In New York, Ambivalence Over Muslim Surveillance

NEW YORK (AP) — Vicki Grouzis shook her head in disbelief. Police are watching Arabs and Muslims in New York City? Often with no evidence of wrongdoing?

She frowned and dismissively waved a hand in the air.

“It’s a free country. This is not supposed to happen in America,” said Grouzis, who came here from Greece 35 years ago. And yet …

“I say yes, and I say no. It’s good for the United States, but not good for everybody.”

There is an ambivalence among many New Yorkers in the wake of an Associated Press investigation showing that after 9/11, police began spying on Muslim and Arab neighborhoods, often based only on ethnicity. The competing impulses of civic welcome and civic safety are evident throughout the boroughs.

Suspicion has long been part of the New York immigrant experience. From Italians accused of pledging allegiance to the pope to Germans feared to be signaling submarines outside the harbor, many newcomers have struggled to prove themselves truly American — especially in times of conflict.

Grouzis knows this history. She also knows that today, New York is filled with ethnic groups who overcame obstacles to carve out influential spaces in city life — Italians, Jews, Irish, blacks, Asians, Puerto Ricans and more.

“The people make this city great,” Grouzis said from behind the counter of a dry cleaning and tailor shop in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. Outside the front window was a busy Steinway Street, lined with businesses including numerous Arab shops and cafes; Brazilian markets; a tae kwon do studio; a Mexican hookah cafe; Italian coffee shops; a Domino’s and Dunkin’ Donuts; Chinese and French restaurants; and Sissy McGinty’s Irish bar.

Many New Yorkers, remembering the immigrant story of struggle followed by success, speak of the NYPD surveillance almost like a rite of passage — even as they decry it as unjust.

“It takes awhile for any new nationality to assimilate,” said Nancy Cogen, who for 39 years has owned The Melting Pot, a batik clothing store near downtown Brooklyn. “It used to be the Irish, Germans, Puerto Ricans. Now I guess it’s the Arab world’s turn.”

Like most people interviewed for this story, Cogen did not think the current surveillance should be legal: “I don’t want to live in a police state, and I don’t think any religion or nationality should have to.”

But she said that since 9/11, she has become more willing to tolerate intrusions for safety’s sake. “We have no privacy anymore,” she said.

One place with less privacy is the section of Steinway Street with a heavy Arab and Muslim presence. It was targeted by NYPD surveillance and many photographs were taken there, according to documents obtained by the AP.

Inside the Kabab CafDe on Steinway, Ali A El Sayed pointed to an “Ethnic Map of Manhattan” on the wall of the narrow restaurant he has owned for 25 years.

Dated 1919, the map delineated color-coded neighborhoods for groups such as Germans, Russian Jews, Austro-Hungarians, Negroes, and one called “Syrians, Turks, Armenians and Greeks.”

“Everything colored in on that map was bad,” said Sayed, who came here from his native Egypt 35 years ago.

He was not surprised that police were watching his neighborhood — it’s common knowledge among Muslims that they are under surveillance. But he was angered and saddened by what he saw as a failure to respect the American ideal of freedom.

“In 2011, all this commotion about a black president, and we still have police stopping a guy because of his race,” Sayed said. “It’s time to correct our vision,” he said. “In this country, Middle Eastern guys are mostly small guys, small businesses, trying to make a living for their families.”

Many of the surveillance operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans but helped transform NYPD intelligence after 9/11.

The program sent undercover officers into Muslim and Arab neighborhoods. Informants infiltrated mosques and student groups. People who changed their Muslim names to ones that sound more traditionally American — a timeless method of assimilating into this country — were placed on secret lists.

Molly Seitz, who moved to New York 17 years ago, said her Irish great-grandfather couldn’t get hired on the docks of Boston, so he changed his name.

“This (suspicion) has been happening since the beginning of time,” Seitz said as she ate lunch near downtown Brooklyn with a friend.

The two women did not want police to single out suspects based only on religion or ethnicity. But “we just need a way to strike a balance. You can’t deny there’s danger,” Seitz said.

Some had no problem with what police are doing, calling it justified to protect against the danger of another terrorist attack.

“It’s sad to pick them out. I don’t feel just because they’re Muslim they’re bad,” said Joe Giallo, a New York native and owner of a Brooklyn antique store.

“But if the police feel any Muslim has to be pulled out, they should,” he said. “I still think it’s safer that way. It’s better to be sure than not sure.”

Lynn Villafane, a waitress who lives in Manhattan, said innocent people should have nothing to hide.

“I see it both ways,” she said. “It’s the protection of the country, but it’s kind of invading their privacy. But in the long run, as long as we’re safe, they’re doing it for good reasons.”

“If (an attack) happens again, they’ll blame the government, the police, and say `why weren’t you watching?”‘ Villafane said.

Other minorities have complaints about New York police; blacks and Hispanics say they are subject to unwarranted police intrusions, including a “stop-and-frisk” policy targeting anyone deemed suspicious. Police defend those strategies as necessary to combat crime, while the surveillance operations, they say, are important to secure a city that was the target of terrorists.

Evan Milligan, an Alabama native now in law school at New York University, visited the city often in the mid-1990s, living for weeks at a time with his brother. Today, “I can tell 9/11 affected the psyche of the city. I can feel the difference.”

Yet he still feels that newcomers are welcome here, from Alabama and beyond.

“The soul of this city to me is its working people that built some of the most fascinating subways, bridges, tunnels, graffiti, culture, types of music, creative works,” Milligan said. “The people that work and build things across all walks of life, there’s that soul, like, we can do it. That soul is always welcoming people to New York.”

What do you think about the surveillance and other techniques used by the New York Police Department? Tell us in our comments section below.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

  • James Huberty

    The NYPD surveillance in question is no more invasive than, say , .
    being hit by a radar gun just because you happen to be driving down a highway. Should AAA organize prayer vigils outside 1 Police Plaza?

  • hh

    Corrupt U.S. Military Intel employees (Defense Intelligence Agency) and CIA where using the threat of rendition to extort money from fictitious suspects.

    That is why they where kicked out of Italy.

  • LibertyOrDie

    We were warned in 1968. Who killed RFK? How soon we forget.

  • mitch

    I would not care if the police wanted to watch me, follow me 24 hours a day, 7 days aweek. I am not doing anything wrong and I have nothing to hide. I am willing to give up a little piece of my privacy if it means that my familey and freiends are ab it safer from extreamists and nut jobs.

  • LibertyOrDie

    Vicki Grouzis says: “It’s a free country.” She’s right for now. But if the Muslims have their way it won’t be. Islam calls itself the religion of peace. Prove it. Thank you NYPD for all you do. You can check my bag and listen to my phone call anyday of the year.

  • caleb goldfarb

    The Great Satan Allah will burn in the Eternal Hell.

  • Jefferson Davis

    These filthy stinking sand snakes need the business end of a Confederate horsewhip.

  • Will McQ

    It is disconcerting that AP and 1010WINS think that surveilling Muslims is newswoworthy or a reason for pause or concern. If they were not, if the FBI and NYPD were not watching Muslims they would be negligent and certainly not fulfilling their fiduciary duty to protect and serve the people of NYC and this country. Where else should they be looking in an attempt to be proactive and possibly gather intel that would allow them to prevent another 9/11?

  • ttrue nyc

    And the issue is?

  • Winston Smith

    BTW, The folks who hijacked the planes that destroyed the Twin Towers and murdered thousands were “just another man on the street”, sometimes, for YEARS before they got into those airplanes.

  • Winston Smith

    ““It used to be the Irish, Germans, Puerto Ricans …” How many Irish bombed major, international buildings, how many citizens of Germany are screaming “DEATH TO AMERICA!”,how many devoutly religious Puerto Ricans insist “Believe MY way or DIE!? There IS a difference!

    • BF

      A lot of Irish bombed major, international buildings. They called themselves the “IRA” or the “Irish Republican Army”.

      • Winston Smith

        OK, but note the words you use: “bombED” and “callED” – PAST tense and there was nowhere near the damage and body count. Still, there is NO ONE GROUP who have, are and, apparently, will continue with all three except …

  • Jerry

    Until we can enjoy a world devoid of religious fanatics we will continue to be vigilant to all threats.
    If muslims were not continually trying to harm americans we would not have these suspicians

  • yousef

    thank you verey mouch and am verey happy living in this countrey almost about22 years after9/11 meain target is arabs any proplems comes arabs arabs is first people to be pointed too or moslimes like nobody live in this city or this countreyexpet them u forgat there is arab md in many hospetal or teachers did you go to visit the arab schools in the city see what they learn from there we worke hard in this countrey we love it the way or mor than u think if one is bad dose not mean all of us the same same thing withe police

  • Pete

    There are times when liberals lack common sense. They are willing to jeopardize a city’s safety for ‘freedom’ … but then they want to tell me what car I can drive and what light-bulbs that I can use etc. How ironic.

  • u

    Corrupt FBI and DEA use no-knock warrants to enter suspect’s homes while they are away and steal items.

    They mostly steal watches, jewelry and less frequently expensive prescription drugs by returning a second time and swapping them with fakes.

    Some of them where stealing wear item parts off of cars, swapping them with old worn out parts from their personal autos and in some cases leaving the auto in a dangerous state.

  • pugphan

    I know you mulism are reading this so this is for you. Prophets prophecy, so what were your prophets prophecies? They do divine works…what were yours? They
    also perform miracles, again what were Muhan’s? These works are essential in the
    Judeo christian belief.

  • Marina Ios

    each time this topic is brought up, one single thought pops in my mind:
    if one is honest and has nothing to hide, why so much drama that authorities are keeping an eye on you????
    it happened to me in a subway station in manhattan some time ago, when they were inspecting backpacks, i got stopped and they looked inside my bag
    i am not from arabic or muslim origin, but one officer found it necessarry to check my backpack.
    let me tell you that, not only i did not get upset or frustrated, i was actually happy that someone is doing some efforts so we dont get blown up by some lunatic in a subway while going home from work

    • Ellen

      Marina, I agree with you 100 per cent and think you have a great deal of common sense on this. I would not be offended at all if a cop felt it necessary to inspect any thing I carried along for reasons of safety. And this country is still a lot better when it comes to surveillance then let’s say other countries particularly in the Arab world where you would get jailed for just blinking the wrong way. Rather living here then there that’s for sure.

      • MF

        We already knew what happen when radicals went without surveillance. 9/11, London, Madrid, Iraq, Afghanistan ……….

        And all you want to do is to take my pictures and search my bags for my own safety.

        You go a problem with that ? What are you hiding in your wallet ?

  • Bartholomew Harte

    It makes sense to me-and it IS NOT Racial Profiling as some folks would argue,
    what It Is is keeping an eye out for Islamic Radicals whose agenda is the End
    of freedom and the beginning of totalitarialism.I learnedall i needed to know about “Islam” in 1993, and say to the N.Y.P.D. GOOD JOB!

    • Ellen

      Bartholomew, great post. It’s the radicals we are concerned about and that would go for any religion or nationality. Great Job NYPD, and keep it up.

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