[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2005, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
Random searches divide New York

By Matthew Wells
BBC News, New York

Civil libertarians have filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department's random bag-search policy, which was initiated hours after the failed London bombings of 21 July.

Dov Hikind
Dov Hikind's argument for "terrorist profiling" sparked furore

It is the latest twist in a week which has seen public debate in the city become increasingly frenzied over the issue of racial or ethnic profiling.

At one end of the spectrum stands the New York Civil Liberties Union, which argues that random checks on the city's huge subway system are ineffective, and will always be discriminatory - creating the potential for targeting young, brown-skinned men.

At the other end are a handful of city politicians who argue that these are precisely the kind of people who police should be subjecting to a stop-and-search policy.

The Orthodox Jewish state assemblyman, Dov Hikind, created a furore last weekend when he called a press conference in his Brooklyn constituency.

He brandished mug-shots of the largely Middle Eastern men from the FBI's "most wanted" list, saying that all recent terrorists "look basically like this".

I don't mind being singled out, because I've got nothing to hide
Billy Adams

It is illegal for police in New York to conduct searches based on racial profiling, and they maintain that random searching is effective, and a good deterrent.

Mr Hikind denies that he is arguing for racial profiling, preferring the phrase "terrorist profiling".

He told me that he agreed with the head of the British Transport police, that stopping elderly women was a "politically correct" waste of time.

"The police officer shouldn't be constrained by saying, if I check too many people of Middle Eastern descent, somebody's going to be looking over my back - that's crazy," he said.

'We need unity'

But a group of five New York City council members - who represent the most ethnically diverse electorate in the world - held their own mid-week press conference on the steps of City Hall.

They support police policy, and warn against profiling of any kind.

Babir Sultan
It came to the point where I was thinking about leaving this country
Babir Sultan, 22

"We cannot start to do this," said Robert Jackson, who represents a mainly black and Hispanic district around Harlem.

"We will divide our country and the city of New York, and right now we need unity - for all of us to stand together."

Despite the passionate defence of civil liberties by city lawmakers, it seems that some New York commuters who belong to ethnic minorities are less concerned at the idea of being singled out in these times of high alert.

Billy Adams was one of several young black men I spoke to on the concourse of Pennsylvania Station, in midtown Manhattan.

"The police should do whatever it takes. Coming from the 'hood that I live in, we're used to [being stopped]," he said.

"Now is a new era, and it's about stopping something much more dangerous. I don't mind being singled out, because I've got nothing to hide," he said.

Several young Muslims I spoke to said they had not been stopped and were confident that their religious dress was not an issue on the subway.

The low-level nature of the genuinely random police checks may be reassuring.

But for plenty of Muslims living around New York, the wider issue of profiling and its destabilising effect has been all too apparent.

American 'nightmare'

Babir Sultan is a 22-year-old of Kashmiri descent who has been an American citizen for more than 10 years now.

Immediately after 11 September 2001, he believed that some American Muslims were being over-sensitive when they complained about being profiled at airports.

A man wears a backpack inside Cortlandt Street subway station
Commuters are being hit by the new random bag-search policy

All that changed following two separate encounters with counter-terrorism officers - the second of which involved being questioned aggressively at home and his workplace.

He claims that federal agents threatened him with a four-year stint in jail, all because somebody had reported seeing him using a camcorder on a New York highway earlier this year.

He had been making a video for his niece's birthday party and was not charged, he said.

The "American Dream" for him has become a nightmare.

He finds it hard to sleep and he looks on the verge of nervous exhaustion.

"It came to the point where I was thinking about leaving this country. I was born in England but after those bomb incidents and a person getting shot... There's no escape from it," he said.

If you talk to Arab or Muslim Americans, the stories of routine harassment by various authority figures - based on their names and appearance - are legion.

As the public debate continues apace over how best to avoid London's fate, many here are beginning to wonder whether the same sense of alienation and disengagement on the part of young Muslims can really be avoided.

The strong sense of American social inclusiveness will not be enough to counter growing feelings of fear and rejection that go way beyond protecting the subway.

NY commuters face random searches
21 Jul 05 |  Americas

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific