When activist and organiser Sarah Pearson approached Michael Bloomberg last year, she knew she wanted to press him on the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) surveillance of Muslims during his tenure as mayor there.
What she did not expect, however, is that he would give her a “demonstrably false” answer when she asked how he was defending Muslims’ rights when their communities were surveilled.
“The police only went in when the mosque, when the imam asked us to go in,” Bloomberg told her at the opening of his 2020 presidential campaign offices in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in December.
“Period. End of story,” he can be heard saying on a video recording of the encounter.
“We went into mosques when they asked us to come in,” he also said.
But a multipart, award-winning 2011 investigation by The Associated Press news agency found the NYPD mapped mosques and Islamic centres, eavesdropped on conversations, surveilled entire neighbourhoods and put informants, known as “mosque crawlers” or “rakers”, in Islamic places of worship and gathering centres to monitor sermons in the decade after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
“I didn’t expect a warm reception,” Pearson told Al Jazeera by phone, referring to her December interaction with Bloomberg.
“But what he said was so demonstrably false. In my head, I expected him to try to end the conversation and move along,” she added. “And I didn’t think he would address it in a way and make a statement like that.”
For Pearson, pressing Bloomberg on his record with the Muslim community stemmed from the US government’s surveillance and internment of her Japanese-American community during World War II.
She decided to post the video of her interaction with Bloomberg on Wednesday after she saw #AskBloomberg trending before the ninth Democratic presidential debate.
Calls for apology
Since announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in November, Bloomberg has come under increased fire for past comments and policies he endorsed as the mayor of New York City from 2002-2013.
Criticism of his comments regarding the stop-and-frisk policing tactic, which he aggressively pursued after taking office in New York City, heightened last week when an audio recording from 2015 resurfaced of him saying to combat crime cities need to “put a lot of cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighbourhoods”.
Bloomberg has since apologised for his role in the policy, recently saying it represented the one thing he is “really worried and embarrassed about”. That apology has been slammed by some, who say it does not go far enough.
The former mayor has not, however, apologised for the surveillance of Muslims, despite repeated calls over recent years from rights groups and those within the community to do so.
“The American Muslim community, a target of the stop and frisk programme – many of our members being African American and of colour – find his apology about the programme lacking,” said Robert McCaw, the Government Affairs Department director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“In that same vein, he has yet to fully account for his role in the NYPD spying on our community and for that he should apologise,” McCaw told Al Jazeera.
A woman holds a sign during a rally at Foley Square in New York as she protests against the NYPD and CIA surveillance on Muslim communities and neighbourhoods in New York [File: Andrew Burton/Reuters]
The NYPD surveillance programme has had “deep psychological, long-standing impacts” on Muslim communities in New York and surrounding states, said Scott Simpson, public advocacy director for Muslim Advocates.
“The victims here were just everyday people,” Simpson told Al Jazeera. “It really shakes people. It makes them choose to not participate in their own communities. It makes them choose not to exercise their First Amendment right to practise their religion.”
A lawsuit filed by Muslim Advocates in 2012 on behalf of Muslim individuals, businesses and organisations that were targeted by NYPD surveillance in New Jersey resulted in a settlement that built on previous cases in which the NYPD agreed to ban investigations based on ethnicity, race, religion or national origin. A 2015 court opinion compared the surveillance of Muslims to the discrimination faced by “Jewish Americans during the Red Scare, African Americans during the civil rights movement and Japanese Americans during World War II”.
“For any presidential candidate or for any administration official to endorse surveillance of Americans engaging in their First Amendment activities and to do so to the depth and degree and level of invasiveness that the NYPD subjected its own community members to is inexcusable and it’s vitally important that those facts, which have been validated … by courts not get whitewashed away,” Simpson said.
The Bloomberg campaign had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publication.