In 2016, Republican presidential candidates were openly fantasizing about surveilling and spying on Muslims. Yet just a few years earlier, in the nation’s biggest city, a Republican mayor had succeeded in going beyond mere rhetoric: Michael Bloomberg oversaw the mass warrantless, suspicionless surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers, as the New York Police Department “mapped” where they prayed, ate, studied, and worked.
Today, the billionaire media mogul is polling third in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and has secured endorsements from dozens of high-profile Democratic mayors and members of Congress.
I cannot help but ask: Have these elected Democrats lost their minds? Have Democratic voters in, say, Florida, where Bloomberg is now leading in the polls, taken leave of their senses?
After all, that record is pretty indisputable. Much of the damning evidence against Bloomberg and the NYPD was amassed and documented by the Associated Press in a wide-ranging, Pulitzer Prize-winning, and devastating series of articles published in 2011.
During Bloomberg’s three-term tenure as mayor of New York, the NYPD worked with the CIA to deploy teams of undercover agents, known as “rakers,” into Muslim neighborhoods to gather information. “They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs,” reported the AP. “Police have also used informants, known as ‘mosque crawlers,’ to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. NYPD officials have scrutinized imams and gathered intelligence on cab drivers and food cart vendors, jobs often done by Muslims.” The AP also noted that on one occasion officials “even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students’ names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.”
The NYPD, added the New York Times, “eavesdropped on thousands of conversations between Muslims in restaurants and stores in New York City and New Jersey and on Long Island.” Paid informants were “under orders to ‘bait’ Muslims into saying inflammatory things.”
In 2015, a federal court ruling compared the ethnic profiling and covert surveillance of Muslim communities living in Bloomberg’s New York to the discrimination faced by “Jewish Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II.”
As with stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg defended surveillance as a vital crimefighting measure. “We have to keep this country safe,” he declared in 2012 — despite the fact that the surveillance of Muslims in New York produced “not one actionable piece of intelligence,” as even NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton later admitted.
Yet on stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg has since apologized, telling a black church last November, “I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong.” Last week, he apologized again to African American communities, saying that he had failed to “understand then the unintended pain it was causing to young black and brown families and their kids.” Whether we accept or even believe Bloomberg’s half-hearted and belated apology for stop-and-frisk, at least he felt the need to offer one.
But what about his warrantless surveillance of Muslims? What of the pain caused to young Muslim families and their kids? There has been no apology, no regret, no contrition whatsoever from the former mayor turned presidential candidate for his role in what has been described by civil rights activists as “one of the most chilling campaigns against religious liberty in modern American history.”
Nor does Bloomberg’s wider record on Muslims and Islam inspire much confidence. Yes, he defended the construction of a controversial Muslim community center in lower Manhattan; yes, he has criticized Trump’s Muslim ban. But the former Republican mayor has also referred to the “crazy Islamic world” while heaping praise on the Chinese dictatorship, perhaps the most Islamophobic government on earth right now. There are multiple tweets from Bloomberg praising the Chinese Communists for their record on climate change; zero tweets condemning their mass detention of the Uighur Muslims.
But back to surveillance: In recent days, with the emergence of audio recordings of Bloomberg making racist remarks and the renewed debate over stop-and-frisk, a number of public figures and activists have declared that they cannot bring themselves to vote for Bloomberg if he is the Democratic candidate against Trump. The Muslim American angle is important to consider here: On Sunday, Asad Dandia, a young Islamic studies graduate from Brooklyn who was a victim of the NYPD surveillance program, tweeted about the “enormous mental and emotional stress” that it caused to him and his family and called Bloomberg a “monster.”
Bloomberg terrorized me and my people. His surveillance brought enormous mental and emotional stress to my parents, who *still* ask me to vet any new friends.
Like my brother Raf, I will never shame folks for refusing to vote for that monster. I may even join them in abstaining. https://t.co/itRXU4vUF8
— Asad Dandia (@DandiaAsad) February 16, 2020
But isn’t Trump worse than Bloomberg? The greater evil? Of course he is. It’s worth noting, however, that the former Republican mayor’s surveillance of Muslims in New York earned the praise and admiration of one particular Republican presidential candidate during the 2016 GOP primaries.
“You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques, because a lot of talk is going on at the mosques,” candidate Trump told MSNBC. “And from what I heard, in the old days … we had great surveillance going on in and around mosques in New York City.”
To be clear: Bloomberg spied on Muslim Americans. Trump praised him for it. And now, some Democrats want Bloomberg to defeat and replace Trump in November.
So I ask again: Have they lost their minds?