The NYPD’s cricket league

by Hanifa Harris for Al Jazeera America

Photo by Hanifa Harris for Al Jazeera America

Police on sticky wicket as they try to court NYC immigrants with cricket. Published in Al Jazeera America (4 October, 2013)

NEW YORK — The players in the New York Police Department’s under-19 cricket league refer to one of its oldest supervising officers as “Shabash”(“Bravo” in Urdu). They call him that because he uses the term so often and so indiscriminately. It is the only Urdu word he has picked up in his six years of working with the predominantly South Asian and Caribbean teams.

Officer “Shabash” is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the cosmetic level of engagement between the NYPD and the first-generation immigrants who play in the police-run league, begun in 2008 as a way to connect with South Asian Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. The league was modeled on the success of the police’s soccer league, NYPD United, started in May of that year to reach out to Arab youth.

“You’re going to be able to counter radicalization, counter extremism,” league supervisor and NYPD Deputy Inspector Amin Kosseim said in a 2011 interview about the outreach efforts. “You want (community members) to come to you with information, and that’s not going to happen unless you have that rapport.”

NYPD Cricket has grown each year since its inception; this year it was oversubscribed, and six teams had to be turned away. But the 2011 revelations of two Associated Press reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, have cast a dark cloud over what seemed to be a positive example of community engagement by a beleaguered police department. Their explosive series showed that the NYPD was engaged in intensive surveillance of Muslim communities within the city. Last month they published a book based on their investigation, “Enemies Within,” which explores the unprecedented scope of the force’s intelligence gathering activities — which extended to the field of sport.

A sporting success

Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens rests in the shade of two great American sporting grounds, Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, and the USTA’s National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open. While baseball and Grand Slam tennis draw the crowds, the park also has three stubbly fields distinguished by the grassless, rectangular pitches that advertise their use: cricket.

On a sweltering August morning, teenagers in crisp uniforms chased the “thwack” of bat against ball. In fierce arcs, a bowler hurled the ball at a batsman on the opposite end of the pitch. Whenever the batsman drove a shot out of the field, his teammates cheered and umpires signaled the mark of a boundary. The Long Island Expressway droned behind them, and the rusting ruins of the 1964–65 World’s Fair rose in the distance.

From the sidelines, supervising NYPD officers in shorts and shirtsleeves leaned back in folding chairs, drinking bottled water and occasionally bobbing in coolers for ice cream sandwiches. They stirred themselves to clap when one match came to an exciting close and the victorious team streamed, hollering, onto the pitch.

As a purely sporting endeavor, the cricket league has been an unqualified success. In its early days, NYPD officers drummed up interest by advertising in mosques, restaurants, shops and other social centers. With names like Brooklyn Knights, Pak Stallions and Royal Bengals, the teams reflect the diversity of South Asian and Caribbean communities in the city. The league swelled from six teams in 2008 to 18 registered teams in 2013.

This great enthusiasm illustrates the league’s exceptional infrastructure. The NYPD reserves the fields and provides smart uniforms, a full range of equipment and professional umpires. NYPD vans ferry teams to pitches. At the league’s championship final, professional announcers gave play-by-play commentary while smoke from an NYPD-hired halal kebab cart drifted tantalizingly over the field.

Funds for the cricket and soccer leagues come from the New York City Police Foundation, an NYPD-affiliated nonprofit organization, which in its last yearly budget allocated more than $16,000 for supplies for “community understanding and support.”

Lijo Mazhuvanchery, a recent immigrant from southern India and a bowler for the Dragons, the 2012 and 2013 champions, praised the efforts of the police department. “The NYPD gives a good opportunity for youngsters,” he said, looking around. “Everything is so official.”

While still low on the U.S. sporting totem pole, cricket enjoys a global following, principally in the former colonies of the British Empire. More people tuned in to the Cricket World Cup final in 2011 (135 million in India alone) than watched baseball’s World Series (25 million) or American football’s Super Bowl (111 million) that year. Cricket spread in the 19th century on the coattails of imperial expansion. Even fiercely independent Victorian-era Americans played it. Cricket was a common pastime in the United States until the Civil War. In fact, the first international cricket matchwas held not in a serene pasture in England but in New York City in 1844, when Canada beat the United States by 23 runs.

Thanks to immigrants from the countries of the British Commonwealth, cricket has found a new life in the United States and is increasingly visible in New York. Twenty-nine public high schools in the city boast teams, and amateur leagues jostle for space in parks across Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Joe Siewharack, the Trinidadian coach of the victorious Dragons and an energetic, ubiquitous figure in the New York cricket scene, said, “Cricket is the second-largest youth sport in the world. And here in New York City, we have the largest untapped market of talent.”

A sport once associated with English gentility is now inextricable from the vibrant fabric of the city.

NYPD spying

New Yorkers know that city mosques, bookstores, restaurants, shops and practically any other venues where Muslims convene have for years been under the watch of the NYPD’s Demographics Unit. Police spies and informants eavesdropped on conversations, gauged the religiosity of community members, noted license-plate numbers, tried to provoke incendiary conversations and snooped on Muslim student groups. NYPD intelligence officers were also stationed abroad, far beyond the traditional remit of a municipal police department. (Apuzzo and Goldman claim that, to head off controversy, these overseas officers were quietly paid through the New York City Police Foundation, the same organization that funds the athletic leagues.) Crucially, none of this covert work followed from specific leads, nor did it generate any criminal ones.

Officers were encouraged to join adult soccer and cricket leagues as players. They kept lists of places where Arabs and South Asians gathered to play and watch sports. The Demographics Unit compiled a “Sports Venues Report,” which listed 18 cricket fields and 40 other venues where South Asians congregate in New York, including Corona Park, Kissena Corridor Park in Queens and Marine Park in Brooklyn.

It is difficult to separate the seemingly benign overtures of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau — a branch of the NYPD devoted to improving the image of the police, particularly in neighborhoods with large populations of recent immigrants — from the NYPD’s secret intelligence operations.

The AP revelations have already taken their toll. In 2011, Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, withdrew her organization’s team from the NYPD soccer league. It was a disappointing decision to have to make, especially since the team, Brooklyn United, won the 2009 tournament.

“Once we were good and winning games, I actually got into it,” she told me. “The officers came and played with the kids. The kids thought they were cool.”

But the team’s involvement in the league became untenable as she learned more about the NYPD’s intelligence program. “When the spying was confirmed, there was just no way we could carry on in the league.”

Diala Shamas, a staff attorney at the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility project at the City University of New York Law School and a co-author of “Mapping Muslims,” a report on the effects of the NYPD surveillance of Muslims, acknowledged that there were reasonable grounds for suspicion of the department.

“Iron walls are rare within police departments. We know that the NYPD intelligence division prides itself on drawing on the NYPD’s diverse resources,” she said. “The concern is that it is simultaneously engaging in mapping all areas of life of these communities, including their youths’ extracurricular activities, for intelligence-gathering purposes. There is a legitimate concern that these leagues are a way to enhance, by walking in through the front door, what the NYPD has been doing through the back door for much longer.”

The NYPD did not reply to repeated requests for comment, nor were officers allowed to speak on the record for this story.

A blunt instrument

If NYPD Cricket’s supervising officers were in the midst of intelligence gathering on the field, it was decidedly difficult to tell. The police at the youth matches tended to recline in the shade, discussing a range of subjects, from their mortgages and home-improvement plans to philosophical questions. They seemed at best bemused by the sport, more often decidedly uninterested.

As a means of reaching South Asian Muslims (Pakistanis in particular), NYPD Cricket seems a blunt and imprecise instrument. The league boasts many Caribbean and South Asian players of non-Muslim backgrounds — Sikhs, Hindus, Christians. The two teams that reached the final this year were almost entirely composed of teenagers from Guyana and Trinidad, mostly settled in Richmond Hill in Queens.

Moreover, players and coaches appear largely indifferent to the NYPD’s role in facilitating the league, immersed instead in the rigor and rhythm of the sport. Leon Mohavir, who moved to New York from Guyana two years ago, was simply grateful for the equipment and opportunity provided by the NYPD. “They give us gear and the chance to play,” he said with a shrug. Keifer Phill, also originally from Guyana, dismissed the suggestion that playing in the league had made any difference in his outlook on the police. “I don’t really have anything against the cops,” he said, “so it changed nothing about how I think about them.”

Joe Siewharack, the Dragons coach, said that many of his players live in rough neighborhoods. He believes that being part of a collective can help strengthen young people, teaching them focus and determination. “I want them to take something positive from this experience,” he said, looking over his shoulder at his players, “and grow with it.”

NYPD Cricket, he said, is a promising arena for the development of the sport in the city. Many of the league’s best players already represent the United States at the youth level in international cricket competitions and hope to earn a spot on the national men’s team in the future. One of these players, Queens high school student Randall Wilson, was even featured in the June 24 issue of Sports Illustrated. Moving to New York City from Guyana did not disrupt his love for the sport. “I’ll always play cricket,” he said in an interview. “I’ll play cricket until I can’t.”

Having won the final in convincing fashion, the Dragons players and staff received their trophy from NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who arrived near the end of the match. Siewharack beamed as he had his photo taken with the commissioner. “No question about it,” Kelly said at a small, postmatch press conference. “Cricket is rising in New York, and it is something we are really proud about.” When pressed about his department’s surveillance of Muslims, Kelly was defiant and curt. “We will follow leads wherever they take us.”

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