New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
When President Obama interrupted a regularly scheduled press briefing to acknowledge the collective pain and anger over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, his heartfelt testament to his own experience of racial profiling wrote a page in the history books. Yet, as many would quickly point out, his commitment to addressing racial profiling rang hollow in the shadow of comments he had made just days before, praising New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as an “outstanding” and “very well qualified” potential candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security after Janet Napolitano steps down.
In the last year, Kelly has come under escalating public criticism: the NYPD faces five federal lawsuits challenging its stop-and-frisk and Muslim surveillance programs and two City Council bills banning racial profiling and establishing independent oversight over the department. Noticeably “flattered” by the president’s burnishing his increasingly troubled public profile, Kelly went media stumping, heightening speculation that the police chief may be a contender. Whether Kelly is picked as the next secretary or not, President Obama countenanced Kelly’s profiling tactics, and even more sobering, revealed his own cards.
Obama’s vocal support for Kelly is not the contradiction it may have seemed. While stop-and-frisk and Muslim surveillance are hallmarks of the Kelly decade in New York, Obama has built a presidency of ever-expanding executive power and secrecy—a powerful brew that has regularized racial profiling on a sweeping scale.
Kelly’s policing of New York bears an eerie resemblance to Obama’s national law enforcement record. Under Kelly, the NYPD has stop-and-frisked a record number of people, reaching an all-time high in 2011 of 685,724 stops (in contrast to fewer than 100,000 in 2002). Of those stopped, 84 percent in 2011 were black and Latino. While the department claims that stop-and-frisk is a tool for crime-fighting and public safety, only 2 percent of stops resulted in the discovery of contraband, and only 6 percent resulted in arrests. Kelly made clear in defending the program to state officials that his purpose is to instill in African-American and Latino communities a deep fear and vulnerability when it comes to the police. The stop-and-frisk policy sends a message to New York City’s communities of color, young men in particular: you are all suspects, and there is no place you should feel safe.
In yet another program developed under the guise of prevention, the department transformed itself into a formidable intelligence agency. The NYPD Intelligence Division indiscriminately spied on Muslim communities and Muslim student associations in New York City, Long Island and throughout the Northeast. In so doing, the NYPD put to use its own 2007 report on radicalization, which correlates increasing religiosity and politicization in Muslims with the potential for terrorism. So the NYPD went whitewater rafting with City College students, worried about “militant paintball trips” at Brooklyn College, and sent undercover operatives to take notes at mosques and ask questions at “ethnic hot spots” like restaurants and bookstores. Despite Kelly’s fierce defense of the program’s necessity, the department admitted that not a single prosecution has resulted out of this wall-to-wall surveillance. Like the stop-and-frisk program, these programs instill fear. Muslim communities have reported decreased mosque attendance, reluctance to engage in “[p]olitical organizing, civil engagement and activism,” and “self-censorship on many religious and political topics.” Kelly’s version of security means no space is sacred, or free of watch, for New York’s Muslims. The message sent to Muslims: you are all suspects, and there is no place you should feel safe.