Michael Bloomberg has deservedly been on the receiving end of a deluge of tough questions about his racist “stop and frisk” policy that he vocally defended as mayor of New York City. This program was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge but not before over 5 million black and Latino New Yorkers were stopped by the NYPD during the 12-year period the program was in place. And worse, as the ACLU notes, “Nearly 90 percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”
Since running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, however, Bloomberg has public apologized for this program. In fact, days ago on the campaign trial he declared, “I deeply regret the abuse of police practice called stop and frisk,” adding, “I didn’t understand then the unintended pain it was causing to young black and brown families and their kids.”
It’s obviously up to the black and brown communities to decide if this apology is sincere and if they will support him. But another community was illegally and unjustly profiled by Bloomberg when he was mayor yet it’s rarely raised in the media. I’m talking the Muslims of New York City, whom Bloomberg directed be surveilled in all areas of our lives simply because of our faith. Nothing more. (Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has in the past praised Bloomberg’s illegal surveillance of Muslims.)
Let me say at the outset, I don’t want an empty apology now from Bloomberg for his surveillance of Muslims that began in 2003 and lasted until he left office in 2013. Rather, I want the moderators at Wednesday’s Democratic debate to press Bloomberg to answer why in his view were Muslims not entitled to the same rights as all other Americans? Press Bloomberg on why did he believe that we Muslims were so inherently dangerous that he needed to order surveillance of us where we worked, prayed, and socialized? Why did he continue to defend this program throughout his term? And does he still hold these same views now?
And beyond that I hope in the upcoming primary states with sizable Muslim populations such as Virginia (where a new poll released Tuesday shows Bloomberg tied for the lead with Bernie Sanders), California, Michigan, and New Jersey, that the Muslim community attend his campaign events and press him on this very issue. This combined effort will hopefully elevate this issue to the place it belongs right up there with the coverage on stop and frisk. Profiling by our government is just as wrong and painful when it’s based on religion as it is when it’s based on race and ethnicity.
That brings us to the pain Bloomberg caused by his widespread surveillance of Muslims that began in 2003. As the ACLU explained, “The NYPD's program, dedicated to the total surveillance of Muslims in the greater New York City area, operated under the unconstitutional premise that Muslim beliefs and practices are a basis for law enforcement scrutiny.” And as the ACLU stated in one of the two federal lawsuits it filed against the City of New York in response to this program, the NYPD deployed informants and engaged in surveillance, “without any indication whatsoever of criminal activity or any connection whatsoever to wrongdoing.”
One of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, Asad Dandia, detailed the NYPD’s insidious efforts in a 2017 article for the ACLU’s website, explaining how a young man contacted him when he was 20 via Facebook saying “he wanted to become a better Muslim.” In reality, the young man was an NYPD informant, and when a few months later that became known, DandiaIn explained that it ruined a charity he was involved with because others assumed if the NYPD were watching him, he must have done something wrong. But Dandia had done nothing wrong other than being Muslim in Bloomberg’s New York.
The surveillance of Muslims under Bloomberg’s watch even extended to Muslim college student groups traveling outside of New York, with one NYPD undercover agent going on a white-water rafting trip with students from The City College of New York. In 2012, when the Muslim surveillance program was finally uncovered, Bloomberg was asked specifically if the NYPD going on this rafting trip went too far, to which Bloomberg responded, “No.” In fact, a defiant Bloomberg defended the entire surveillance program by saying, “We have to keep this country safe.”
So how many terrorists were brought to justice by this program? Zero. In fact, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2014, his first year in office after he replaced Bloomberg, that he was disbanding the Muslim surveillance program, The New York Times reported, “After years of collecting information, however, the police acknowledged that it never generated a lead.” Not even a lead!
The program did nothing to make New Yorkers safer, but it did cause pain to countless Muslims. For example, as the plaintiffs argued in federal court, this program caused a stigma to not just individuals being surveilled but to the entire community, furthering the false notion that Muslims are inherently dangerous and deserving of fewer rights. Some plaintiffs stated that their businesses were hurt with Muslims fearing to socialize in public for fear of being caught up in the surveillance program. Mosques reported lower attendance and in turn less financial support after the NYPD program was revealed. Others spoke of their reputations being destroyed when it became known that the NYPD had been (unjustly) monitoring them.
And as Dandia tweeted over the weekend, “Bloomberg terrorized me and my people. His surveillance brought enormous mental and emotional stress to my parents, who *still* ask me to vet any new friends.”
Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group, has called for Bloomberg to disavow the program. Others have demanded he apologize. I want Bloomberg to answer for this painful, unconstitutional program on the national stage. It’s time Bloomberg tell us why he believes Muslims don’t deserve the same rights as all other Americans.