Linda Sarsour, the director of the Arab American Association of New York, received an unexpected visitor at her non-profit’s south Brooklyn office back in 2012.
Sarsour had already been on guard, due to the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) increased scrutiny and surveillance of Muslim communities after September 11. One day in 2012, she got a call from a man claiming he was a Palestinian student who studied in Libya and had come to the United States for a master’s degree. The man said he wanted to see her for social work services — an unusual request, given that she directed the social services organization and hadn’t worked directly with clients in years.
She also suspected that something was strange because of her knowledge of the student visa process — this man had not been accepted to a U.S. school, yet claimed he was living in New York.
“When he came to my office eventually, I asked him: ‘I only have 15 minutes, how can I help you?'” she remembers. “And he forgot the original story. He forgot the part that he was Palestinian and he studied in Libya. I reminded him of that story and I said: ‘If you don’t think I know who you are, I know exactly who you are.'”
The man also asked Sarsour unusual questions, like who funds her organization. “No one asks those kind of questions,” she said.
Sarsour demanded that the informant never return to her community. But a month later, she saw him again.
That time, he was with a small group of Arab students at a Pakistani poet’s reading at Columbia University. Sarsour told the students to stop speaking with him, and then again demanded that he stay away from their communities.
The experience was just one of many in which Muslims and Arabs of New York City say that have been watched, tracked, mapped, and spied on by the NYPD and its informants since September 11. The department launched the controversial Demographics Unit following the terrorist attacks in 2001, and over more than a decade, it collected information from Muslim communities, neighborhoods, mosques, and community centers. Not only was the program entirely unsuccessful — it did not trigger any investigations or generate any leads — but it also damaged the relationship between New York and New Jersey’s Muslim communities and law enforcement.
This week, after bombings in Brussels left at least 34 people dead, Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are calling for increased surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods, pointing to the NYPD’s program which they claim successfully prevented terrorist attacks.
Their claims are both inaccurate and offensive to the Muslims living in New York who have experienced what it’s like having officers monitor their daily lives.
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/AP
Sarsour’s organization, which provides services to immigrant and refugee families and runs after-school programs for children, was a direct target of the NYPD and was listed in its secret documents.
“We were an organization in the community in south Brooklyn where we welcomed the New York Police Department with open arms into our mosques and into our community centers through the front door,” she said. “And what we learned is that they were sending informants through the back door.”
People affiliated with the NYPD would frequent mosques and Friday prayers at New York’s mosques. They would record sermons and eavesdrop on conversations around the neighborhood and in coffee shops. Local businesses stopped playing Al Jazeera and other Arabic news networks on their TVs, so they wouldn’t draw attention and invoke political conversations.
An investigation by the Gothamist uncovered that a woman, who called herself “Mel,” was frequenting Muslim Student Associations on college campuses, meeting students, and befriending them. Mel was actually an undercover cop, but for years she developed intimate ties with Brooklyn College students and was present during many private moments of their lives. She attended social gatherings, went on trips with the students, and dined in their families’ homes.
“The types of law enforcement tactics are very pervasive,” Sarsour said.
Learning that the NYPD was infiltrating their communities in that way “was a sense of betrayal,” she continued. “They betrayed us and they betrayed the trust we had as a community in their work.”
Being watched day-to-day was especially hard for the refugee and immigrant communities made up of people who had escaped police states, regimes, and dictatorships. Instead of welcoming new neighbors with open arms, New York’s Arab communities grew to be skeptical and suspicious that every newcomer was an informant.
“They came here because they thought they were coming to a place where they can have all types of freedoms, including freedom of privacy,” only to learn that the government would be just as, or even more, involved in their daily lives, Sarsour said.
Sarsour has contributed to some of the federal trials challenging the NYPD’s programs. She will testify next month in a hearing over the proposed settlement in the American Civil Liberty Union’s suit against the city. But even after a number of federal lawsuits and the potential settlement, Sarsour says she will never know for sure whether she is being watched.
“It’s not like stop-and-frisk,” she said, referring to the NYPD’s controversial, discriminatory practice of stopping law-abiding citizens to search them for weapons or drugs. “For us, it’s psychological. It’s like psychological warfare where people live in an environment where they think they’re being watched. It chills people’s free speech.”
Sarsour was just as outraged as anyone at Cruz and Trump’s vows to bring back Muslim surveillance. But she said she is also frustrated by the general public’s failure to understand that her community has already lived through this policy.
“Ted Cruz is like, ‘Let’s patrol all the Muslim neighborhoods,'” Sarsour said. “Everyone else thought that was a revelation. Everyone else was like, ‘Outrageous!’ I’m like, ‘Where have you been for the past 15 years when Muslim communities, particularly in New York, have been under unwarranted surveillance, technological surveillance, confidential informants swarming our communities undercover… These are real things that are happening in our community.”