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Being Arab or Muslim is not probable cause for NYPD spying

I learned a few days ago that the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division labeled my non-profit organization a "Terrorism Enterprise." That organiza
NYPD Intelligence
Credit: AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams

I learned a few days ago that the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division labeled my non-profit organization a "Terrorism Enterprise."

That organization is the Arab American Association of New York, a social service and advocacy group serving predominantly Arab immigrants looking to make a better life for themselves and their families. Among the services we provide:

  • English as a Second Language schooling for immigrant women
  • After-school enrichment programs for elementary and middle school age students
  • Legal and immigration services
  • Domestic violence prevention and intervention
  • Young adult empowerment
  • Leadership development
  • Advocacy campaigns on issues that affect our community

So why would the NYPD consider us a terrorist threat? Why would the NYPD feel the need to spy on us?

The Associated Press last week revealed new secret documents leaked from the NYPD that included the Arab American Association of New York on a TEI (Terrorism Enterprise Investigation) list. Their goal was to infiltrate my organization by getting a confidential informant on our board of directors, using a designation that allows legal spying on any entity. Including my organization, they had opened dozens of these TEIs in the past ten years.

We learned two years ago (also from the AP) that the NYPD was engaging in unwarranted surveillance of the Muslim community in New York City and beyond, sending undercover agents and confidential informants into cafes, bookstores, mosques, restaurants, and student organizations on college campuses.

The NYPD has been spying on several aspects of daily life of the American Muslim community—where we pray, shop, study, and play. The AP revelations were confirmation of what the community feared was happening to us all along. After learning this news, advocates from the American Muslim community sprung into action to defend the constitutional rights of our community and all New Yorkers. We joined forces with existing police reform movements in New York City—including Communities United for Police Reform—who were focused on ending all forms of discriminatory police practices like "stop-and-frisk."

Our newly-formed alliance allowed us to bring to light the issue of unwarranted surveillance of the American Muslim community. We passed the Community Safety Act, legislation that expands the ban on profiling, and creates an independent monitor to investigate policies and practices of the NYPD. Recently, a federal judge concluded that the NYPD's use of "stop-and-frisk" was in fact unconstitutional. A fight is being fought and it seems justice is on our side.

While this news about NYPD spying was nothing new to me—it's an issue I have been working on for the last few years—this time, it was different. This time I felt hurt. I felt broken. When I saw AAANY’s name on that document, it became even more personal.

And it hurt most when my 13-year-old daughter saw articles posted on Facebook and asked me, "Why would NYPD think you are terrorists?" I had no words for her, just hugs.

Every day, we at AAANY hear first-hand accounts of the issues our community members face. Language access, domestic violence, substance abuse, unemployment, fear and mistrust, homesickness, worry for their families abroad and, yes, concerns over law enforcement. I am not an expert; I am just a mouthpiece, a voice that carries the experiences of my community to panels, conferences, and media, the Internet and to my allies. I was born and raised, live and work in this community. I walk their streets every day, I shop in the same stores, my children attend their schools, I feel their pain, and I feel their tension.

The American Muslim community should be seen as partners in the fight to combat terrorism, not potential suspects. Criminalizing an entire community is not effective policing and is a waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. NYPD has a job to do and that job should be done by following credible leads and ensuring that we don’t violate the constitutional rights of any New Yorkers. I believe we can fight terrorism, keep our city safe all while following the law of the land.

Linda Sarsour is the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, based in her native Brooklyn. Watch below her appearance on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry.