The Demographics Unit: A Blot on Bloomberg's Legacy

He thinks he's heaven-bound, but we should judge him for his surveillance here.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg caused a lot of eyes to roll recently when, speaking to the New York Times, he said:

Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”

This remark came in a story that discussed Bloomberg’s plan to spend $50 million of his own money building a movement to support gun control and serve as a political counterweight to the National Rifle Association. How serious Bloomberg was being is not entirely clear, as the “with a grin” part of the description indicates. At a minimum, what is clear is Bloomberg’s very high opinion of his own work. Unsurprisingly, he was widely mocked in the press for his apparent confidence in his own salvation, with Rod Dreher capturing the general sentiment by calling him “comically sanctimonious.”

It’s understandable that Bloomberg’s work in public health, gun control and other areas tends to be what both his supporters and critics usually point to when trying to assess his career. But there’s another, less remarked-upon part of his legacy that we shouldn’t forget. Coincidentally, it was also highlighted just last week, when the NYPD disbanded its “Demographics Unit,” which conducted surveillance in New York’s Muslim communities. This unit, in the words of Times reporters Matt Apuzzo and Joseph Goldstein, “dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped.” In addition, as part of a linked program, “informants infiltrated Muslim student groups on college campuses and collected the names, phone numbers and addresses of those who attended.”

The Arab American Association of New York’s Linda Sarsour told Apuzzo and Goldstein, “The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community.” Meanwhile, it also appeared to be ineffective even in accomplishing its stated goals. As Adam Serwer noted at MSNBC, “Testifying under oath, an NYPD official admitted that the program had not lead to a single terrorism investigation.”

When the unit’s activities became public knowledge, Bloomberg defended its actions, saying, “We have to keep this country safe.”

Bloomberg’s legacy as mayor is a complicated one that isn’t easily reduced to a single sentence—even within the narrow area of his treatment of Muslim citizens. He deserves credit, for example, for his uncompromising defense of religious freedom during the 2010 debate over the “ground zero mosque.” Conversely, the work of the Demographics Unit ought to be remembered as a real and significant blot on his record. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote last year, summarizing a report by three organizations on the effects of this surveillance, these programs had a chilling impact on religious and political expression in American Muslim communities. For example, some individuals were less likely to attend their mosques regularly. Imams were more reluctant to have one-on-one meetings with members of their community for fear that the other person could be an NYPD informant. Parents encouraged their children to avoid Muslim student groups and not to wear traditional Muslim dress. And, perhaps most worryingly, some people became afraid to even discuss political events in public, as the report noted:

The ever-present surveillance chills—or completely silences—their speech whether they are engaging in political debate, commenting on current events, encouraging community mobilization or joking around with friends. Political organizing, civic engagement and activism are among the first casualties of police surveillance. Based on our research and interviews, it is clear that the surveillance program has, in fact, quelled political activism, quieted community spaces and strained interpersonal relationships.

The NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities has much in common with the city’s much more well-known and equally controversial “stop and frisk” policy. In both instances, Bloomberg defended the policies on the grounds that they kept the city safer from either terrorism or crime, while critics charged that the policies unfairly targeted specific minority groups. In the case of the Demographics Unit, the critics appear to have been entirely vindicated, while the evidence for the assertion that the city is any safer from terror as a result appears to be exceedingly thin.

Unlike Newsweek, I won’t pretend to know whether heaven is real, or if Michael Bloomberg is going there. But if it is, and he does, it would be a form of poetic justice if St. Peter were to stop and frisk him on the way in. Or if he were to spend some of his time beyond the pearly gates periodically looking over his shoulder, wondering if some sort of angelic Demographics Unit were trailing him.

Robert Golan-Vilella is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone/CC by 3.0