Civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), its New York affiliate, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability (CLEAR) project at CUNY Law School, have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the New York Police Department (NYPD) on Tuesday challenging its surveillance of Muslim communities. Back in 2011, the Associated Press revealed that since 2002 the NYPD "put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity." Journalists Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Chris Hawley, and Eileen Sullivan later won a Pulitzer Prize for their work.
The suit comes amid increased scrutiny over government surveillance programs following Edward Snowden's NSA leaks. And yet, as Rania Khalek argues, while there has justifiably been widespread outrage at the revelations that millions of Americans are being subjected to government surveillance, this reaction was "completely missing" when the targets were just thought to be Muslims.
According to the Associated Press investigation, the NYPD unit that carried out the surveillance, the Demographic Unit (which NYPD denied existed), was "the only squad of its kind known to be operating in the country" and almost exclusively targeted Muslim communities. The unit maintained a "long list of 'ancestries of interest'" covering 28 countries, nearly all of which were Muslim majority countries, "received daily reports on life in Muslim neighborhoods," and even paid informants to try and "bait" Muslims into saying inflammatory things about jihad and terrorism. And yet in 2012, despite the constant surveillance, the NYPD admitted that the program "never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation." What it did accomplish, however, as the ACLU argues, was to "cast an unjustified badge of suspicion and stigma on hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers," violate their civil liberties, and as one of the targets of the programme, Asad Dandi, points out, engender a sense of fear amongst Muslims and damage "our sense of community and trust." More on the program's impact on Muslim communities, including how it has led to self-censorship and discouraged people from mobilizing Muslim civil rights issues, can be found here.
The suit (see embed below) is brought by a group of Muslim New Yorkers against the City of New York, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen. It argues that the NYPD's "practice of religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers...has a false and constitutional premise: that Muslim religious belief and practices are a basis for law-enforcement scrutiny." Noting that the practice has "profoundly harmed" New York's Muslim community, on behalf of the plaintiffs the civil liberties groups are seeking a declaration that NYPD has "violated their fundamental rights to equal protection and free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution...and guarantee of government neutrality toward all religions." Furthermore, an injunction is sought to prevent the continuation of the program as well as an order requiring the NYPD to destroy all the information it has collected in violation of the Constitution.
Back in 2012, Police Commissioner Kelly defended the program, saying that while "not everybody is going to be happy, but our primary mission, our primary goal is to keep this city safe and save lives," which is essentially the same argument that the U.S. government is making now to defend the NSA's surveillance practices. The difference, as Khalek points out, is that while it was largely just "the impacted communities and staunch civil liberties advocates" who were outraged over the revelations about the NYPD's actions, now there are far more people who are outraged. This disjuncture, this selective outrage, however, highlights the need to defend the civil liberties of everyone when they are being violated, even when it is one of the most "otherized" groups in America, and not just when the surveillance net is shown to include millions of non-Muslims in America.