A 34-year-old art photographer says that she was stopped and questioned by two cops in lower Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon because she happened to be wearing a T-shirt with Arabic writing on it.
Miru Kim was out walking her dog, a large Canaan-mix named Guinness, shortly before 2:00 p.m. near the 9/11 Memorial. She was about to enter her apartment building when she says two NYPD officers asked her to come out into the street.
Kim says she had just managed to calm Guinness, who had been barking at another dog. "I thought maybe it was the dog," she told us yesterday evening. "But they were just pointing to my shirt with an Arabic sentence on it."
One of the officers spoke to Kim for about 5 minutes. She described the officer who questioned her as a "large man" who was "quite intimidating."
"He asked me what my shirt said," she recalled. "I told him it was an old T-shirt from a protest group. That got him going even more, and I had to explain that it was from an anti-Iraq War group from a long time ago. Like, 10 years ago."
The officer asked for Kim's apartment number and phone number, then asked for her ID, which she says she didn't have on her person. She proceeded to give him "all of my information," including her name and cellphone number.
Kim's T-shirt was designed by the New York City-based "artist/activist" organization We Will Not Be Silent, which attributes the phrase to a student resistance movement in Nazi Germany called The White Rose. The group, originally called The Critical Voice, was founded in March 2006 during the Bush administration. From its mission statement:
Through the creative use of language… we respond to current social justice issues, encouraging creative, direct public-actions where many people can participate.
We have over 50 shirt designs. Clear, bold and simple language has been chosen to evoke complex ideas and, most importantly, to compel conversation between those who wear the shirts and others they encounter.
Kim later told us that the Granny Peace Brigade used the "We Will Not Be Silent" T-shirts for protests in 2006, when she was working as a designer for a political media company. "I guess my boss was friends with the organizers of the protests," she said. "I just thought the shirt was cool so I kept it."
According to the Civil Liberties Defense Center, police officers can legally approach anyone and "inquire" about "circumstances of interest." However, barring detention or arrest, citizens are not obligated to provide identification, much less answer any questions. (These protections don't apply during a traffic stop.)
"I thought it was kind of annoying getting all of my information taken down by police," Kim said. "I didn't ask why. I didn't really say anything. I basically just complied and explained that it's just a shirt from a long time ago."
"No New Yorker should be targeted for a police stop or interrogation because they are wearing a t-shirt with Arabic writing on it," says Donna Lieberman, the New York Civil Liberties Union's Executive Director. She described the alleged incident as "inconsistent with free expression."
Born in the US and raised in Korea, Kim has lived in NYC since 1999, and studied at Columbia and Pratt. A painting MFA and urban explorer, she's known for her NSFW photo projects—in deserts and urban ruins, and in industrial hog farms.
Raed Jarrar (left), Miru Kim (right) (Via We Will Not Be Silent)
According to Kim, while she was being questioned, the officer mentioned that "we're tightening security around here." Although he did not reference this week's Papal visit, Kim posited that "tightened security" might be related to the Pope's scheduled multi-religious service at the nearby 9/11 Memorial at 11:30 a.m. on Friday.
Earlier this month, the NYPD announced that 48 city and federal agencies were preparing for the Pope's visit. Among them are the Secret Service and the NYPD's Counterterrorism Unit.
After yesterday's incident, Kim posted a selfie on Instagram and Facebook, still wearing the t-shirt. She wrote in her caption, "Are they serious, NYPD? Are they gonna call me a potential terrorist because I am wearing a shirt with Arabic on it? When did NYC become so xenophobic?"
"The intolerable conditions of racism, xenophobia, specifically Islamophobia and abuse of power that inspired us ten years ago to embody the statement WE WILL NOT BE SILENT in the Arabic language, as well as in five other languages, are still present, as we can see from [Kim's] incident," said We Will Not Be Silent Artist/Activist Sarah Wellington.
In August 2006, two TSA officers at JFK barred blogger and activist Raed Jarrar from boarding his JetBlue flight to Oakland until he agreed to cover up the very same "We Will Not Be Silent" t-shirt. Jarrar, an Iraqi immigrant, ultimately won a $240,000 settlement against JetBlue. His ACLU attorney later called the settlement a "victory for free speech."
Two months after Jarrar was detained, a Hunter College student wearing the t-shirt was surrounded by Coast Guard officials on the Staten Island Ferry, and issued a warning by ferry security.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment about Kim's encounter with officers.