Hamza Jiron was only 15 when he was first stopped by police officers on his way to his grandmother’s house with a box of pizza. Before he knew it he was pushed up against the wall of a nearby handball court near his home in Bushwick as an officer frisked him.
“All of a sudden police officers pulled up, stopped me, said that my description fit a drug dealer,” said Jiron, now 24, adding he was doubly targeted because he’s Latino and Muslim. “They even opened my pizza box, which was a bit ridiculous.”
Police stopped him again at 19, but this time only questioned him after saying his description fit that of robbery suspect. Bushwick is a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood and its 83rd Police precinct has the fourth highest number of stops recorded in Brooklyn, according to recent stop-and-frisk data released by the NYPD. For many of its residents, being stopped and frisked has become a way of life. But the practice can be doubly hard for its Muslim residents, who face suspicion both for their religion and skin color.
Mani Yousef also had her first encounter with the practice at age 15. She was on her way home from school with some friends when police approached her.
“Police officers singled me out from a group of friends I believe because I was the darkest skinned one out of them all,” said Yousef, who hails from Bangladesh.
They searched her pockets and asked to look through her backpack, too, but Yousef refused, saying they didn’t have a warrant. They let her go, but Yousef was stopped again a few months later. A youth leader for Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization of low-income South Asian immigrants, Yousef said Jackson Heights, Queens, with a large Indian and Bengali immigrant population, has that borough’s third highest stop-and-frisk rate.
“These are every day realit[ies] of low-income workers and youth in our communities,” the high school student said. “How are we supposed to feel safe living in an environment where we are seen as guilty until proven innocent by the NYPD?”
Speaking at the steps of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, Yousef was joined by a couple dozen fellow Muslims from different activist groups. They were voicing their opposition to stop-and-frisk and similar racial profiling policing practices like warrantless surveillance of their community, as the second session of the trial examining the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy was underway.
“The trial is exposing things we already know as a community — that the NYPD has been considering skin color alone as reasonable suspicion and probable cause,” said Muneer Awad, executive director of the New York chapter of the Council of American and Islamic Relations.
Nahal Zamani from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought forth the lawsuit, said many people who have been stopped and frisked no longer feel safe outside, even near their homes and and members of the community say they are afraid to attend their local mosques for prayer and engage in other activities together because the police might be spying on them.
“[W]hat comes as commonality between different types of discriminatory policing practices which include stop-and-frisk and the surveillance of Muslim communities is that entire communities are bearing the costs of an NYPD out of control accountable to no one,” said Zamani
A recent report by the CUNY Law School’s CLEAR project, Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition along with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, examined the effects of police monitoring of Muslims. It details how many Muslims are afraid to dress in traditional clothing, talk about politics, watch news channels in their workplaces, or associate with new converts to Islam as well as people they know, out of suspicion that they might be police informants.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is also suing the NYPD on behalf of 11 Muslim plaintiffs from New Jersey for targeting them for surveillance solely based on their religious affiliation.
In addition to taking cases to court, grassroots organization are pushing their elected leaders to pass legislation against discriminatory policing policies like the Community Safety Act, which calls for police to document more specifically why they stop people and the establishment of an inspector general position to oversee the NYPD, said Awad.
Mayor Bloomberg has said he would veto any proposal calling for the latter even though the City Council supports it.
Councilman Robert Jackson, who co-chairs the city’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus and filed an amicus brief to speak out against stop-and-frisk, called for an end to “unlawful, unconstitutional” NYPD practices.
“Walking while black and praying while Muslim is not a crime,” he said reiterating the message on a poster held by an activist standing nearby. “This is what’s happening to so many people; they’re being stopped because of their skin color.”
Ayisha Irfan, a recent college graduate who attended Brooklyn College — designated by the NYPD as a place “of concern” — attended the Floyd trial to stand in solidarity with the plaintiffs, and hoped the trial would lead to the dismantling of heavy-handed police tactics.
“The implications that either stop-and-frisk and surveillance have are us essentially living in a police state,” she said. “So once you combat a little bit of that it’s a huge victory as a whole.”
Amid chants of “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Stop-and-frisk has got to go!” Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid of the Islamic leadership council of Metropolitan New York said that he was standing in solidarity with the younger people often targeted by the NYPD.
“We don’t have the big bucks of Mayor Bloomberg and we don’t have the PR machine of Ray Kelly but we have the truth on our side,” he said. “And we intend to be here and continue to be here until this problem which is fueled by institutional racism is solved once and for all.”