Recently news broke of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) unbridled, secret surveillance of Muslim communities and organizations, monitoring intimate aspects of people’s lives and designating entire mosques as terrorist organizations without evidence. I reacted to this with a familiar combination of rage and fatigue.
In an interview on Huffington Post, Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York expressed a similar lack of surprise, while calling these police practices a “new low.”
The NYPD’s approach to counterterrorism policing seems to start from a place that all Muslims are inherently suspect, raising serious civil rights and safety concerns… Subjecting whole communities to blanket surveillance because of their faith is not good policing. These tactics alienate law-abiding Muslims and deepen mistrust between law enforcement and communities. That breakdown in communication puts all New Yorkers at risk.
The criminalization of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities has become appallingly, shockingly normalized in the War on Terror. For a decent yet disturbing roundup of the policies of terror waged against AMEMSA communities since 9/11, check out this article. The writer does a pretty good job of summarizing, but he also makes a common mistake, attributing the origins of this story to 9/11. In reality, the beginnings are much older.
Nineteenth Century western imperialism created false human hierarchies to justify white supremacy. It used these racial hierarchies to rationalize war, genocide, and slavery – strategies that led to the buildup of wealth and power for some through the hyper-exploitation and destruction of others. The criminalization of AMEMSA communities today is rooted in the idea of a permanent, foreign threat to American interests that demands a constant state of war. This is a centuries-old, divided view of the world into two realms: civilized and uncivilized, friend and foe. In claiming to protect the civilized realm from harm, the United States manipulates ideas of “freedom” and “democracy”, while in fact putting these goals out of reach for entire groups of people through militarized violence, criminalization and policing.
The NYPD’s police practices are also rooted in slavery and anti-black racism. After the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, slavery had officially ended and blacks were granted citizenship. But brutal legal systems of racial control in the South granted broad police powers to regulate all aspects of black life. States throughout the South passed so-called Black Codes – laws restricting black people’s right to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land, and move freely through public spaces.
Fast forward a century later, to Nixon’s War on Crime and War on Drugs, declared after the passage of federal Civil Rights legislation. Just as the federal government yielded to demands for an end to racial discrimination, these domestic wars kicked off the massive expansion of a racialized criminal justice system that scholar Michelle Alexander now aptly calls The New Jim Crow. Today, there are more black people under the control of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850, and the United States is by far the largest jailor in the world. As for the reasons behind Nixon’s War on Crime, contrary to popular belief, scholar Naomi Murakawa points out, the “US did not confront a crime problem that was then racialized[;] it confronted a race problem that was then criminalized” – a race problem rooted in the formation of the United States. Throughout U.S. history, every step toward black liberation has been met with a countering surge in anti-black violence and criminalization.
This history raises important questions for the racial justice movement about the meaning of words like democracy, freedom, and security, when U.S. projects claiming to advance these aims clearly undermine them in reality. As acts of self-defense, we are often tempted to fall back on phrases like “law-abiding” and “hard-working” to distinguish ourselves and assert our rights, or to make overly visible gestures of patriotism like flag-waving and participation in U.S. wars. But these very words and actions feed into the divisions between “us” and “them,” between “friend” and “foe,” between “deserving” and “undeserving” – divisions that have life-threatening impacts for the most vulnerable peoples of the world, both within and beyond U.S. borders.
From the War on Crime to the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, increasingly, this us-versus-them way of sorting humanity is what “makes” race today, by dictating whose lives are safeguarded by the alleged American promise of freedom and democracy, and whose are not; and by normalizing the brutality of criminalization, mass incarceration, and war.