. Then, Hashmi’s lawyer found out that the items being labelled as “military gear” were socks and rainproof ponchos. The rest of the details of the indictment remain shrouded in mystery.

Kumar also notes that, as a Brooklyn College student, Hashmi had been “articulate and very critical of the ways in which the civil rights of American citizens, especially Muslims, had been curtailed by the Bush administration”, while a part of his thesis had concerned “the government’s surveillance and harassment of four or five Muslim groups in the US”.

No hope for urban hip-hop gangsters

It’s worth noting that neither Bush nor his successor – two homegrown characters who have blatantly pursued “terrorist activities overseas” including continuous drone strikes on civilians – has been subjected to the “special administrative measures” applied to Hashmi, who was placed in solitary confinement for over three years prior to being convicted.

Efforts to provide the US Executive with a carte blanche to assassinate US citizens abroad might be viewed as constituting another kind of “homegrown threat”. The delivery of billions of dollars a year and items far more militarily destructive than socks and rain ponchos to a state that subsists on terror meanwhile further underscores US hypocrisy.

Incidentally, in its 2011 report on the NYPD’s “human mapping” of Muslim communities, the AP cited a former police official who described the programme as being modelled partly on Israeli operations in the West Bank. Moustafa Bayoumi, Brooklyn College professor and author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, commented in an email to me on common denominators between security regimes in New York and occupied Palestine: “Both seek to become systems of total surveillance [and] both are invested in the idea of essentially dangerous Muslims.”

Total surveillance would indeed appear to be a prominent NYPD aspiration given the comprehensiveness of its list of common “radicalisation incubators” for germinating terrorists: cafes, student associations, non-governmental organisations, butcher shops, book stores, and so on.

According to the official “Homegrown Threat” manual [PDF], “[g]iving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes” may indicate a Muslim’s “progression along the radicalisation continuum” toward “Jihadisation”. The report fails to advise persons who continue to sport hip-hop gangster attire on how to go about avoiding disproportionate subjection to other violations of civil rights in the form of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk campaign.

Discriminatory mapping of Muslims clearly does nothing to resolve such homegrown threats as were on display during the December 2012 massacre in Connecticut, though it presumably contributes to the surge in anti-Muslim violence in the US – a natural byproduct of the selective elimination of human rights in favour of a narrative of fear.

As the current legal motion by US civil rights lawyers reminds us once again, the only unviolated Muslim right in this country is the right to oppressive surveillance.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications.