by Lauren Schuster
On Thursday evening in Kelly Commons, students and faculty gathered together for “Know Your Rights,” an event put on by the Muslim Student Association co-sponsored by Fuerza Latina and the Black Student Union. The event consisted of the showing of a short documentary called “Watched” followed by a talk and Q&A with Afaf Nasher, the executive director of the New York State affiliate for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY).
The documentary focused on the experience of two young women who attended Brooklyn College and were members of the Muslim community there. During their time there, these women met and welcomed into their circle of friends a woman who went by the name “Mel.” “Mel” was later revealed to be an undercover informant for the NYPD. Though these young women had already begun to suspect that “Mel” was up to something, they were not able confirm that she was in fact an informant until they saw on the news that two Muslim women in Queens were arrested for having connections to Al Qaeda thanks to an undercover NYPD officer who went by the alias “Mel.” The NYPD later admitted that this same officer had in fact been assigned to Brooklyn College at one point.
After these two young women discovered this information about someone they once thought was a classmate, a convert to their faith and a close friend, feelings of paranoia and betrayal set in. These women began to censor themselves in every way possible in order to avoid suspicion, feeling as though they were perpetually being watched, even if they were not anymore. These are difficult feelings for anyone to cope with, but they were especially difficult for these young college students who were supposed to be just beginning to control their own lives.
Undercover agents like “Mel” are a part of the NYPD’s mass surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers that began after the 9/11 attacks. Not long after “Mel” started her undercover work at Brooklyn College in 2011, the Associated Press released a series of stories about the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which had been created to map out and survey areas in New York City that had a high Muslim population. Although this unit was shut down after the attention it received due to the Associated Press stories, NYPD officers continued to conduct this type of surveillance.
Even though the Demographics Unit no longer exists in the NYPD, the unfair targeting of Muslim Americans by law enforcement and security officers is still extremely prevalent today.
Afaf Nasher, who works to defend those who have been unfairly targeted as the executive director of CAIR-NY, gave a talk to the audience and answered questions after the documentary screening. During her talk, she discussed important information that everyone should know if they are ever approached by a law enforcement officer. This included instructions on what to do in a variety of different situations, such as an officer knocking on your door, an officer pulling you over in your vehicle, being questioned by airport security and several others.
The common thread of what to do in all of these situations that was emphasized by Nasher was to remain calm and to make it clear that you will involve your attorney going forward.
“Understanding that you should not be speaking to anyone without an attorney present is the most basic right that you can apply just about anywhere and everywhere, and that you should apply for your protection,” Nasher said.
Nasher also made it clear that the Muslim community is not the first or the only group to be unfairly targeted by law enforcement under the guise of national security. Civil rights activists, Black Lives Matter activists, and people of color in general are just some of the other groups which are, and have been, treated with heightened suspicion by law enforcement.
This is why Rabea Ali, president of the Muslim Student Association at MC, decided to get the Black Student Union and Fuerza Latina involved.
“I never realized how many communities this even affected, so [realizing] that was my basis behind [involving] Fuerza Latina,” Ali said, “Then [with] the Black Student Union [it] was a combination of the fact that it definitely affects them, and also just having been to a few of these [Know Your Rights events], I’ve noticed one of the things that they emphasize is that this isn’t just the Muslim community in recent years, but [law enforcement agencies] essentially attack, in terms of surveillance, the Black Lives Matter Movement. I know the Black Student Union was created because of so many different reasons of them feeling underrepresented on campus, so it was a good reason for them as well.”
This is also why Ali decided to reach out to CAIR specifically.
“I reached out to CAIR because I’ve worked with them on so many different things on a personal level that I was like ‘they’re the most amazing people to work with and also they will do it in the right way that caters to so many different audiences in terms of legal rights,’ because that doesn’t just relate to the Muslim community, it relates to so many different communities,” Ali said.
The issue of discriminatory surveillance by law enforcement can be addressed not only by knowing your own rights and helping to make sure that others know theirs, but also by working to get legislation passed that will protect or increase the public’s right to privacy. “There are a number of bills that are trying to be passed with CAIR-NY […] and with other civil rights organizations […] Call your local representative and say ‘Look, I am aware that this is happening, and I’m aware that there is a bill that is being presented to you and I want you to support it, because I care about this and I’m a young person who is going to be voting for a long time,’” Nasher said.
Nasher expressed that she felt this topic was an especially important one to talk about on college campuses like Manhattan’s in order to try to prevent what happened to the young women in the film from happening to any more young people. “Young people are, especially in college, supposed to be able to challenge themselves and those around them, which in part means being able to express yourself fully, without having to think twice about it. That’s not the case if you’re busy wondering if you’re going to have a law enforcement issue, because you expressed [certain] ideas, […] and it’s really problematic that it’s happening not because of any suspicious activity, but because of religious profiling,” Nasher said.
Rose Brennan contributed on reporting.