Labor's Reply to NYPD surveillance

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The information that has leaked regarding the NYPD and CIA’s secret monitoring of Muslim stores, student organizations, and mosques in New Jersey, New York, and Long Island has elicited feelings of outrage. The NYPD has even recorded conversations between Muslim individuals, making extensive reports of the activities of Muslim-related stores, businesses and organizations, and closely observed the operations of these groups/establishments. All of these covert operations are being conducted unbeknownst to the “subjects” of observation and without their consent.

firerkNYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly strongly defends these investigations and claims that the NYPD is merely “protecting the nation from terror.” During a radio interview on a New York City talkshow, Kelly confidently remarked, “what we’re trying to do is save lives.” One can clearly see that America’s continued “War on Terror” is nothing more than a bogeyman—a fabrication and compilation of false statements, incorrect predictions, and misleading rhetoric that the government, army, and police forces use in order to strip all workers of basic civil liberties. It is a war on workers at home as well as abroad.

After hearing complaints from the president of Yale University regarding the police force’s violation of the students’ civil liberties and intrusive invasion of privacy, Mayor Bloomberg responded, “I don’t know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale.” These words echo those spoken to justify the invasion of Iraq “in search of weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, now we all know that these claims were completely false and used solely to justify the invasion. In fact, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, the Iraqi defector whose reports were the basis of this WMD bogeyman theory has recently admitted them to be “sexed up” lies.

The frequent speeches of the “good intentions” of the NYPD and the CIA are nothing more than a ploy to distract workers from the real problems they face on a day-to-day basis—problems caused by the capitalist system itself. The role of the state in a capitalist society is, in the last analysis, the defense of private property. But in today’s context—where the working class composes the vast majority of society—the capitalists can rely less on the power of their “armed bodies of men” and need to rely more on the division of the working class along racial, religious, and ethnic lines.

When we were in grade school, we were all taught to praise the U.S. Constitution and view it as a document with mystical powers—holding the key to a world of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. American big business and their Democratic and Republican politicians claim that this document should be representative of American politics and society. Yet, it is violated in the interests of big business on a daily basis. After all, it was inscribed in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” while the horrifying system of chattel slavery was very much alive and well in the colonies. Similar contradictions exist today when leading politicians say that we are a land of “religious freedom,” while the police secretly investigate and discriminate against those whose religion happens to be Islam.

Corrupt and covert police investigations are nothing new. The current secret surveillance is a mirror image of the operations of COINTELPRO conducted from 1956 to 1971 by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. COINTELPRO was a series of secret—and at least on paper, illegal—projects designed to investigate, disrupt, and disband American political organizations that were a “potential threat to national safety.” The groups that fell victim to these operations were predominantly black nationalist, communist, and civil rights organizations. Today there is a new COINTELPRO with a new target—Muslims.

Muslim student organizations at universities such as Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers are falling victim to secret surveillance in the same way that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fell victim to COINTELPRO during the 1960s civil rights movement. Of course, there was no incriminating evidence found—neither in SNCC or in targeted Muslim student organizations today—that indicated intentions to harm the safety of the country. There have been reports from students who have said that the NYPD’s gross infringement of their privacy has made them feel uncomfortable to attend certain organizations’ meetings, affiliate themselves with such organizations, or even be “caught” praying.

The capitalist system will stop at nothing in order to pit workers against each other in an attempt to prevent them from organizing and mobilizing collectively. In order for capitalism to function, it depends upon the division of the working class along lines of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, etc. History shows that when the workers mobilize as a class, these divisions tend to disappear. With the magnificent example of the Arab Revolution fresh in the memory of American workers, one can understand why the flames of bigotry are being stoked by the bourgeoisie.

Those who defend these intrusive actions point to the traumatizing events of 9/11 in order to “justify” the police force’s egregious actions. This may seem like a convincing argument because it reminds one of a time filled with tragedy and overwhelming despair over the deaths of thousands of innocent American workers. However, we must think logically and not let the government and police forces scare us into subservience. You cannot compare apples and oranges. A student organization at Yale or Columbia is not the same thing as al-Qaeda—a terrorist organization whose roots actually lay in CIA involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where Islamic fundamentalists were armed and funded to fight the Soviets.

Unfortunately, liberal America is repeating its same old ineffective lamentations about this situation. People huff and puff at the government, saying things such as, “You’ve gone too far this time!” without offering any viable solutions as to how to stop the government and its armed forces from “going too far” or even questioning why this country’s intelligence agencies are capable of “going too far” in the first place.

As for the labor movement, some of the faculty unions, outraged at the covert investigations, have responded. The Rutgers University chapter of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers issued a response on their website on February 24, speaking out against the recent actions of the NYPD and demanding certain actions be taken against them. The letter denounces the recent activity of the NYPD and expresses great anger towards the violation of their rights and freedom. It demands that the President of Rutgers University, Richard McCormick, make unambiguously clear to the students, faculty, and the general public that Rutgers University protects students’ academic and civil liberties; that he demands an investigation into these secret activities and investigations on Rutgers campuses; that he demands an independent investigation of the activities of the NYPD’s “demographics unit.”

The labor movement should not abide a single infringement of civil rights and should be on the front lines in the struggle against these violations of our basic freedoms. However, the statement essentially proposes that we just pass the buck to President McCormick and allow “the boss” to take care of such matters. On February 28, President McCormick sent an email to all Rutgers students and faculty, nobly titled, “Defending Our Students’ Civil Rights.” He started off by paying lip service to the grievances of the union, eating out of the palm of their hand while playing the role of the innocent, swindled president, who had no idea of these activities, and proclaiming that he would do whatever he can to stop them.

In turn, President McCormick passed the buck to his “bosses.” He said he “wrote a letter to New Jersey Attorney General, Jeffery Chiesa, whom Governor Christie has asked to investigate the activities of the NYPD, offering Rutgers’ support of the investigation.” He also insisted that he will ensure that “actions be taken appropriately by the authorities” if the investigation reveals that the NYPD’s actions were illegal. He concluded the letter by paying tribute to the “vibrant and valued” Muslim community at Rutgers.

Under today’s conditions of increasing austerity, university staff and workers in general need to build alliances with the rest of the working class as broadly as possible. The AAUP-AFT resolution against the actions of the NYPD and CIA is a step in that direction. However, we cannot expect those who implement the austerity, cut the wages and benefits, cut funding, raise tuition, and allowed the surveillance to be conducted in the first place to be the defenders of our civil liberties. Ultimately, it is in their interests to atomize the working class. They will find racism, Islamophobia, and other bigotry to be all too convenient in achieving their aims.
 
Historically, discrimination of this sort has been used to divide the most advanced and radical elements of the working class from the rest. It was the case with European immigrants inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917; it was the case with black Americans who were inspired into political activity by the civil rights movement; and it is the case today with Muslims, many of whom are inspired by the revolutions spreading throughout the Arab world. Only the united and mobilized labor movement can combat these attacks and drive the poison of discrimination out of our society.


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