The Lingering Effects of NYPD Campus Surveillance

It has been 14 years since the city of New York amended the Handschu agreement, the case that controls NYPD surveillance, by removing many limitations on NYPD surveillance. This ushered in the NYPD’s preventive prosecution system as a way to comfort a scarred city.

It has been five years since the Associated Press published a series of articles and documents revealing the NYPD Intelligence Division’s blanket surveillance of Muslim communities.

It has also been five years since Melike Ser or “Mel” was welcomed into the BC Islamic society as a friend, a fellow activist and a newly converted Muslim.

It has been less than a year since the Gothamist broke the story that “Mel” wasn’t the young girl looking to find her political and religious voice but was an undercover cop.

It has only been two months since the city has passed additions to the Handschu Agreement to implement more limitations on NYPD surveillance in hopes of protecting the first amendment rights of all members of the city.

But students are still feeling the paralyzing effects of undercover surveillance.

“It is really frustrating because I think of stuff sometimes where I’m just scared about stuff… I’m just super suspicious and paranoid now,” said Thomas Thomas, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. “It just sucks to feel like I’m some kind of enemy of the state. It is sort of scary to some extent. I’m not like worried about being incriminated or whatever. I am sure they are already surveilling me. They are already surveilling my friends. But I am concerned, I’m scared because I don’t know what that could end up looking like.”

This fear of being watched spawned when the Gothamist article broke across campus that “Mel,” a women who “converted” to Islam and became a “member” of the Islamic Society, wasn’t actually “Mel” but an undercover cop. Mel first arrived on Brooklyn College campus in 2011. She introduced herself friendly and eager. She approached some of Muslim students after a meeting introducing herself and declaring she wanted to take shadada, the Muslim proclamation of faith. According to NYPD lawyers, the investigation took place for most of the year but was ended in 2012.

Mel’s identity reemerged in 2013 for an unrelated investigation of two Queens women, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui. They were arrested in spring for allegedly making bomb threats.

Though the NYPD says her investigation was terminated in 2012, students say that Mel was very much engaged on campus and in their lives through the years up to January 2015. According to the Gothamist article, students say she continued to discuss politics and religion and insert herself, making herself a part of members lives from breakups to weddings.

“She came into a place that I thought was a safe space. I thought that these were places that I was talking with friends, was talking with peers, was a safe space, and to have that bubble burst there and it really confirmed my feeling that I was unwelcome here… it wasn’t just isolated events, it was that the state saw me as a criminal,” said Sarah Aly, senior and president of the Islamic Society.

This feeling of being criminalized was not only felt by Aly but Muslim students and activists across campus. It built a wall of mistrust and anxiety and with that tension, a stifle of ideas and activism.

I just felt really violated. Even though I know… there is a history of cops surveilling colleges. Just knowing it was done in such a sneaky and sinister, insidious way. Like a betrayal. Just to read the details and to see what an indepth sting it was, I was just really shocked,” said Isaiah Riveria an eboard member for the Puerto Rican Alliance. “It just reminds me that everything I do has a pair of eyes on it. That I might not necessarily want on it.”

Him and his friend, Carlos, exchange undercover horror stories they have heard that, they say, escalated to an undercover marrying who they are surveilling. They were brought up like fisherman’s tales, seemingly extravagant but definitely feared.

Carlos explained that this won’t hurt his activism. He says he understands an activist constantly in fear isn’t able to do their work, but remains cautious. “I’m going to be on my toes when considering people I associate with or who I might do projects with. It just makes me want to be more cautious.

This fear of newcomers and others isn’t a one way street. The effects of surveillance are not only limited to fear but encompasses a paranoia and social anxiety. “As far as what it did to us, I think what it did for me was two fold. It’s that I would suspect others and the second part is that I almost feared that people suspected me as being an informant. So there’s this dual personality,” said Rabia Ahsin Tarar, a graduate student who interacted with Mel.

The fear doesn’t stretch to just those with political voices, but all Muslims and all minority students.

“I am from that particular faith – if you want to be friends with someone, especially someone who looks different from you, it’s going to make you skeptical like ‘why is that person being nice to me? Is there a hidden motive,’” said Mark, a muslim student who asked to use this name.

Discussion of surveillance and its effects on freedom of speech is and people’s views on the world around them is not a new one.

In 1971, 16 activists filed against the city of NY and the NYPD claiming that the surveillance of their political work was unlawful and had a “chilling effect” on their freedom of speech.

In 1985 the Handschu agreement was concluded and prohibited NYPD from “commencing an investigation into political ideology or religious activities” without specific information. It also implemented a small panel that would overlook the NYPD and their surveillance work through paperwork.

Then in 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11 the city loosened the restraints on NYPD surveillance in hopes of promising protection to grieving and scared citizens. In 2003, it was finalized that the NYPD would be able to base an investigation on “information” instead of specifics. It gave a broadened NYPD access and, according to them, gave them the ability to effectively investigate terrorism and protect the city.

For many though, this is not a source of protection but a omnipresent fear. This voice against surveillance can be heard across campus.

“What we are often told is ‘if you are not doing anything wrong then there shouldn’t be anything to fear,’ but despite not doing anything wrong. Despite, you know, living a very straight, clean, clear life, there is this fear that people will take what you say out of context,” said Rabia Ahsin Tarar So I think as far as academic freedom is concerned, just within the the college or within a classroom environment, where you know this is the one time that in anyone’s life that really if you go to college you’re expected to come out of your comfort zone, start addressing ideas that maybe, you know, are far fetched or may not be within what you are normally used to discussing. So you will be controversial ideas and you will be talking about things that are problematic, but when you go into a classroom environment and when you are talking to your peers and your professors and you have this fear that you can not actually discuss these things to the point where you are monitoring what you allow yourself to think, it’s such a stunting, debilitating feeling to experience that you can’t as a muslim, because of your muslimness because of your particular political views or ideas or the things you are interested in… you become a target … it has such a  scarring effect on my interactions with individuals.”

She explained that this stifling on campus is only an example of what students will face in the real world. All of this fear on and off campus has a lot of students asking about the benefits.

“ The fact that surveillance exists in situations in which it is warranted does make me feel somewhat safer. However, when police officers go undercover without any imminent threat or any reasonable rationale for doing so—such as occurred in this case—then it is no longer protection, it is discrimination,” said Jonathan Chevinsky. “And when a group of students at Brooklyn College can be infiltrated by the police seemingly just because of their religious affiliation, I do not feel safe. Such ill-advised initiatives by the NYPD will only serve to further isolate and disenfranchise the groups which they infiltrate with little likelihood of effectively fighting terrorism.”

Even students who don’t see the surveillance as a hinderance to their rights, see the debilitating effects.

“No, it doesn’t make me feel safer. I appreciate the NYPD’s work to make the city and community safer for everyone, but such a large police presence on a college campus in both unhealthy and intimidating, as well as disrupting to a learning environment,” said Samip Delhiwala.  I don’t think it directly infringes on First Amendment rights, but it sure comes close. It makes people feel uncomfortable being themselves, including speaking their minds or even practicing their religion.”

For many of the students and activists the NYPD surveillance didn’t do anything more than assert dominance and fear.

“The utility of surveillance as safety tool or as a measure so dismantling this notion that spying on muslim communities is a sacrifice for the protection of whether it is college campuses or society at large and really just to think about what that means and what that entails when we allow one group whether it’s muslims or it can be any marginalized group of individuals and when say it’s ok to surveil on this particular group because of x,y,and z reasons what implications does that have on society as a whole and where do you draw the line,” says Rabia Ahsin Tarar

Just last month on Jan. 7 the City of New York made even more amendments to the Handschu. The amendments will limit the NYPD’s ability to surveil and has implements equal protection so that surveillance isn’t targeting particular groups. The mayor will also appoint a civilian to monitor the NYPD’s surveillance and counterterrorism efforts. These adjustments are the first is the first time the city has willingly agreed to put a limit on its investigative abilities and counterterrorism efforts. It may say something about where the city is heading.

“I think there are some really great additions that especially like, the equal protection language and the installation of the surveillance monitor, these new things work together to provide more constraint on the NYPD, but I wouldn’t say it’s a panacea for everything that was wrong with the muslim surveillance that was going on,” Naz Ahmad CUNY CLEAR Staff attorney.  Handschu is great in the sense that it’s very unique in terms of American Cities and limits on investigation on political and religious activity. They have a consent decree, they have court orders, a legal formulation of these rules.”

Ahmad is a Staff attorney for CUNY CLEAR, a team of lawyers who focus on protecting the rights of those surveilled. They provide legal representation and host workshops to inform people about their freedoms and do work to address civil liberties. They have has a lot to say about the Handschu case and other surveillance-related cases. They have one of the front line fighters saying that surveillance hinders first amendment rights and its ability to put people in fear of exercising rights.

For Ahmad, these laws are not the end to surveillance infringement on rights. “It’s a big step in the right direction, but I wouldn’t say it has everything.”

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