By Zainab Iqbal
Published: November 8th, 2017
“In other words, there could be an informant in this room?” a student asked. “Yes,” the panel simultaneously answered.
On Thursday, Nov. 2, after the second campus airing of “Watched”, a 19-minute documentary about the New York Police Department (NYPD) undercover agent surveilling Muslim students at Brooklyn College, a discussion amongst concerned Muslims and faculty erupted: what can the administration do to make students feel safe on campus?
The panel after the screening included political science professor Jeanne Theoharis, the journalist who broke the story, Aviva Stahl, and anthropology student Anumta Raheel. Dr. Naomi Schiller, an anthropology professor, acted as a moderator.
“Watched” was first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in the beginning of this year. It follows the story of “Mel,” an undercover NYPD informant at Brooklyn College from 2011 to 2015. Every year, the Islamic clubs on campus hold discussions and meetings similar to “Ask a Muslim,” and every year, a couple of students convert to Islam. A woman named Mel attended one of those meetings four years ago. She explained that she was born Muslim but was not religious. At the end, she got up and took the Shahada, a declaration of Muslim faith.
In the documentary, we are introduced to two young Muslim students from BC. They are identified by the first initial of their names: R and M.
According to the two young women, Mel soon became very close with everyone at the Muslim Student Association (MSA). She was invited to get-togethers, weddings, and even inside their homes. She had become a part of the MSA life.
Usually when people convert to Islam, they ask a lot of questions: are they doing something right? Why is it this way and not the other way? Sometimes, people even struggle with their new faith. But according to M, Mel did not ask these questions, nor did she have any problems. In fact, she didn’t ask anything for a year and a half.
The first question she asked? It was about suicide bombing.
During the time, the Associated Press (AP) was breaking a series of stories exposing the NYPD surveillance of Muslims in NY, whether it were in mosques or restaurants. Also during that time, Theoharis and R were doing a one-year long independent study on surveillance and the impact it has on Muslim students.
“In retrospect, there’s something super scary and chilling about the fact that R and I are doing her senior thesis on surveillance and the impact on Muslim students in NY at the same time Mel is befriending R and her friends,” Theoharis said.
In spring of 2015, there was a completely separate arrest made in NY. According to Theoharis, the NYPD boasted that an undercover cop was key to that case. The name of the cop? Mel.
R and M had already feared Mel was undercover, but they did not know who to turn to. After all, who would believe them without any legitimate proof?
“Do you tell the authorities there’s an informant in your community? The same authorities that send undercovers in your community?” R questioned in the film.
The captivating documentary then showed the aftermath of surveilling Muslim students on campus. It is the idea of being perpetually watched that scares Muslim students, according to R.
“I wonder what I would’ve been if this didn’t happen,” M said. “I think I would’ve been amazing.”
Though this incident took place over four years, ending in spring of 2015, neither the City of University of New York (CUNY) nor the Brooklyn College administration has yet to make a strong statement condemning the act of NYPD surveilling members of the community.
At a Policy Council meeting in Nov. 2015, then-BC President Karen Gould said that neither she nor the director of Public Safety knew about the surveillance. According to the minutes of the meeting, she then asked the Dean of Student Affairs to “encourage students to know those who participate in their club events.”
But that is not enough, as students and faculty reiterated in the Woody Tanger Auditorium. There is a constant fear that this may happen again, or may currently be happening at the moment. Mel was not enrolled at BC, though she may have had some sort of identification to be allowed on campus.
“It’s totally plausible and probable that BC didn’t know Mel was here,” Stahl said. “I don’t know if schools can do much to protect students; they just might not know. But they could express their feelings on what happened.”
In Jan. of last year, a settlement was reached on a pair of lawsuits over the NYPD targeting the Muslim community through surveillance, a very important development. According to Theoharis’ article in the Intercept, though, the settlement is not enough.
“It does not preclude investigations like what happened at Brooklyn College,” Theoharis said at the panel. “They don’t have to reveal publicly that they sent an undercover cop to BC. They can still do that. Under the settlement, they have to have an articulable reason to do so, but that reason does not have to be articulated to the public.”
Though it’s now been two years since Mel’s undercover surveillance ended, Muslim students don’t feel comfortable.
“Through my interaction with Muslim students, and me as a Muslim woman, I’m constantly censoring myself, how I talk to people. That in itself is a form of surveillance,” Raheel said. “The NYPD doesn’t have to have someone here right now to be spying on us. The fact that I’m censoring myself on how I talk, that’s one of their ways of manipulation on Muslim communities.”
Students and faculty at the screening were then able to ask questions. One Muslim student expressed her concerns on simply being able to speak.
“This issue is so heavy on the Muslim community that a lot of us feel hesitant to immerse ourselves in this political atmosphere,” the student said. “This is doing a disservice to us. How do we immerse ourselves in this narrative? How do we heal ourselves from what is a very imminently damaging situation?”
The same student brought up Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP), a political club that used to be very active. According to the student, SJP was “really out there. It would have events every once in awhile,” but that has changed. “SJP kind of got bullied out by administration,” according to another student.
“I think what happened with Muslim students is that they’re just too afraid to say something political,” Raheel said. “If the school released a stronger support for our Muslim community, I think SJP would restart again, and we would be more inclined to be politically engaged.”
After the AP released a document showing the NYPD was improperly surveilling MSA’s around the city in 2012, the president of Yale University, Richard Levin, released a statement condemning it.
“I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms, that police surveillance based on religion, nationality or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community and the United States,” the letter stated. He then reiterated the importance of MSA on campus.
“The Yale Muslim Students Association has been an important source of support for Yale students during a period when Muslims and Islam itself have too often been the target of thoughtless stereotyping, misplaced fear and bigotry.”
CUNY Chancellor James Milliken has yet to make a statement at all, and students believe President Michelle Anderson needs to show her full support.
According to Theoharis, when Mel came out, CUNY faculty sent a letter to Milliken expressing outrage and need for a meeting. One of the things brought up to the faculty at the meeting was how to condemn something that is legal.
“Certainly if we look at the history of the US, most of the worst oppressive things in this country’s history have been legal…from slavery, to internment, to McCarthyism, to Jim Crow,” Theoharis said. “The faculty at that meeting said you’re an educational institution, your responsibility is to talk about what this is doing to students’ education, to the climate on campus…just because something is legal and legalized, doesn’t mean that it’s ok.”