Saturday, January 28, 2012

NYPD and the Muslim American Community in NYC

I am sure you are all following the controversy around the NYPD's use of a hateful, anti-Muslim film, The Third Jihad, to train close to 1500 officers. As a member of the Muslim American community, and a member of the broad based coalition calling for the resignation of Raymond Kelly and Paul Browne, I would like to give you some context and paint a larger picture that hasn't been captured through the media or through conversations that currently exist on line and in the broader New York City.

The Muslim American community isn't calling for the resignation of Kelly because we are offended and our feelings are hurt. Offended, I am. But so what. I'll get over it. This is not about sensitivity of a community, it is about RESPECT and RESPONSIBILITY. This is but one film and yes people make mistakes but to continuously lie to a community, there comes a point when enough is enough. We didn't wake up last week as a community to the revelations of this film. We have been addressing this particular issue since early last year. We sent correspondences to Commissioner Kelly and he wrote us back in a letter dated March 7th, 2011 that "The New York City Police Department did not participate in its production and we do not believe the content is appropriate for training purposes."

This is only one part of a larger history of bad judgment calls and inappropriate materials and portrayal of Muslims within the NYPD. In 2007, NYPD released a report entitled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat" that depicted every day things that Muslims do could potentially be red flags or preludes to terrorism activity. I will never forget one year when I attended a welcome Ramadan breakfast hosted by NYPD where over 300 Muslim leaders are invited to network, raise concerns and ask questions of senior level officials. That day, I walked in, sat down and the lights went out. A screen lit up and we were about to watch a presentation. The presentation was called "The Faces of Terrorism". The first slide was a picture of Wafaa Edriss, first Palestinian female suicide bomber. Picture after picture. No Timothy McVeigh, just a bunch of Arabs, South Asians and Muslims (most of whom never threatened or committed terrorism on US soil). Finally, I stood up and walked out and many other attendees did the same. What were they thinking? Who did they think was their audience? I thought we were welcoming Ramadan? A letter was immediately sent, NYPD apologized and supposedly changed the powerpoint.

Bad judgment after bad judgment. We have been lied to time and time again, and quite frankly, we are tired of it. If this would have happened to any other community, this would have been addressed immediately, someone would have been fired and an immediate response would have been issued. No one community in New York City is better or more worthy of a response than any other community.

For the past 10 years, many activists and community leaders have spoken about and brought to light issues of discrimination, abuse of power by law enforcement agencies including NYPD, FBI, TSA and CBP. We are not bringing up new issues. The reason why the media is focusing on it now is thanks to the Associated Press. While we have been banging on doors, screaming into an empty tunnel, and being accused of paranoia and victimhood mentality, the August revelations by the Associated Press that the NYPD in partnership with the CIA has conducted illegal spying on the Muslim communities of New York City finally confirmed the story we have been telling for the past decade. It's all documented. The Demographics Unit, the 28 "ancestries of interest" including Black American Muslims, and a list of 250 individuals, Islamic institutions and businesses. All on paper. Undeniable.

Undeniable. Well the NYPD doesn't think so. Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg continue to deny these accusations and say that reporting done by the Media is exaggerated. Ok. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, both gentleman should ask for an independent investigation of the NYPD and share the results with the public and let's put all of this to rest. That doesn't seem to be something they will call for any time soon, so the Muslim community, advocates and their allies will continue to demand accountability. Work in the community has been underway. CAIR and CLEAR CUNY continue to conduct Know Your Rights workshops across NYC, NYU Brennan Center for Justice with input from community members and allies are working on an oversight proposal for the NYPD, engaging elected officials, activists writing opinion pieces, etc. Work is being done. This is part of a long term strategy. We are not just reacting anymore. Very proud of the work of my colleagues in the movement to create law enforcement accountability.

Our critics, both from outside and within our community continue to ask us why haven't we engaged? We have written two letters, and most recently one to Mayor Bloomberg. No response directly to our community just responses through the media behind podiums and written statements released from public relations departments reviewed by lawyers. Mayor Bloomberg was recently quoted saying that Commissioner Kelly has visited more mosques than people from with in that faith. Maybe he's right, may be he's wrong but I don't get his point. Commissioner Kelly was not doing the community any favors, he was "we thought" treating us like every other community in NYC.

During this latest controversy, you have multiple perspectives from within the Muslim American community that emerge. Every one is entitled to their own opinion but before criticizing tactics of members of their community and throwing out suggestions, a conversation is in order as well as the questioning of oneself. What brought the community to this point? What are we missing? What is it really like for every day people in these Muslim communities? Most recently I saw a laundry list of all the "good things" Commissioner Kelly has done for our community. I did a fact check. Nothing he did for us he hadn't done for other communities. Of all the communities that the NYPD engages with, I would confidently say that the Muslim community, specifically the Arab American Muslim community has been a partner and has shown only hospitality and respect to Commissioner Kelly and his staff. (I am speaking about the Arab Muslim community because I am the most familiar with the experience of this community.) Visits to mosques? Yes, Commissioner Kelly has visited our mosques. On one of those visits, to Southwest Brooklyn's Beit Al Maqdis Islamic Center, they designed, produced, and paid for a banner, that read "Beit Al Maqdis Islamic Center Welcomes Honorable Raymond W. Kelly, Police Commissioner, New York City Police Department." (pictured below)

The banner was only used once and for the community, the investment in the banner, the event, the outreach, the dinner was all worth it to have face time with the "Honorable" Raymond W. Kelly. Our community has always operated on an open door policy. Unfortunately, while we were letting them in the front door, their informants were infiltrating our mosques, and our community was illegally being spied on.

They have great sports programs? In 2009, the Arab American Association of New York "Brooklyn United" Soccer Team won the NYPD Commissioner Cup. (picture of me carrying our Trophy) We trained our kids on a weekly basis and they competed city-wide, kicking soccer butt across NYC.

In 2010, we honored Captain Eric Rodriguez at the Arab American Association of New York's 9th Annual Benefit Gala. We are a pro-law enforcement community and we have a great relationship with the 68th Precinct in Southwest Brooklyn. We work hand in hand to ensure that our community is safe and that we have the security we need in various situations. We have organized town hall meetings for the NYPD with youth, invited them to break bread with us during Ramadan, gave walking tours to local officers, and invited them into our most sacred institutions. In the meanwhile, undercover officers and paid informants were already amongst us. Do you still want to ask us about engagement and reconciliation? The ball is in the court of the NYPD leadership. We have done our part, it is now time for them to take responsibility and to do their part.

What's the big deal that NYPD is spying on the Muslim American community? So as long as we are not doing anything wrong, we shouldn't worry. Right? Wrong. The recent confirmations that we are being spied on compounded with the showing of films like Third Jihad hits at the very fabric of our community. It creates an environment of fear, paranoia and uneasiness. People become more isolated and try as hard as possible not to have to interact with law enforcement. You say that's not a good response and it is our duty as a community to do so, then YOU come tell the community that. When you think that officers are being trained that you are dangerous, that you can be a potential terrorist and that the very religion you practice is being accused of wanting "to take over the country", you probably wouldn't feel comfortable either. Knowing that the coffeeshops and mosques have informants doesn't allow you to engage in normal conversation or speak honestly and openly about your political views because you don't know what could be taken out of context. Our tax payer dollars go to the NYPD so they can protect and serve us not instill fear in our communities. Our community does not feel safe. This is the essence of the problem. Everyone should be alarmed.

You ask us about the Muslim officers and what their role is in all of this? They are of the most honorable, sincere and dedicated in our community. I have the utmost respect for them and the work that they do. I am very proud to have them represent us in the NYPD, but the issues we raise are beyond their control. They are pieces of a humongous puzzle. They continue to protect and serve and I speculate that deep down in their hearts, they know that the relationship between their employer and their community has been broken and that it must be fixed.

Every day I wake up to serve and be a resource to my community through the Arab American Association of New York. We hear first hand accounts of the issues our community members face. Language access, domestic violence, substance abuse, unemployment, fear and mistrust, homesickness, worry for their families abroad and yes, their concerns over law enforcement. I am not an expert, I am just a mouthpiece, a voice that carries the experiences of my community to panels, conferences, media, the internet and to my allies. I was born and raised, live and work in this community. I walk their streets every day, I shop in the same stores, my children attend their schools, I feel their pain, I feel their tension.

So before others speak about what "we" should do as  a community maybe you can come down from your pedestals and spend time on the ground in our communities amongst those most affected by the issues "we" speak about. Tell their stories. They need to be told. Learn first from those you speak on behalf of.

I am not a leader. I wasn't elected to "represent" the community. I am merely their storyteller.

I could probably write a book about this and may be I will in the future - but in the meantime, if you have any questions, please feel free to email me at If I don't have the answer, I will direct you to where you can find more information.

No comments:

Post a Comment