December 16, 2013
photo: Professor Ramzi Kassem at a press conference in June announcing a lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s surveillance of innocent Muslim New Yorkers. Photograph courtesy the ACLU
Imagine you’re about to walk out of your home to head to work. But as you open the door, you see someone waiting for you who claims to be a law enforcement agent. He says he just wants to ask some questions about your background, the mosque you attend, and your views about current world events.
Do you comply?
“You are not under any legal obligation to answer any question, period,” advised Professor Ramzi Kassem, a supervising attorney with CUNY Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility project, known as CLEAR. “In that situation, it is everyone’s right in our country to politely, but firmly, refuse to answer questions without the benefit of counsel.”
This kind of essential advice is what Muslim, Arab, or South Asian workshop attendees—anyone from New York City neighborhoods under post-9/11 surveillance by law enforcement agents—can gain from CLEAR, which brings know-your-rights workshops straight into affected communities.
CLEAR is a cross-clinical project between the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic (INRC) that Kassem directs and Professor Steve Zeidman’s Criminal Defense Clinic. It aims to help those targeted by intelligence operations live their dayto- day lives.
“Our work lies at the intersection of so-called ‘security’ law, immigration, and criminal law,” said Kassem, who helped found the project with a group of students in 2009. “We draw on skills and expertise from students in those two clinics.”
CLEAR seeks to raise awareness while providing pro bono legal representation and counseling to clients. To tackle underlying issues, the project added an advocacy focus, pushing for policy changes, whether within the New York City Council, the U.S. Department of Justice, or another body. The aim is to bring more accountability to law enforcement agencies operating in New York City.
In CLEAR know-your-rights workshops, individuals learn how to respond to unprovoked questioning by playing out scenarios enacted by CLEAR students, attorneys, and volunteers drawn from the communities where the sessions take place.
“When you have agents or detectives with the New York City Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the Department of Homeland Security asking questions that have nothing to do with an actual investigation,” Kassem said, “we think of it as an intelligence fishing expedition to find out about a community.”
It’s something that’s been going on since the 9/11 attacks, and is still quite common, as CLEAR has documented in New York City neighborhoods where surveillance occurs.
“At our know-your-rights workshops, we often ask…how many people have been or know someone who has been approached by law enforcement for questioning. In some mosques, every hand in the room will go up,” said Diala Shamas, a staff attorney with CLEAR. Law enforcement wants to “find out more about community, religious practices, political beliefs, where people go to pray, what imams are saying in mosques,” she said.
This past spring, Shamas coauthored a report with CUNY Law Clinical Professor Nermeen Arastu titled “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims” (see press release). The report, published by CLEAR and an allied nonprofit, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, on behalf of the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, captured the voices of law-abiding people targeted by the NYPD’s extensive surveillance program. The report found that the NYPD has spied on American Muslims throughout the Northeast at neighborhood cafes and places of worship, and even infiltrated a student whitewater-rafting trip.
The NYPD’s activities first came to light through a series of Pulitzer Prize–winning articles that the Associated Press began publishing in 2011.
Such sweeping surveillance has affected many different communities, stifling speech, communal life, and religious practice, according to report coauthor Arastu, a supervising attorney with CLEAR and in the INRC.
“The NYPD specifically targeted those individuals who fell within one of their 28 ‘ancestries of interest,’” said Arastu. “Nearly all of these specified ‘ancestries’ were nations with majority-Muslim or large Muslim populations, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, and former Soviet states. ‘American Black Muslims’ were also singled out on this list.
“The surveillance of those with Muslim ‘ancestries’ spanned various professions, included many colleges and universities, and went beyond the state borders,” she said. “The focus has been on any who identify as Muslim or appear to be from a Muslim-majority country, including natural-born U.S. citizens.”
It was against this backdrop that CLEAR and its partners, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit in June of 2013 against the City of New York, challenging the NYPD’s surveillance of innocent Muslim New Yorkers. The plaintiffs in Raza v. City of New York include the religious leader Hamid Hassan Raza, as well as two other religious and community leaders, two mosques, and one charitable organization. All the plaintiffs “have been subject to the NYPD’s unconstitutional religious profiling program,” according to the suit.
It’s impressive to see CLEAR’s progress and observe how Kassem’s team of supervisory attorneys has come together in the four years since the project began. At the beginning, Kassem had just started at CUNY Law, after finishing two years teaching at Yale Law School.
He knew Shamas as a law student, as they worked together on a case he supervised at Yale. Shamas worked with the National Litigation Project, litigating cases stemming from post-9/11 detention policies. When she graduated from Yale, she joined CLEAR with the support of an Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellowship.
Arastu had collaborated as co-counsel with Kassem on a matter in immigration court before joining CUNY Law’s faculty this summer. She had been a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she led the Immigrant Rights Program and Post-9/11 Civil Liberties Project.
At the time Arastu was contemplating working at CUNY Law, she was working at a corporate law firm.
“CLEAR’s reputation is excellent in nonprofit and pro bono communities,” she said. “This reputation, alongside the opportunity to teach students who are passionate about social justice, drew me to the CUNY School of Law.”
Being a part of CUNY School of Law helps CLEAR’s ability to serve the communities it works with.
“It helps us gain people’s trust, making people more willing to share their stories with us,” Shamas said. “Having the project based in a law school lends credibility to what we are doing.”
CLEAR fits well at the law school, Kassem believes, because it draws on the passion and energy of CUNY Law students who are firmly committed to social justice. The project also raises the school’s profile in the communities that CLEAR serves, potentially furthering the other part of the law school’s mission—increasing access to the legal profession.
“One of our hopes is that in the near future an increasing number of students from the various communities that CLEAR serves will choose to attend law school here at CUNY,” said Kassem. “There’s no other place where a project like CLEAR could exist, thrive, and contribute meaningfully to the welfare of city residents but at CUNY Law, the only public law school in our city.”
– Paul Lin