A Starbucks Frappuccino may have been the catalyst for a crime that made waves from City Hall all the way to Iraq and exposed simmering tensions between the NYPD and New York’s Muslim community. As of this writing, police are questioning a person of interest in a spree of Molotov cocktail attacks that occurred Sunday night at five locations in Queens and Long Island including the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation, a Muslim mosque, community center and school in Jamaica, and a bodega on nearby Hillside Avenue. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters at a press conference at Al-Khoei this afternoon that police believe one person was responsible for the attacks and that the firebomber may have been angered after workers at the bodega stopped him from stealing a Frappuccino. At the same presser, Commissioner Kelly shot down a reporter who asked about police surveillance of Muslims and mosque officials quieted a man who interrupted the proceedings by angrily shouting about the NYPD’s “attack” on Pakistanis.
“One of the witnesses who was at the first event that happened Sunday night–it was at a bodega, he states that the individual who did it on Sunday night was someone who was ejected from that location on December 27. That individual attempted to steal a container of milk and a bottle of Frappuccino. When they were pushing him out of the store, he said words to the effect of, ‘We’re going to get even,” Commissioner Kelly said.
Starbucks Frappuccino bottles were used to make four of the five Molotovs. Commissioner Kelly said the person of interest was apprehended in Jamaica at approximately eight this morning after their car was linked to the attacks. Sources in the NYPD told The Politicker the suspect was taken into police custody after he returned to the area of the bodega blast. Though the thwarted Frappuccino theft would explain the bomber’s anger toward the bodega, his rationale for targeting the other four locations remains a mystery.
This crime may indeed have been an isolated act of caffeine addled anger, but the Frappuccino bombings took on a far greater significance because of the NYPD’s troubled relationship with the Muslim community. In November, the Associated Press revealed the NYPD had a vast post-9/11 program of surveillance on Muslim communities. On Friday, more than a dozen Muslim leaders boycotted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast due to their anger over the surveillance issue.
Because of the heightened political significance and the potential that the firebombings were a hate crime, the attacks provoked responses from law a stream of elected officials and religious leaders. Yesterday, the mayor, the governor and two of the likely candidates running for mayor in 2013– Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, all released statements. This morning, Mayor Bloomberg spent about fifteen minutes meeting with the leadership of the Al-Khoei Foundation.
“The mayor came in to show solidarity. He wanted to reassure us and the students of the school that the city administration is behind us, that they’re supporting us and they’re doing everything they can,” said Al-Khoei foundation member Syed Meesam Razvi of the meeting. “He wanted to come in, he wanted to be here with us.”
At today’s press conference, in addition to Commissioner Kelly, Al Khoei’s assistant imam, Maan al-Sahlani was joined by Comptroller John Liu, State Senator Malcolm Smith, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, Borough President Helen Marshall and representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Anti Defamation League, and the Interfaith Center of New York, among others. Imam Al-Sahlani said the mosque also received support from Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, an influential iraqi cleric who is one of the highest ranking figures in Shi’ite Islam.
“Even in Iraq, Ayatollah Al Uzma Seyyid Ali al-Sistani–he’s a great scholar in Iraq, he heard. He’s so sad and he prayed to Allah, to God, to protect all the people all the people in the world, especially here in America and in New York, and to save all people here,” Imam al-Sahlani said.
Though the politicians and religious leaders who spoke at the press conference attempted to present a united front, some signs of tension between the police and the Muslim community showed through. When a reporter attempted to ask Commissioner Kelly about the NYPD’s program of surveillance on the Muslim community, he was quickly shut down.
“Not appropriate,” Commissioner Kelly said.
One of the mosque officials stepped in front of Mr. Kelly and cut off the question.
“Please refrain from that,” he said.
Several minutes later, the press conference was interrupted when Bobby Khan, who founded the Coney Island Avenue Project, which works with Brooklyn’s Muslim community began shouting from the front of the room about the NYPD’s “attack” on Pakistani Muslims. Mosque officials managed to calm him down. Afterwards, The Politicker spoke with Mr. Khan.
“The system is racially profiling Muslims, South Asians, Pakistanis,” Mr. Khan said. “They are not talking about it because, I know why, because of their fear and some people want to make relationships with city officials or elected officials. They are scared to talk from their hearts.”
Despite the unique issues surrounding this case, Mayor Bloomberg made clear he has no doubt about how to respond in a brief statement after his meeting at Al Khoei.
“Whether it was senseless violence or a hate crime will be determined down the road, but in either case, we’re just not going to tolerate it in this city,” Mayor Bloomberg said.