The soccer team Brooklyn United, posing with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, wins the NYPD Commissioner’s League Cup. Courtesy: Picasa user Arab AmericanNY. © All rights reserved
In 2009, the Arab American Association of New York sponsored the Brooklyn United, a team in the New York Police Department’s youth soccer league. “We were trying to engage with law enforcement, get kids off the street and it was kind of putting out our hand to the NYPD,” said the organization’s executive director, Linda Sarsour. That first year, the Brooklyn United won the tournament trophy and even posed for the above photo with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. But by 2011, the AAANY withdrew its sponsorship after learning that the league was also being used as a way to monitor the Arab, Muslim and South Asian players and their families.
The question now hangs in the air: Were the NYPD youth soccer leagues as well as the teams that compete for the “NYPD Cricket Cup”—yes, there is such a thing—set up explicitly for the purposes of surveillance? Was the trust of hundreds of families who signed up their children for these leagues violated in the name of intelligence gathering? Were these leagues just a way to practice a more effective form of racial and ethnic profiling? Sarsour certainly thinks so. “The NYPD created these spaces,” she said. “When I think about it I get goosebumps. It is so outrageous. What parent would think if you were part of a Little League or Police Athletic League that the police would be tracking your kids on the basis of their ethnicity? When the leagues started we thought they were trying to engage our community through sports. We were wrong.”
These families have the right to know whether the NYPD specifically set up these leagues for the purposes of keeping tabs on a sports-loving community or if it just found a rich opportunity for surveillance once everyone was organized to play. Its community outreach and media divisions have still not returned my requests for comment. If and when they do, we will share their response.
I was able to speak with Matt Apuzzo, co-author of the new book Enemies Within, which has blown the lid off of the full extent of NYPD’s surveillance of Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities.
“What we know is that they did set up soccer and cricket leagues from youth to adults,” said Apuzzo. “We also know that they encouraged their detectives to join the adult cricket and soccer leagues. I don’t know if we can say they created the leagues for the express purpose of surveillance as opposed to outreach. But we do know from their own documents that they do see these sports leagues as an opportunity to keep tabs on conversations. Either way, we certainly can say that any effort at actual legitimate community outreach can be undermined by the surveillance aspect because it makes people suspicious of motives.”
Whether the leagues themselves were part of a master plan or clumsy happenstance doesn’t really matter, of course, to the communities that feel their trust was betrayed. Rinku Sen, President of the Applied Research Center, described the using of sports leagues to spy on kids as “abusive.” She also made the point to me that the NYPD’s unwelcomed entry into this space exacts a particularly serious price. “Coming out of a regional history fraught with religious and national conflict, sports are one arena in which Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and others have been able to come together, especially in the diaspora. The NYPD spying brings a layer of suspicion into this world that has otherwise been an important place to build trust and camaraderie.”