Photo by Spencer Platt via Getty Images
A new documentary, "Watched," examines the story of an undercover NYPD officer who spent four years infiltrating a group of Muslim college students—and the harrowing psychological effects on two young Muslim women who had to live under such invasive surveillance.
"I wonder what I could have become if this hadn't happened," says M in a heartrending short documentary that premiered at the Tribeca film festival Thursday. Watched tells the story of two Muslim students preyed upon by an undercover NYPD officer, "Mel," who came to Brooklyn College (BC) to spy on Muslim and other political students from 2011 to 2015.
Mel arrived at BC with a story about being raised in a Turkish secular family. On her very first day on campus, Mel "converted" to Islam in front of a group of Muslim students, saying she wanted to explore her religious roots. For four years, she tagged along to Muslim student events, on campus and off, asked questions about students' religious and political beliefs, and procured invitations to meetings they were attending. Exploiting the welcoming nature of Muslim students, she went to their picnics and get-togethers, visited their homes, and even served as a bridesmaid in one woman's wedding. Some students began to have questions about her but were powerless to do anything. Who do you go to if you suspect an undercover cop is in your midst? (The NYPD has admitted to sending an undercover operative to BC in an "approved investigation," but said it came to nothing.)
The film charts the devastating effects of such prolonged surveillance: the anxiety and self-doubt it produced in students, the diminishing of what these political and religious young women felt they could do or say, the mistrust it generated amongst students, the way it made them feel less safe in public, and the fears of being jailed like other Muslims they knew. Fundamentally, even as the election of Donald Trump has brought the issue of Islamophobia to the fore, Watched is a rare portrayal of the devastating impacts of policing on young Muslim lives. While Muslim Americans are constantly talked about in the public sphere, we seldom hear their unmediated voices. Watched is a rare journalistic endeavor, one in which we are able listen to American Muslim women speak about their experiences coming of age in post-9/11 America—without any other voices cutting in.
Mel first arrived at BC in April 2011, a few months before the Associated Press broke a series of explosive stories revealing that the NYPD created a special unit, called the Demographics Unit, in order to map Muslims throughout the New York metro area, and sent operatives into restaurants, mosques, bookstores, and student associations. In the aftermath of the AP's reporting and subsequent outcry, many thought that the mass surveillance against Muslims had ended: The revelations prompted the closure of Demographics Unit by de Blasio and a new era of policing. Two lawsuits filed against the NYPD by Muslim people who had been subject to surveillance were recently settled, which seemed to seal the deal—in fact, when news outlets covered the recent settlement, they used the past tense to describe NYPD surveillance of Muslims. Yet Mel spent her time at Brooklyn College largely after the publication of the AP reports, and her presence continued for more than a year after de Blasio came into office. Watched serves as a devastating rebuttal to the notion that mass surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers is a thing of the past.
Who do you go to if you suspect an undercover cop is in your midst?
The backdrop to Mel's time on campus is the case of another BC student, Fahad Hashmi. An extremely outspoken Muslim, Hashmi graduated Brooklyn College in 2003 and got his masters at London Metropolitan University. In 2006, he was arrested on four charges of material support to Al Qaeda for allowing a friend to stay in his London student apartment for two weeks and use his cell phone. The friend had luggage that contained raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks that the friend allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan. Hashmi spent three years in pre-trial solitary confinement in Manhattan, and the day before trial took a government plea bargain. At the time Mel came to campus, a number of Muslim students had previously been active in exposing the rights abuses in his case.
Disturbingly, one of the lessons Mel's time on campus has produced is more fear—that raising questions about the treatment of Muslims only brings more targeting. Fears about being watched are not only about privacy. There is also the more paralyzing anxiety that you or a loved one could end up behind bars. As Mel's case plainly illustrates, there is a fundamental problem with how law enforcement operates towards Muslims.
Beginning under Clinton and dramatically escalating after 9/11 under Bush and Obama, and likely to grow under Donald Trump, the reigning dogma became "preventive prosecution." A new law banning "material support" to terrorism (defined as "any service, training, [or] expert advice or assistance" to a group designated by the government as a foreign terrorist organization), passed in 1996 and expanded with the PATRIOT Act, making it possible to prosecute with an extremely low standard of proof. It's a prosecutor's dream: Material-support charges require no criminal act nor direct contact with terrorists, just the knowing "support" of a foreign terrorist organization. They often focus on small acts and religious and political associations, which take on sinister meaning as ostensible manifestations of forthcoming terrorism.
To catch a crime in the absence of a plot requires the criminalization of previously legal behavior, a regime of surveillance to figure out who pre-criminals might be, and a theory to identify these persons. The reigning theory is radicalization: that the increasing politicization and religiosity of young Muslims can lead to eventual criminal conduct. FBI and NYPD informants are instructed to listen for "anti-American" sentiments, latch on to those individuals expressing "suspect" political beliefs and prod them to see if they are interested in taking action. Half of the terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 have involved informants, and more than a quarter have employed government sting operations. In some cases, even according to judges, the government has manufactured the plot and provided all the materials from beginning to end.
One of the students featured in the documentary. Photo via "Watched"
Watched is an intimate portrayal of what it means to survive the most invasive form of surveillance, and it lays bare what is almost totally invisibilized when it comes to the question of Muslim surveillance: the personal cost to its victims. Many Americans claim, "If you're not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?" In Watched, we see how surveillance traumatized a group of young women, sowed mistrust within a community of faith, and compelled young people to police their own minds, words, and political imaginaries.
In the film, another student, R, describes her fear by drawing on Foucault's concept of the panopticon. To secure compliance, the state does not have to watch every Muslim at every moment, she explains—if Muslims are sufficiently afraid of the state's power, they'll surveil and curtail their own behavior in terms of what political thoughts they express, whether to participate in Muslim student association activities, which mosque to attend or not. The political utility of stifling political expression and critique within Muslim American communities comes into view.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, Americans of all political persuasions were outraged by government intrusion over their private lives. And the kind of surveillance endured by Muslims is far more personal, intrusive, and damaging than the electronic monitoring and harvesting of meta-data that the Snowden files revealed. Why are Muslim Americans presumed to have no right to privacy, to political and religious expression, to feel safe in public and in their most intimate relationships?
What makes Watched so powerful is that it forces audiences to confront the actual impact of surveillance on the lives of American Muslims. Since 9/11, American Muslims have been expected to shoulder the burden of government intrusion for the presumed safety of the rest of us. Watched demands that we grapple with the nature of that burden through the voices of those who have experienced it firsthand.
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