Brooklyn College’s “Enhancing Understanding and Compassion” campaign continued last Wednesday with a lecture on surveillance and the First Amendment, held on the fourth floor of the Student Center, featuring talks by four of the college’s professors.
“There is no place for undercover operatives at Brooklyn College,” began mathematics Professor Sandra Kingan, one of the four speakers and the organizer of the two-hour event. “It is harmful, abusive, and criminal,” later adding that “the silent majority should not be silent.”
Kingan was referring to the matter of the police department’s spying on the college’s Muslim students, revealed in a 2015 article by Gothamist writer, Aviva Stahl, published four years after Huffington Post’s Len Levitt and then the Associated Press reported on state-sponsored surveillance of Muslim communities. A year before, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD’s settlement of the resulting lawsuit was not “sufficient.”
Speaking alongside Kingan was Professor Benjamin Carp, an American Revolution historian, Professor Alex Vitale, a community policing sociologist, and Moustafa Bayoumi, professor of English and author of “This Muslim American Life.” It was Bayoumi who pointed out that “New York Police Department surveillance is not an academic question. It is a real question. We must grapple it with seriousness and consider it with deliberation.”
Among the modest-sized audience, including some watching on Facebook Live, was Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson, who launched the “We Stand Against Hate” initiative in November of last year in an email to students, staff and faculty amidst hate crimes on campus. These crimes included the forging of posters by the Horowitz Center, depicting the Students for Justice in Palestine club as terrorists, and the carving of swastikas in the school’s facilities. President Anderson in response, wrote that “reason will persuade, even with regard to the most challenging geopolitical conflicts of our time.”
In his lecture, Carp invoked Thomas Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom,” which stated that “no man shall be…enforced, restrained, molested…in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account go his religious opinions or belief.” Carp said that not only does “a state religion corrupt the religion it wants to encourage,” but that “what made America work was the lack of agreement. It created a protective umbrella.”
But according to Vitale, these laws have not stopped law enforcement institutions from infringing on the protections of the Fourth Amendment. “Police now are looking to this predictive technology to support their reasonable suspicion,” he said, continuing that “it makes the threshold of the evidence incredibly low.”
This is true of the New York City Police Department, whose 2015 case of “Mel,” the undercover officer who posed as a student and Muslim convert on the Brooklyn College campus, confirmed that they still conduct acts of espionage on Muslim students, even after denying such operations in 2011. Even though these actions that are taking place on campus are a violation of the Handschu Agreement, which controls police behavior, the response from CUNY has been poor, with a typical reaction being the release of a statement, and nothing more.
Although Vitale urged that we “need a more robust response from CUNY,” the only practical tool available for students today to combat such infiltrations is the CUNY School of Law CLEAR project. Launched in 2009, it helps with the legal needs of minority communities, particularly of Muslims, and works on responding and identifying illegal actions by authorities, which hinder the freedoms of immigrant or non-citizen individuals.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, there are an estimated three million Muslims in the United States, 63 percent of whom are immigrants. New York City alone is estimated to be home to about 800,000 Muslims. For many of them, reports of police surveillance on their homes and shops were, as Bayoumi said, “a confirmation rather than a revelation, dramatic on many levels” because it ends up “criminalizing every aspect of daily life.” For Muslims students, the threats go further still.
In a school setting where, according to Kingan’s work on covert networks, trust between students is even stronger than those of family or friend ties, surveillance does not only hinder freedoms of expression and religion, but also academic freedom. According to Bayoumi, who cited the statement of an anonymous Muslim student, surveillance forces you to monitor “what you’re allowing yourself to think.” He added another Muslim student’s testimony, who said that “there is this fear that people will take what we say out of context.”
When one audience member asked, “Do we know if there is current surveillance on campus?” The answer from Vitale was simple enough. “We don’t.”
“The public university is the place where the fight for our civil liberties is, and we are at the center of it at Brooklyn College,” said Bayoumi. “We need guidelines. In a city like New York, the police department cannot, should not, and will not be above the law.”