By Shadi Bushra and Elaine Mao
BROOKLYN, NY– State Sen. Martin Golden called spying on mosques “absolutely wrong” on Thursday, a stark contrast to his earlier stance praising the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts, which include infiltrating and eavesdropping on Muslim places of gathering and worship.
Last October, Golden signed onto a letter to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly by Assemblyman Dov Hikind which said, in part: “We admire you for going to precisely the source of the problem. The NYPD has wisely embraced the cold reality that heinous acts of terrorism have been, and will continue to be, attempted or committed by radical Muslims …”
But on Thursday night at a candidate’s forum sponsored by the Arab-American Association of New York, Golden changed his tune.
“Anybody that would spy on any religious institution is absolutely wrong, I do not stand by anybody who would do that,” he said. “If [Commissioner Kelly] has, he should apologize — but it hasn’t been proven that he has.”
The senator, seeking his sixth term representing New York State Senate District 22, was asked if he thought that Commissioner Kelly ought to apologize for the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which has been at the heart of a controversial program of spying on Muslims in New York City and beyond in the hopes of preventing a terrorist attack.
Sen. Golden’s statement comes a day after AAANY Director Linda Sarsour testified before the City Council in support of the Community Safety Act, a package of legislation that would mandate the creation of an independent inspector general to oversee the police department.
According to a series of articles by the Associated Press, which initially broke the NYPD spying story, “Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.”
The NYPD’s actions were intended to track where suspected terrorists were “likely to rent a room, buy groceries and watch sports” according to the AP series, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
After first denying the spying program existed, the NYPD later acknowledged that none of the information gathered by its Demographics Unit has led to any cases. But the investigative series stirred outrage among New York Muslims, many of whom complain about what they see as discrimination and ethnic profiling against them in the name of national security.
Those frustrations were on display at the candidate’s forum in Bay Ridge, which has a large Arab-American population. Several of the candidates preceding Golden were asked about their stances on surveillance of Muslim- and Arab-Americans.
Taking the stage after Golden, his challenger, Democrat Andrew Gounardes, said that despite Sen. Golden’s response that he opposed spying on religious institutions, Golden sent a letter to Commissioner Kelly “praising him.”
Gounardes said that while he was glad the senator eventually changed his position, voters should know that he has not always been on this side of the debate on the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims throughout the region.
Another voter asked Gounardes if he believed Muslims should be allowed to build a mosque near Ground Zero.
The organizers of Park 51, the proposed Muslim community center that was planned for lower Manhattan, said Gounardes, “absolutely, unequivocally have the right” to build a mosque there.
In addition to the Arab-American community’s civil liberties questions, women’s issues took center stage during an exchange over the New York State Fair Pay Act, a proposal that would require employers to adjust job evaluations and pay scales to prevent women from earning less for doing work comparable to their male colleagues.
The bill has languished in the senate for a decade. Golden, who voted against the proposed law in 2011, called the bill “unmanageable” and said it would cost businesses too much to implement.
“Should we save money also by engaging in wage discrimination based on race, religion, and disabled status?” an audience member asked Golden.
“You know it’s not about equal pay for men and women. It’s about comparable pay,” answered Golden. “You need legislation that you understand, that you know works,” he said, prompting a round of applause.
Another audience member questioned Sen. Golden’s controversial effort – later cancelled – to sponsor an event for job-seekers called “Posture, Deportment and the Feminine Presence.”
Golden’s office produced flyers for the event, saying it would teach women to “sit, stand and walk like a model.” The event was cancelled in response to criticism.
“I was trying to do something in the community, have people be able to go to interviews,” said Golden. “I was trying to give a course that’s given on a regular basis throughout the state, in many of our high schools.”
In addition to Sen. Golden and Gounardes, four State Assembly candidates were also present at the forum: Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, her Democratic challenger John Mancuso, Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny and his Republican challenger Tom McCarthy.
Congressional candidate Mark Murphy was unable to make it to the event on time, and his opponent Rep. Michael Grimm, declined to attend.