“Mike will bring us together,” is one of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign slogans, invoking his claim that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he brought New Yorkers together. The “together,” however, did not include hundreds of thousands of New York’s Arab Americans and American Muslims.
For them, Bloomberg’s time in office was marked by a massive New York City Police Department (NYPD) surveillance programme that put individuals’ rights and freedoms at risk, weakened the foundations of our democracy, and seriously compromised our values as an open and inclusive society.
A Pulitzer Prize winning investigation conducted by Associated Press reporters found that during Bloomberg’s tenure, the NYPD, working with a few CIA officials, monitored Arab and Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and “mapped” areas of the city where high concentrations of Muslims and Arab immigrants were known to live.
In order to accomplish these objectives, the NYPD coerced and entrapped Muslims to act as spies. In one instance, the police scoured the records of taxi drivers looking for those who had unpaid tickets and other violations. Those who also had immigration status issues were given the option of acting as spies or facing possible deportation. Once turned into informants, they were then asked to go to popular gathering places (coffee shops, stores, etc), attend religious services, and other community events in order to report on who was present and what was said. This material was then entered into extensive surveillance files, even when the activities attended and the words spoken were innocent and protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The compiled reports were categorised as “SECRET”. After the AP made them public, we learned that the contents of these reports were, in fact, trite. They were, however, dangerous, since they represented ethnic profiling at its worst and an extension of the long arm of the state into the normal everyday activity of communities.
One report, for example, on “Egyptian Locations of Interest”, purports to map “centres of activity” or “hangouts” for Egyptian Americans that could be used as “listening posts” where informants could go to “listen to neighbourhood gossip ... [and] get a feel for the community”. The report goes on to present a demographic profile of where people of Egyptian descent live in New York City and describes, with pictures attached, all of the restaurants and other businesses where Egyptians and other Arab immigrants in the city congregate or shop.
There is another similar report on “Syrian Locations of Concern” which includes such noteworthy information about a travel agency as, “Observed a female named ‘Rasha’ working in the travel agency, she recommended the ‘Royal Jordanian Airline.’”
The “SECRET” reports on these New Yorkers represented violations of the fundamental and guaranteed rights of citizens to be free of intrusive government surveillance as they go about their normal everyday activities.
It must also be pointed out, especially after reviewing the “reports”, what an enormous waste of resources the entire effort had been. Not only did it alienate the Arab community from the police and the city government, it also expended countless hours of valuable labour to produce files and reports that were of no value. What we have since learned was that the net result of this Bloomberg programme has been zero: no arrests, no leads and no benefit to the effort to keep New York safe. Not a positive outcome for Bloomberg, who claims to be the “data candidate”.
At the time the programme was uncovered, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg denied that any profiling was involved, saying, “we don’t stop to think about religion. We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there,” ignoring the statements in the beginning of each of the “SECRET” reports that note that they are targeting specific ethnic and religious communities.
Years later, Bloomberg’s response has actually been worse. In an interview with PBS Newshour this week, Bloomberg suggested it was “natural” to map entire communities and spy on their most mundane behaviour. Further, while his defenders claim that no court has ruled against the NYPD’s mapping of Muslims and Arabs, the record suggests otherwise. An opinion by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals stated clearly that “to infer… individual disloyalty prove[s] group disloyalty and justify discriminatory action against the entire group is to deny that under our system of law individual guilt is the sole basis for deprivation of rights.” The court noted that, “We have been down similar roads before” and invoked a series of past injustices that most Americans denounce today.
By continuing to defend the NYPD’s anti-Arab and anti-Muslim surveillance programme, Bloomberg firmly places himself on the wrong side of history, demonstrating that he still does not understand the damage done by the NYPD’s behaviour. Trust was broken. A large segment of the Arab community lived in fear of law enforcement. And the programme placed at risk our constitutional rights to assemble, speak freely, be secure from unwarranted searches and enjoy due process.
This is not “Mike bringing us together”. This is Mike targeting Arabs and Muslims and shredding the US Constitution in the process.
*The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.
**A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly