Not a Game: How the NYPD Uses Sports for Surveillance

Not a Game: How the NYPD Uses Sports for Surveillance

Not a Game: How the NYPD Uses Sports for Surveillance

The NYPD’s extensive monitoring of Arab and South Asian sports events has put a big question mark over the reasoning behind the department’s own sponsored leagues.


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.”

This “trust and camaraderie” doesn’t develop, as so many of us know, just from playing sports but also sitting around and watching sports. This space has also, we can say with certainty, been violated by police infiltration and surveillance. Apuzzo’s Enemies Within reveals what the NYPD calls its “Sports Venue Report.” This thirty-eight-page memo, compiled by the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” lays out the sports playing and viewing locales frequented by “29 ancestries of interest.” It shows that the NYPD has ventured deeply into the community spaces where people of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent gather to hang out and watch a game. As its own report reads, “The Unit has identified the sports of cricket, soccer and billiards as the primary sports within the communities. After the initial research was concluded, members of the unit identified locations were the sports are played locally and locations where fans gather to view the sporting events. The result was that fifty-five (55) locations were identified. Upon the identification of the locations, members of the Demographics Unit conducted field work, in the form of visits, to these locations to ascertain the required information.”

The concentration on cricket, and even the creation of an NYPD cricket tournament, seems like something out of a satirical Hollywood film that would end with the NYPD cricketers recognizing the humanity of those they have been ordered to spy upon. In the real world, however, these revelations just leave those surveilled feeling violated.

I spoke with activist and sportswriter Harjt Singh Gill, whose parents were born in Punjab. He said to me, “For the unfamiliar, cricket is the most popular sport in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably is for other South Asian countries as well. Cricket is a connection to ‘home’ for many, and brings people together in the diaspora as sports are often to do (and, interestingly, between nationalities, despite what the rhetoric may be). Apparently the NYPD thinks people of South Asian descent getting together and enjoying cricket is a dangerous activity that needs monitoring. The NYPD actually compiled a helpful list for those of us who don’t know where to go to watch the matches while in New York in this vast profiling effort.”

Gill’s gallows humor is disturbingly apt. The Sports Venue Report reads almost like a tourist guide sectioned into two parts: the “South Asian Sports Locations” and “Arab Sports Locations.” It even includes actual maps for people looking to find a locale in the city to catch a cricket or soccer match.

The irony of cricket’s being so targeted has not been lost on observers of the sport. Mike Marqusee, author of the brilliant book Anyone But England: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket, said to me, “It’s a myth that cricket is or ever was a ‘gentlemen’s game’ (it’s better than that), but this must be the first time it’s been designated as a ‘terrorists’ game.’ In USA, cricket has long been viewed as alien—but this NYPD document shows how that ‘alien’ status has been re-identified, shifted from ‘English’ to South Asian. In the panoptic eyes of the national security state, a wonderfully innocent activity—watching cricket—is now suspect.”

It must be noted that even fears of this kind of surveillance has a profound effect on the health and well-being of the targeted. I spoke with Deepa Kumar, a professor at Rutgers and author of the book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. She said, “When you think you may have agents visiting what you think are safe spaces, people understandably are hesitant to say what they really think, particularly if they are Arab or South Asian. One student told me that she had developed a sleep disorder because of the stress of continuing to stand up and speak out, knowing that what she says is being recorded and could be used against her. Others have told me that they have had to grow up quickly and learn how to spot informants in their groups. This is not what young people should have to worry about.”

It also hurts grassroots activists and resistance movements. Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said to me, “The NYPD’s domestic spying operations illegally collected information about law-abiding Muslim New Yorkers who frequent mosques, or schools or sports bars. But they’re not the only ones impacted: their neighbors, customers, classmates and friends from other communities—such as their drinking buddies, or Occupy Wall Street participants—were also unconstitutionally monitored, even well beyond New York…. The FBI and NYPD have used the Stasi’s tactics to recruit informants across the northeast to entrap, intimidate and sow distrust among innocent Americans from all walks of life.”

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote over a century ago about what he believed to be the most fundamental of rights, “the right to be left alone.” The NYPD’s surveillance program should make us question whether this right is no longer on the books. If you are taking your child to play soccer, if you are trying to feel less homesick by playing cricket, if you are watching a game at the local bar, you may have unwanted company. For the affected communities, it is a burden that speaks to the worst traditions of racism and collective punishment. If sports can’t be a place to actually exhale and relax, if our children become suspects just for signing up to play, then something is very wrong.

The NYPD has done a generation’s worth of damage in its efforts to build bridges into these communities. But if the NYPD has violated the “trust and camaraderie” that comes through sanctioned sports, it is also sparking a different kind of trust and camaraderie. Fahd Ahmed, Legal and Policy Director for DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving), a grassroots organization of low-income South Asians organizing for justice said, “We have had a few youth join our organization that were participating in the cricket leagues. But as they met with other DRUM members and families that had been targeted by the NYPD spying programs, heard their stories, got involved in organizing for justice alongside them and withdrew from the NYPD-run programs.” The NYPD has burned a bridge, but at least we can now see more clearly on which side of the bridge it stands.

Jonathan Schell on America's new anti-espionage dissidents.

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