The battle for safety and well-being in South Brooklyn’s Muslim American community
September 11, 2019
In late January, the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) got two separate calls with the same request. Journalists from the New York Times and Bklyner wanted to know what they thought about Muslim Community Patrol and Services (MCPS), a new organization that was building a community policing program in their neighborhood.
Reem Ramadan, lead organizer for AAANY’s advocacy department, was shocked. “No one [from MCPS] reached out to us. Right now, they’re only patrolling Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. We’re the only community-based organization in the area that serves mostly Muslims and we had no idea who they were.”
One of AAANY’s first responses was to bring this information to the largest regular gathering of their community members: morning ESL classes at the local mosque, where I worked as AAANY’s adult education manager, from July 2017 to March 2018. According to Ramadan, AAANY staff suspected that the community didn’t know any more than they did. She felt it was important to talk to community members about AAANY’s own work on policing, which includes a seat on the Committee for Police Reform and a stance against past NYPD surveillance programs.
When the students — many of whom are Syrian and Yemeni refugees — asked how they could stay safe, Ramadan and her fellow workshop leaders informed them about MCPS, giving a basic overview of MCPS’s services. “We didn’t want to put words in their mouths…We just asked how they felt about it,” Ramadan told me.
Nonetheless, the responses were immediate and nearly all were negative. Most recognized the MCPS patrol cars from their description and had seen them roaming around the neighborhood. But none seemed to know who they were or what they represented. One woman said, “They look exactly like NYPD, so I felt like if I went to them, they would harass me.”
Another wondered, “How do we know if they’ll treat us kindly? Just because it says ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ on their car?”
“‘We’re an extension of the NYPD in our community,’ he (Islam) told me.”
MCPS has been in operation since November 2018 and had already garnered some positive attention in the community as well. They even held a local fundraising gala in February. The dissonance between these two perspectives goes into the heart of an issue that Ramadan calls a “split in the community” between privileged Muslims — those who have been in the US longer, speak English with ease, have middle class incomes and/or citizenship and who are eager to get close to loci of power such as the NYPD — and the more vulnerable, often immigrant (or refugee) Muslims who are fearful of interactions with law enforcement and have good reason to be.
The well-documented NYPD surveillance program that targeted Muslims in NYC from 2006-2012 was widely criticized for its Islamophobic practices. The police department identified quotidian practices of Islam, such as daily prayer and abstinence from alcohol, as signs of radicalism, which led to what amounted to a targeted attack on the community. Speaking Arabic or Urdu in public was often enough to make you a target, and becoming a target could be a slippery slope to detainment or deportation.
The Muslim Community Patrol, however, trusts the police department.
“We are the eyes and ears of the NYPD in our neighborhood,” said Nazrul Islam, a New York State chaplain and one of the founding members of MCPS.
MCPS’s mission, according to its website, is “to patrol neighboring communities in order to protect members of the local community from escalating quality-of-life nuisance crimes.” They also make a point to mention that they “act as a liaison between the local police as well as the local community.”
This brings up a few questions: what sort of “nuisance crimes” are they referring to, especially as NYC’s crime rate has been steadily dropping for years? What is their official relationship with the NYPD? An official NYPD spokesperson denied any connection to the organization, but are they referring to a less-than-official relationship? If so, how do we — and the students in AAANY’s ESL classes — track their intentions?
I went to the headquarters of MCPS in Sunset Park’s Muslim Community Center the day after the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke. If there was ever a day in which I could have been convinced of the value of an NYPD-supported Muslim police patrol, in spite of all its obvious dangers and limitations, March 15 was that day. I didn’t watch the video that the shooter had uploaded to YouTube (which was taken down and then uploaded, again and again) and I didn’t read much of the news. Still, it was impossible to avoid the details. A 3-year-old missing. The man who greeted the shooter: “Hello, Brother.”
I was aware that this was not an isolated case. I knew that the many arms of Islamophobia had also recently entangled Dominique Ray, a devout Muslim who was incarcerated and sentenced to death in Alabama. Ray asked that a spiritual advisor — in his case, an imam — be present for his execution, a right that is regularly allowed to Christian inmates. Just hours before the scheduled execution on February 7, the Supreme Court denied him that right.
I was also aware that, just one month prior to the Christchurch shooting, another mosque was attacked. This one was in Syria and its attacker was the United States Army. “The mosque lost its protected status when ISIS deliberately chose to use it as a command and control center,” was Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika’s response to criticisms. Nearly 70 people were killed, including eight women and seven children. The strike also hit a settlement where hundreds of people were taking shelter from the surrounding war.
“And what about community organizations? Why hadn’t MCPS spoken to AAANY before launching publicly? ‘We wish we could’ve reached out to everyone the first minute. But that’s not realistic,’ he said.”
There was not nearly as much news coverage of these last two acts of violence, which likely explains why the loss in Christchurch was the one that devastated me. Being aware of the constructed nature of news doesn’t keep you above the din, as it turns out.
So, I was grieving. And it was just after Jumaah prayer, when Muslims were filing out of the community center that serves as both a mosque and an office space for MCPS. After praying, I went to the conference room and waited for Nazrul Islam to meet me. It was a busy day — the attacks had required response from local community leaders.
Islam told me that, from his perspective, people in the community had been wanting something like MCPS for years. He told me the story of a young boy who had been assaulted just a few steps from where we were speaking. The victim was a pious kid and had even delivered a Friday sermon shortly before the attack. It was undeniably a hate crime. Islam reminded me of another instance: two imams were shot and killed in Queens in 2016. He referred to Shomrim, the Jewish community patrol that operates in Brooklyn. “We should have similar patrols to keep our places of worship safe.”
Islam also made a point to emphasize the “S” in MCPS, which stands for services. Beyond patrol, they feed the homeless in midtown Manhattan every Friday. In the six or seven weeks that they’ve been doing this kind of outreach, Islam says they’ve served over 1,000 plates and donated over 100 coats and over 70 pairs of shoes. They also have certified mental health professionals prepared to serve those who need support.
“Our goal is to help the community,” said Islam. “Our main goal is to connect people together… whether you’re Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or Atheist. We want to bring people together. We want to unite them. We want them to feel safe and be safe. Our services are for everyone.”
When they held their first training, led by off-duty NYPD members of the Muslim Officers’ Society, 50 volunteers attended. It was a big turn-out and one that Islam seemed proud of. Relatedly, another accomplishment he embraced was MCPS’s relationship with the police department.
“We’re an extension of the NYPD in our community,” he told me.
I asked him if he’s heard any negative feedback regarding that relationship. Islam took the opportunity to praise the commanding officer of their local 72nd precinct, Emmanuel Gonzalez. “We have a great relationship with him. He shined a whole new light on the NYPD.”
Inspector Gonzalez returned the good feelings: “I think they’re a really organized group. Like any other community patrol we want them to be the eyes and ears of the police.” Gonzalez suggested that he has a sort of advisory role with regards to MCPS, “guid[ing] them to act appropriately.”
But it’s precisely this type of relationship that makes other members of the community more than a little wary.
As for surveillance, Islam told me that his masjid never had a problem. “We love the NYPD. We love their presence here.” Yet, Muslims Giving Back, an organization that currently operates in the same community center as MCPS, was targeted by an informant and worked with the ACLU on the case against the NYPD.
And what about community organizations? Why hadn’t MCPS spoken to AAANY before launching publicly?
“We wish we could’ve reached out to everyone the first minute. But that’s not realistic,” he said.
The Arab American Association of New York haven’t been the only ones who were wary of MCPS. Rightwing news outlet PJ Media published an article in January referring to sightings of MCPS vehicles and their eerie similarities to NYPD patrol cars. The article quickly descended into fear-mongering. The author wondered if MCPS “appl[ied] specific readings of Sharia (Islamic law) in its community monitoring. Since some forms of Sharia advocate honor killings, child brides, and other abuses, they may directly violate some American or New York City laws.” The writer did not interview any member of MCPS.
One quote from the article got Nazrul Islam particularly riled up, though it may not be the one you’d expect: “This is not an NYPD vehicle,” Sergeant Jessica McRorie said in the story. “The NYPD did not outfit or label this vehicle. This group is not officially sanctioned by the NYPD and they are subject to the law.”
Islam responded: “Is she from our local precinct? If you want to ask about us, go back to our local precinct. How would you go to a different community and ask? Of course they wouldn’t know.”
After the shooting at the Christchurch mosque, an Australian senator, Fraser Anning, blamed the attacks on Muslims themselves. “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place,” read his official March 15 memo.
It’s not hard to see why MCPS might be hearing the threats louder than the concerns of some of their community members. In fact, AAANY’s board had already done a good job in helping erase those voices on its own. Islam and one community member told me about a sitdown meeting held between MCPS and the association’s mostly older and wealthy board members. In that meeting, which neither community members nor the staff that work most closely with them were invited to attend, the two parties came to an agreement. Like many backroom meetings, this one went off without a hitch. Or, in other words, without the complicating factor of other opinions.
The ethos of MCPS struck me as passionate and ambitious. They seem to genuinely care for the well-being of their community. Yet, some of their actions belie other concerns. Why are they so eager to seek the approval of an institution that has unfairly targeted Muslims? Why build an organization on a relationship with a police department that has notoriously abused the trust of the Muslim community? Why prioritize solidifying that relationship over informing local community members?
“Why are they so eager to seek the approval of an institution that has unfairly targeted Muslims? Why build an organization on a relationship with a police department that has notoriously abused the trust of the Muslim community?”
Or, even, why go all the way to Midtown to feed the homeless when so many people in the neighborhood, many of whom have been displaced from their home countries by war and famine, are in need as well? To be clear, I’m sure MCPS is eager to help these people too. But their priorities tell a clear story: make connections with the powerful and get your pictures in the paper and you, perhaps, will be safe too. After the violence the Muslim community has suffered at the hands of vigilantes, it’s not a wild conclusion to come to.
Charging forward with an idea meant to solve the problems of an embattled minority without listening to some of its most vulnerable members seems like more of an aggravation of the problem than anything resembling a solution. And it doesn’t help when “pillars of the community,” like AAANY’s board, continually speak from their privilege while simultaneously representing themselves as the voice of many.
My conversation with Islam reminded me of a Mahmoud Darwish poem, “In Jerusalem.” In it, a speaker wanders through a timeless, yet fraught, Jerusalem and is told “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.” The members of MCPS want to believe. They want to believe that the NYPD will protect them, if they’re good. They want to believe that racists and Islamophobes can be convinced to love their neighbors. They want to believe that the system works. They can believe because they have the privilege of believing.
I sympathize. I want to believe that the systems made to keep all Americans safe will actually do so. But, I’m reminded of the students in the ESL program, some of whom leave their war-torn nations and then struggle to find food and shelter in one of the richest countries on earth.
I’m reminded of The Accompany Project, currently headed by Reem Ramadan. It began shortly after the 2016 election, when a local community member was dealing with harassment because of her hijab and visibility as a Muslim, but was afraid of the NYPD. Instead, she reached out to AAANY staff asking for someone to walk with her on her way to the subway. From there, The Accompany Project grew into a community initiative that trains allies to disrupt racist and Islamophobic violence.
“Our community knows that if you get on the wrong side of an NYPD officer, it can lead to deportation…I could jump a turnstile tomorrow and get deported a week from now,” Ramadan said.
These fears are especially potent for immigrants who are in the US waiting for confirmation of their refugee status — the slightest misstep could send them back to war. A local community patrol with ties to the NYPD and intentions to stop “nuisance crime” could be a precise recipe for unnecessary deportations and imprisonment.
By the end of Darwish’s poem, the speaker is awoken from his reverie by a soldier who recognizes him. “Didn’t I kill you?,” She asks. The speaker responds: “You killed me…and I forgot, like you, to die.”