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Albany cops probe Muslims and friends

Sunday, September 2, 2012 in the Daily Gazette, Schenectady, New York
By Carl Strock, Gazette Columnist

Here is a situation to think about regarding the monitoring and profiling of Muslims, or the war on terror, or whatever you want to call it.

About a week and a half ago two Albany men active in defending the rights of Muslims — Steve Downs, a retired state lawyer, and Shamshad Ahmad, professor of physics at SUNY Albany and president of a local mosque — met with two other activists who had come up from New York City for the purpose.

They were sitting in a pizza shop at 328 Central Ave., having lunch and discussing the raid on Shamshad’s mosque that coincided with the arrest of two mosque members, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, back in 2004 on charges of supporting terrorism, when in walked four Albany cops. The cops asked them to step outside, where several other cops were waiting, asked them what they had been talking about and demanded to see identification.

Isn’t that something?

“I asked them what this was all about,” Downs recalls, “and they said someone overheard mention of a missile, and called the police.”

Downs says that’s not plausible. Though the Aref-Hossain case indeed involved a missile, both Downs and Ahmad say they are quite sure it was not mentioned in their conversation. And furthermore, no one else was in the pizzeria to do any overhearing. They remembered a couple of customers leaving soon after they arrived. The owner of the place is himself a member of the mosque and a friend.

“The truth of the matter is they weren’t interested in what we were saying,” Downs now figures. “They just wanted our identities.” Which they got. All four provided either business cards or names, addresses and phone numbers orally. Ahmad said one of the officers recognized him from having been a student of his about 10 years ago.

The two people who came up from New York City were Muslim women — one originally from Iran, one originally from Bangladesh — and are active in the South Asian civil rights organization DRUM, for Desis Rising Up and Moving, “desi” being colloquial for Indian or other South Asian. That organization was a leading force in exposing and protesting the surveillance of Muslims by the New York City Police Department, which is what Downs suspects might have triggered this little interception in Albany.

Steven Smith, spokesman for the Albany Police Department, says no. He says internal records show the department got a call reporting “four Pakistani males and one white male talking about terrorist plots and missiles,” and “responded accordingly.” (Obviously the national and gender identities were off.)

He said, “We obtained information like in any incident and documented the incident.”

As for the large number of officers at the scene — about seven — Smith noted that 27 newly hired officers are still in training, riding with experienced officers, so that would not be unusual.

Downs and Ahmad agree that the officers were “polite and professional,” quite obviously just carrying out an assignment and doing it as diplomatically as possible, though of course a cop with a gun on his hip asking you what you have been talking about with some friends is not like your husband or wife asking you. And his asking you your name, address and phone number is not the same either, no matter how polite and professional he is.

Downs, the lawyer, says at first he protested that he did not have to provide any identification but then relented and did hand over a business card. And he also told the officers what he and his friends had been talking about, as Ahmad did as well, as a way of dispelling the idea they had been talking about a missile.

Now, I am not one who objects in principle to the monitoring of people who appear likely to commit crimes, including Muslims who preach jihadist hatred of the West, as apparently is done in some New York City mosques. After the attacks of 9/11 it seems just good sense to keep a very close eye on such people.

But that’s different from the kind of blanket surveillance of Muslims of all kinds that the NYPD has engaged in, and it’s different from monitoring civil-rights activists like the DRUM people and Steve Downs and Shamshad Ahmad, who are as solid as citizens come.

Also, it goes without saying it’s very different from tricking people into committing crimes that are purely the invention of the FBI, as was done with Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain.

We know there is a sharing of information among law-enforcement agencies under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, and participating agencies range all the way from the CIA down to our local police departments. The program was started soon after 9/11 and operates through 70-some “fusion centers” throughout the country, including one at a shopping plaza in Latham, off Route 9R.

I called there to ask if the center had any role in tracking the DRUM people up to Albany but was told the telephone number was only for supplying tips, of which I had none, and no, no one in the center would have anything to say in response to my question.

Now, again, I’m glad that government agencies share information, especially on something so vital as the threat of terrorist attacks, but I would dearly love to know if this is the kind of information they concern themselves with, the meetings of perfectly above-board civil rights activists at a pizza shop.

I very much hope not.



Read Steve Down's report on this incident