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Historic settlement on NYPD spying

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CUNY law prof played role

Ramzi Kassem, director of the CUNY School of Law CLEAR project, calls the settlement that requires a civilian watchdog to oversee NYPD surveillance “a step in the right direction.”
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It was news that affected all New Yorkers’ rights, but it particularly hit home for the CUNY community.

On March 6, the same day that President Donald Trump signed the revised travel ban restricting travelers from six majority Muslim countries, the ACLU and other legal organizations announced a proposed settlement agreement with the New York Police Department that would provide greater oversight to the department’s surveillance operations.

For advocates and allies of the American Muslim community, especially at CUNY, the news of the proposed settlement to safeguard Muslim New Yorkers – and all New Yorkers – from discriminatory and unjustified surveillance was good news in an otherwise bleak news cycle of increasingly belligerent rhetoric and hate crimes against Muslims, South Asians and undocumented immigrants.

CUNY PLAINTIFFS

Raza v. City of New York, one of the cases that initiated the settlement, involved six plaintiffs, including a graduate of Brooklyn College and a former CUNY student, both of whom were students at the university when they were spied upon. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups, Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), a project of the CUNY School of Law, was one of the co-counsels on the case.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law and director of its CLEAR project. “It’s the first time since 9/11 that curbs have been imposed on the ability of any investigative agency to spy on Muslims.”

The proposed settlement was approved a week later by Judge Charles Haight, the federal judge who had recommended additional enhancements to a previous settlement in January 2016. The settlement bars investigations in which race, religion, ethnicity or national origin is a substantial or motivating factor. Before the NYPD can launch an investigation, it has to provide proof of possible unlawful activity, and ongoing investigations are subject to reviews every six months.

The settlement also appoints a civilian representative – a lawyer appointed by the New York City mayor – who will review how investigations are initiated, conducted and extended. The civilian representative is required to report any time there are systemic violations, and is required to submit annual reports to the court.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Kassem told Clarion. “[It provides] proof of the possibility of resistance and the need to mount movements that will include litigation – but won’t be limited to litigation – in order to push back against these kinds of abuses and excesses by the government.”

The case was filed in 2013, after the Associated Press (AP) broke news about expansive surveillance of the Muslim community, in which the NYPD sent paid infiltrators into mosques, student associations and to community events. An attorney with the NYPD told the Daily News that the department-backed agreement doesn’t mean that the NYPD admitted to doing anything wrong in its surveillance activities.

“The NYPD’s warrantless surveillance of our clients profoundly harmed their religious goals, missions and practices,” said a statement from the ACLU. “It forced religious leaders to censor what they said to their congregants, limit their religious counseling and record their sermons, for fear that their statements could be taken out of context by police officers or informants.”

Kassem said the AP reports on surveillance served as “confirmation” of what members in the Muslim community had long suspected. CUNY students, more than students at any other university, Kassem said, were subjected to NYPD surveillance.

Muslim students from City College were spied on when they were whitewater rafting in upstate New York; the NYPD was worried about “militant paintball trips” organized by Muslim students at Brooklyn College; and one NYPD informant who attended John Jay Muslim Student Association events – who later revealed that he was a paid informant – said he was under orders to “bait” Muslims to make inflammatory statements.

Mohammad Elshinawy, a Brooklyn College graduate, a Muslim scholar and a plaintiff in the Raza lawsuit, found out through the AP investigation that he was spied on. Elshinawy, who regularly lectured at several area mosques, was labeled a threat by NYPD partly because “he [was] so highly regarded by so many young and impressionable individuals,” according to the AP. No place was out of bounds to surveillance. He was spied on when he shopped for rings with his future wife and their wedding was infiltrated by an informant who videotaped everyone who attended.

“After the AP revelations, I wasn’t just uneasy. I was terrified,” Elshinawy wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. “I felt like I lived in a house without walls, vulnerable to police scrutiny all the time.” Elshinawy began to self-censor and would hold back on talking about anything that could be taken as controversial.

Another CUNY student and plaintiff on the Raza lawsuit, Asad Dandia, found out through Facebook that he was being watched. In October 2012, Shamiur Rahman, a 19-year-old of Bangladeshi descent, revealed to people whom he had befriended that he was a paid informant for the NYPD.

In March 2012, Rahman approached Dandia, telling Dandia he wanted to become a better Muslim. Rahman got involved with a charity group now known as Muslims Giving Back, a group that Dandia was active with, and he quickly became a part of Dandia’s circle of friends, taking photos together and asking for people’s phone numbers, often right after meeting them. Rahman, the police informant, visited Dandia’s home, ate with his parents and even once spent the night.

STIFLING FREE SPEECH

Without question, police surveillance has had a chilling effect on these groups’ abilities to peacefully assemble based on their religion. Soon after the surveillance was revealed, the charity group Muslims Giving Back lost its primary meeting space. Members of the group stopped posting social media photos of themselves doing charity work, something that publicized their efforts and encouraged others to get involved. The greatest effect, Dandia said, was felt in the larger Muslim community. Mosques became wary of newcomers. Now, because of growing Islamophobia in New York and the nation, Dandia said there’s a “bigger fight” that has just begun.

“My personal resistance started in 2013, but in many ways, it feels like it’s just beginning,” wrote Dandia in a ACLU blog post that was published the same week the settlement was announced. “We know as well as anyone that resisting discrimination does more than just achieve a narrow goal – it also brings communities together and demonstrates what’s possible.”