When Bloomberg went on the Democratic debate stage for the first time last night, he was questioned about what his 2015 defense of “stop-and-frisk” policing might imply about his views toward minority communities. He responded by saying that, over his three terms, the “one thing that I’m embarrassed about” is how stop-and-frisk “turned out.” “It got out of control,” he said.
But that policy was not an anomaly. From stop-and-frisk policing, which increased sixfold under his administration, to warrantless, blanket surveillance of Muslim communities in the tri-state area, Bloomberg blatantly disregarded the civil rights of people of color when he was mayor. At 19, I was targeted by that discriminatory surveillance — and today, I’m reminded of how little the leaders responsible for it have grappled with the consequences.
While in college in 2011, I co-founded a charity dedicated to serving the poor in my community and in New York City. As Muslims, my friends and I were driven by our commitment to our faith, which calls on us to serve those in need with what we can; almost all of us came from working class backgrounds ourselves. We spent our weekends delivering groceries to families whom we knew could use the support, and as our work expanded to include feeding the homeless and establishing partnerships with other charity and relief organizations, we received volunteers and inquiries from all over the city.
In March 2012, a young man messaged me over Facebook, asking to get involved. He wanted to become a better Muslim and asked if there were “any events or anything” that he could attend with me, as a start. He was searching for faith and community, and my community welcomed him. He participated in all of our activities, whether it was raising money for Syrian refugees, delivering food to undocumented families, helping organize lectures by Muslim community leaders and traveling to gatherings such as the annual Islamic Circle of North America convention. I even invited him to my home to have dinner with my family. We offered night prayers and at one point, shed tears together over our shared struggles as Muslims trying to make sense of our place in the world.
Later that spring, two separate, credible sources told me that the police were watching me. Apparently, there was a file with my name on it somewhere. I was rattled. A year earlier, the Associated Press had released terrifying reports detailing how the New York Police Department (NYPD) had recruited a network of thousands of informants, sprawled across the city, to monitor Muslims. Fearful of this scrutiny, my friends and I temporarily disbanded our organization over the summer. But after a few weeks of internal deliberation, we decided to renew our activities. We weren’t doing anything wrong. We had no reason to stop.
In the fall of 2012, the young man confessed on Facebook that he was an informant for the NYPD. The person I’d come to consider a friend, who ate food cooked by my mother’s hands, admitted that it was all a front — and he said that there were others like him. This sent us reeling. Our sacred spaces had been violated. We didn’t know who to trust, or where we could turn for help. Did I have to vet all my friends and watch my back everywhere I went?
Bloomberg’s surveillance of Muslims extended beyond New York into Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and elsewhere. The program was so secretive and intrusive that Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, was not informed of it. Thousands of informants infiltrated Muslim sacred spaces, restaurants, cafes, student associations, businesses and other social settings to spy on and entrap ordinary people. The clandestine nature of this surveillance did not make it harmless: It caused significant, documented harm to Muslim communities: it dampened organizing, reduced religious practice and caused people to self-censor their political speech. It engendered social mistrust and fear among Muslims, and also between our communities and law enforcement.
In 2013, I joined a class-action lawsuit against NYPD’s discriminatory surveillance of Muslims, led by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and CUNY’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) project. The NYPD acknowledged in court that the Demographics Unit at the heart of this spying program, did not generate a single terrorism lead or produce any investigations. The lawsuit dragged on for years, and along the way, communities had to process the enormous mental and emotional trauma — the kind of damage that’s the hardest to quantify on paper. We finally reached a settlement in 2017, scoring some significant policy changes, which included prohibiting investigations in which race, religion, or ethnicity is a substantial or motivating factor; requiring articulable and factual information before the police can launch a preliminary investigation into political or religious activity; putting an end to open-ended investigations; and installing a civilian representative within the department.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, has remained unapologetic. In 2012, he even defended the surveillance, saying that the police had a duty to “keep this country safe.”
The policies that sent cops into predominantly black and Hispanic communities to harass residents are intimately linked to those that sent informants into sacred spaces to monitor and entrap Muslims. Black, Latinx, South Asian, Arab and Muslim populations — identities which often overlap — suffered enormously under Bloomberg’s administration. In the name of security, he pursued ineffective measures that harmed vulnerable populations. Stop-and-frisk, warrantless surveillance and similar policies compounded one another, leaving a lingering sense that we are unsafe in our own neighborhoods and gathering spaces. We still grapple with that legacy of intimidation and stigma today, even as Bloomberg himself refuses to reckon with it.
New Yorkers who came of age under Bloomberg were targeted in myriad ways by the NYPD, which he once called his “personal army.” We saw how he used his power on a local level. What he could unleash on a national level, with all the powers of the presidency, would far eclipse it.