The Ongoing Trauma of the Muslim Students an Undercover Cop Spied on for Four Years

A new documentary, "Watched," examines the story of an undercover NYPD officer who spent four years infiltrating a group of Muslim college students.

Apr 21 2017, 8:43pm

I wonder what I could have become if this hadn't happened," says M in a heartrending short documentary that premiered at the Tribeca film festival Thursday. Watched tells the story of two Muslim students preyed upon by an undercover NYPD officer, "Mel," who came to Brooklyn College (BC) to spy on Muslim and other political students from 2011 to 2015.

Mel arrived at BC with a story about being raised in a Turkish secular family. On her very first day on campus, Mel "converted" to Islam in front of a group of Muslim students, saying she wanted to explore her religious roots. For four years, she tagged along to Muslim student events, on campus and off, asked questions about students' religious and political beliefs, and procured invitations to meetings they were attending. Exploiting the welcoming nature of Muslim students, she went to their picnics and get-togethers, visited their homes, and even served as a bridesmaid in one woman's wedding. Some students began to have questions about her but were powerless to do anything. Who do you go to if you suspect an undercover cop is in your midst? (The NYPD has admitted to sending an undercover operative to BC in an "approved investigation," but said it came to nothing.)

The film charts the devastating effects of such prolonged surveillance: the anxiety and self-doubt it produced in students, the diminishing of what these political and religious young women felt they could do or say, the mistrust it generated amongst students, the way it made them feel less safe in public, and the fears of being jailed like other Muslims they knew. Fundamentally, even as the election of Donald Trump has brought the issue of Islamophobia to the fore, Watched is a rare portrayal of the devastating impacts of policing on young Muslim lives. While Muslim Americans are constantly talked about in the public sphere, we seldom hear their unmediated voices. Watched is a rare journalistic endeavor, one in which we are able listen to American Muslim women speak about their experiences coming of age in post-9/11 America—without any other voices cutting in.

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