In February 2016, Jeanne Theoharis, a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College, wrote about NYPD infiltration of the campus Islamic Society for the Intercept, a news website that covers the intersection of politics, surveillance and national security.
From left: Jeanne Theoharis with filmmakers Katie Mitchell and Danielle Varga.
Her report was a response to a barrage of reports about the NYPD and undercover operations in the city’s Muslim community: there had been an explosive Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press investigation of widespread police surveillance of New York City’s Muslim community groups and mosques and a Gothamist report about infiltration specifically at Brooklyn College.
The story revolved around a woman who was not an enrolled student at the school, named Malike Ser, or “Mel,” who claimed that she was taking time off before graduate school and came to the Islamic Society in order convert to Islam, which she eventually did. It was revealed later that Ser was an NYPD operative.
Theoharis’s article about the effect of the spying, which took place between 2011 and 2015, caught the attention of filmmakers Katie Mitchell and Danielle Varga, who reached out to Theoharis. The result is the new documentary Watched, which focuses on two female Muslim Brooklyn College students who were victims of Ser’s deception. In the documentary, in which the two students are identified only by their first initials, they describe how the ordeal has affected them, their peers and their campus. The film was screened, free of charge, on campus on May 16, followed by a question-and-answer session with Theoharis, the filmmakers and other panelists.
Ser arrived on campus in 2011, as the two Brooklyn College students in the film, explain. Ser said she was Turkish, raised without any religious affiliation and seeking to convert to Islam. The campus Muslim Student Association took her in with open arms, and the two interviewees describe her taking the declaration of faith, a sacred ritual in which one officially coverts to Islam.
One thing the two women in the film noticed soon after Ser’s conversion was that her eagerness to learn more about becoming a Muslim wasn’t matched by the usual questioning most converts have. Some Muslim students were taken aback by how Ser, who was not an enrolled student, almost obsessively reached out to other Muslim students and inquired about their whereabouts. At one point, she asked another student about suicide bombings, a question that led some on campus to become suspicious.
DISTRUST ON CAMPUS
When it was revealed that Ser was an NYPD informant after she stopped being seen at Brooklyn College in 2015, feelings of distrust permeated the campus. Part of the movie’s point is to show how the damage has not been fully addressed. The 19-minute film does not tackle the complex legal and constitutional issues surrounding NYPD activity on a CUNY campus; long-standing precedent is that public safety is handled by CUNY safety officials, and the NYPD does not come onto campuses unless responding to an emergency call.
Instead, the filmmakers made a conscious effort to focus on the psychological impact of the episode on Muslim students. The interviewees report on a variety of emotional reactions, some of which were echoed during the question-and-answer session after the screening. In the film, students recount how they began to self-censor and refrain from expressing their political opinions in class or in other forums on campus. Students began to be paranoid about newcomers, or fear that others believed they were spies. Worse, students then felt a sense of shame for prejudging a newcomer as a possible informant.
The takeaway from the film is that the ordeal had a chilling effect on activity and speech, which is the opposite of what a university setting should be, and why the student and faculty organizers of the screening wanted the movie to not just stand on its own, but to act as a catalyst for further action on campus to resolve what is clearly a lingering issue for Muslim students.
Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson, who came into her position in 2016, attended the public viewing of the film, but did not stay for the question-and-answer session, which included a frank discussion by students, faculty and staff about the effects of the surveillance.
Naomi Schiller, an assistant professor of anthropology, in an emotional appeal to Muslim students during the discussion period said, “You’re not going to get the apology you deserve.” Kelly Spivey, a college laboratory technician in the film department at Brooklyn College, told Muslim students during the question-and-answer session that going forward they should “look at who we are” to see who in the faculty and staff can be counted on as a “support network” for students who might feel uncomfortable on campus.
Anderson had, in a campus-wide email, invited people to see the film and participate in the discussion, a move welcomed by faculty, staff and students. “Students should feel free in their campus affinity groups to explore their evolving spiritual, political and intellectual identities,” said Anderson. “Undercover police surveillance based on race, religion, or ethnicity on college campuses undermines this academic freedom. Freedom of conscience is foundational to the Brooklyn College mission, as is our commitment to providing a welcoming educational environment for immigrant communities.”
At the city-level, there has been some progress to keep a check on NYPD surveillance in Muslim communities. In March, the ACLU and other organizations – including CUNY’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) – announced a settlement agreement with the city to provide greater oversight of police department intelligence operations. It was an agreement stemming from the lawsuit Raza v. City of New York, which included among its plaintiffs two former CUNY students, one of them a Brooklyn College graduate.
During the discussion period, attendees agreed Anderson had taken a more progressive stance than her predecessor, Karen Gould, on the matter. But students, faculty and staff in attendance insisted that the administration needed to take further action to help the healing process.
“If that’s a first step that’s great,” Theoharis said of Anderson’s letter and her attendance at the screening. “But if it’s a last step that’s insufficient. I think we’ve seen a lack of leadership.”
She added that it was imperative for the Brooklyn College administration to take charge of the issue, since even though the infiltration is no longer ongoing, the negative effects are still lingering.
“These are deep wounds here,” she said.