JFREJ’s STATEMENT AT THE SECOND HANDSCHU FAIRNESS HEARING

On Wednesday, June 1st, JFREJ member and Mizrahi caucus leader Simi Toledano joined over a hundred other organizers, activists, and frontline community members to offer this testimony at the Second Handschu Fairness Hearing. 

 

Good day, everyone. I am honored to be back here, testifying before you, Judge Haight, and all present company. My name is Simi Toledano. I am a first generation American, Arab Jewish artist, activist, and member leader of the organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). JFREJ is a 1600 member strong organization with 25 years’ worth of community organizing, solidarity, and policy work. We work to improve the daily lives of New York City residents through a framework of understanding that racial and economic inequities exist in institutional as well as interpersonal and internalized ways.

On April 19th I testified to support the improvements in the proposed Handschu guidelines while calling for it to be meaningfully strengthened. I also expressed our commitment to listen to our Muslim and Arab partners to ensure that the agreement is as strong as possible in protecting all of our communities.

I am here today to offer suggestions in areas of the proposed guidelines that we feel need to be more specific for a reasonable and fair resolution. I am here today to invite us all to collectively imagine a safe and trusting society. I am here today in service of the needs of those who are affected by the traumatizing and unlawful practices of the NYPD.

JFREJ is a political activist organization that works on specific issues in NYC involving domestic workers’ rights, police accountability, anti-Islamophobia,  and anti-Arab racism. Many of our members- be they black, white, Latin@, Arab, Ashkenazi, poor, wealthy, old, young, queer, trans,  or heterosexual- have been arrested and surveilled for their involvement in a number of different liberation movements. Those of us who work in the Palestine Solidarity, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Communities United for Police Reform, and LGBT rights movements, specifically garner the suspicions of powerful institutions such as the NYPD. We know through experience that distrust and resentment grows when institutions or individuals meant to protect and serve us watch us with suspicion, trick us into trusting them, and document our activities without our consent.

However, I have not been able to stop thinking about the testimony given last April by a young Muslim woman who expressed fear of doing research on the internet for a university term paper. She didn’t know what would be considered incriminating and if anyone was watching her. Was her professor an informant? Was her new friend in psych class an undercover cop? What about that guy she met outside the library—is he spying on her? Hearing her story made me aware of my own privilege as a white Jewish woman. When I was in college, writing term papers, going to class, meeting new friends, praying with my community, I never asked myself those questions. I was never fearful for my safety in the specific ways she illustrated.

As an ongoing, living document, we welcome the modifications in the Handschu Guidelines that bar the NYPD from opening an investigation based on race, ethnicity, or religion. We are pleased with the reforms on time limits of investigations, but these need to be tightened and not be at the sole discretion of the Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence. We welcome the other improvements in this proposed agreement and salute the work of the Handschu and Raza plaintiff attorneys over years to win these additional safeguards.

However, we know that this agreement cannot fully protect the civil liberties and civil rights of all members of the plaintiff class. Thus, it is essential that there be an explicit guarantee that the guidelines may not be used as a defense to shield the NYPD against civil rights litigations challenging past and future surveillance. We have seen the NYPD refer to the guidelines in this way in Hassan v. City of New York and Abdur-Rashid v NYPD. We know that attorneys whom we trust have differing opinions on the implications of such references, but they all agree that Handschu Guidelines should not provide such a shield. We ask you, Judge Haight, to ensure that it cannot. I imagine that, in a healing world, victims of abuse are brave enough to tell their abusers to stop and abusers are brave enough to listen, question and own their behavior- personally and institutionally. This is a moment when the court can help that happen – or prevent it.

While we at JFREJ, and especially our members of color, are affected by the proposed modifications to the Handschu guidelines, I must use my privilege today to acknowledge that the stakes for our Muslim neighbors are significantly higher. They regularly experience the troubling reality of being spied upon by the NYPD because of their religion and ethnicity. We at JFREJ attribute this to institutionalized Islamophobia, which results in the NYPD’s harmful practices, rooted in and feeding suspicion, control, and distrust instead of collaboration, understanding, and protection. When we are taught to fear and hate a group for who they are, we all become vulnerable to messages of distrust and separation.

Islamophobia exists in the Jewish community at-large. As an Arab Jewish woman I am concerned that the vulnerability of fear and hatred will continue to be taken advantage of by law enforcement agencies to perpetuate the myth of “Jew vs. Muslim and Arab.” This myth has a real impact of separation and it hurts me to be taught to fear a fellow human being without cause. It is especially painful to be shamed and separated from my own Arab identity while I am told to fear and distrust Arabs. Am I to fear myself? My ancestors? My story? Certainly not. It goes against what my heart knows of unity as well as my inherent and First Amendment right to express myself fully.

To challenge this, and to genuinely serve as the eyes and ears of NYC’s many communities within the oversight process, the role of the Civilian Representative within the guidelines needs to be strengthened. The CR should have authority to initiate formal investigations, should have access to NYPD records, including those subject to information sharing with state and federal agencies, and should be able to make inquiries. The CR should be appointed by the Court and the position should be a permanent position unless modified by judicial order. We believe the Civilian Representative and the Handschu committee should have authority proactively over decisions to use undercovers and confidential informants.

Similarly, the proposed settlement’s provisions for transparency should be significantly strengthened.  This includes eliminating the gag order on the CR (except as required to protect the privacy of those under investigation), and mandating regular reporting on the committee’s activities to independent authorities such as the Public Advocate or NYPD Inspector General.

Finally, I want to speak to the closely related issue of document retention. The documents created by the former Demographic Unit should be destroyed under the CR’s oversight. The CR should also supervise future document retention procedures and help craft an internal privacy policy, to assure New Yorkers that details of our lives collected inappropriately cannot be used as weapons against us and our communities, or twisted to promote hatred and fear.

I believe that with all of us here working in partnership with the Muslim community, we testify to the essence of solidarity work: when we work together to liberate ourselves, we free each other and truly enhance the quality of life of New Yorkers. We, the artists, activists, lawyers, judges, and citizens of all races, religions, and ethnicities have the ability to imagine a safe and trusting society. The Handschu guidelines offer one such road to creating a new reality.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak and be heard. I hope my words, the words of my fellow testifiers, and the unheard words of those whose trauma of betrayal still silences them, help guide you to a clear judgment of what the next steps are in this process.