Asad Dandia could hardly contain his surprise when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited his mosque in Brighton Beach last month.
“Most random appearance ever,” Dandia, a plaintiff in one of three lawsuits against the NYPD over the political surveillance of Muslims, wrote on Facebook. “Wonder if he knows that his police department sent in multiple informants here.”
De Blasio’s visit to the Brighton Beach Islamic Center on June 12 came days before the start of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, and the mayor made sure to wish congregants a blessed Ramadan. One week later the mayor’s lawyers extended another Ramadan olive branch to New York’s roughly 600,000 Muslims. In a joint letter with Dandia’s attorneys, they wrote to a federal judge that a settlement in principle had been reached in two lawsuits over a vast post-9/11 Muslim surveillance program begun under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While a full settlement could be announced in July, and Bloomberg is now 18 months out of office, don’t expect the police to stop spying on innocent New York City Muslims any time soon. Arguments from city lawyers as well as de Blasio’s recent decision to expand the NYPD’s counterterrorism cadres by hundreds of officers make clear that the surveillance, stings, and suspicion will continue.
New York City Muslims said they noticed strange faces showing up in mosques not long after September 11. But the wider city only caught on after a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of reports from the Associated Press in 2011.
Secret documents revealed that officers in the NYPD’s euphemistically named Demographics Unit had catalogued hookah cafes, pastry shops, and even a New Jersey girls’ school. After the AP revealed the unit’s existence, the shadowy NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence under Bloomberg, David Cohen, defended it in pathetically weak terms.
In the event that the Tsarnaev brothers had reached New York after the Boston Marathon bombing, Cohen hypothesized in 2013, all those hundreds of Demographics Unit memos might have helped the department “identify areas where the Tsarnaev brothers might attempt to blend in following implementation of their New York City plot.”
Or police could have just pulled open a phone book to look for Russian restaurants.
When de Blasio took office in 2014, he quickly killed the highly symbolic and highly useless Demographics Unit, which had never generated an investigative lead and never had more than 16 officers in the first place.