NYC activist groups react to new NYPD spy tactics
published: January 17, 2006
One of the suspects is a burly man in his forties clad in a Harley-Davidson shirt and denim jacket, holding a video camera. Another is a fit-looking fellow, his hair shorn very close on the sides, who has stopped to chat on his phone. A guy with sunglasses and a buttoned-up jean jacket and his buddy in shades and fisherman’s hat also arouse suspicion. There’s just something about these four that screams “cop.”
They are among the two dozen or so suspected “undercover” NYPD officers whose photos adorn a fridge at the Houston Street office of Time’s Up!, the environmental activist group known for its participation in Critical Mass bike events around the city. The collection of snapshots has been growing for a while, says organizer Bill DiPaolo. But recently they’ve taken on new significance.
The Voice reported last month that lawyers who have for decades challenged NYPD surveillance of activist groups are taking issue with a new police policy that allows widespread videotaping of political expression (“The Spying Game,” December 13). A few days later The New York Times revealed videotape evidence of undercover cops not only watching political events like Critical Mass rallies, but also participating in and even manipulating them.
This news of more aggressive local snooping came amid revelations that federal surveillance had also reached previously unknown dimensions:
The National Security Agency has eavesdropped in the United States on an unknown number of phone calls and e-mails and analyzed traffic involving even more transmissions.
The FBI has monitored groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, and Catholic Workers (a group that, according to an FBI memo uncovered by the ACLU, “advocated peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology”).
A database created by the Pentagon’s TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) system listed several protests, including a Quaker meeting in Florida, as “suspicious incidents.”
For anti-war groups in the city, the revelations come at a critical time: The third anniversary of the Iraq invasion is approaching, and polls suggest the public is turning against U.S. military involvement there, so it’s an important moment for enlisting new supporters. For groups like Time’s Up!, the newly exposed tactics signal an escalation in a long battle.
To all activists, merely the news of these aggressive tactics can have a chilling effect. The question facing each group is whether and how to react.
Defenders of increased surveillance routinely say that the 9-11 attacks ushered in a new reality. But law enforcement has waded into these waters before. FBI agents infiltrated and disrupted political groups in the ’60s and ’70s as part of COINTELPRO. In the last days of segregation, Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission spied on civil rights meetings. For decades, “red squads” in places like Chicago, Detroit, and New York hound-ed local dissidents. When these activities were exposed, lawsuits and laws established new rules for gathering intelligence—and experienced activists began to devise ways to neutralize government espionage.
Author Brian Glick outlined some of these methods in the 1989 book War at Home: “Deal openly with the form and content of what anyone says and does. . . . Establish a process through which anyone who suspects an infiltrator can express his or her fears without scaring others.” And once an agent has been uncovered, he said, spread the word. (A professor at Fordham Law School, Glick is considering updating the book to address the new tactics of the war on terror.)
DiPaolo from Time’s Up! says the group has been taking countermeasures for years, like starting a video collective to gather evidence of spying and passing around the snapshots of suspected undercovers. But with the news of intensified police tactics, DiPaolo says, “we’re stepping up our meetings to address the subject,” and considering lawsuits.
Time’s Up! is also encouraging members who think they spot a cop “to try and talk to them and find out who they are,” DiPaolo says. Doing so makes people nervous because they might be singled out for arrest. “So you have to do it a certain way,” he says, with one person asking, one person taping, and a third person taping the other two.
The trick, of course, is figuring out who’s a cop; it’s not an exact science. “They just don’t fit in. They’re very quiet. They don’t talk to anybody. They do things that are very intimidating,” says DiPaolo of the suspected officers. “We think we know who they are.”
But a quiet, solitary person could just as well be a nervous newcomer as an undercover police officer. And that’s why it’s tricky for activists to start trying to out spies.
“I think we need to have a healthy paranoia,” says Bill Dobbs, spokesman for the umbrella anti-war group United for Peace and Justice, which is calling for local groups around the country to plan events for the March 19 war anniversary. But Dobbs is leery of activist groups launching aggressive efforts to identify undercover cops. “There’s no way of telling, and to get into finger-pointing and trying to ascertain if somebody might be working for the government can cause more harm than somebody working for the government.”
That’s one reason why several local groups surveyed by the Voice responded to the NYPD revelations with shrugs. Says Sally Connors of the Granny Peace Brigade, “If they want to listen to us debate whether to wear armbands or babushkas, let them knock themselves out.”
Although most local groups don’t plan to adopt countermeasures, the police tactics are having an impact.
Chuck Zlatkin of Chelsea Neighbors United to End the War, which holds vigils every Tuesday night at Eighth Avenue and 24th Street, says the veteran activists who now attend aren’t put off by surveillance. But, he adds, “Those who don’t join us, that’s where [the chilling effect] comes from—people who are afraid of that.”
The dilemma for organizers is that those are the people they most want to enlist—not hardened activists but folks from the middle ground whose consciences have been aroused. They’re not people who are likely to enjoy playing cat and mouse with cops. Time’s Up! blames its bad relationship with the police for the dwindling number of families at Critical Mass bike events. Immigrants might be especially reluctant to risk interacting with the fuzz.
New York Civil Liberties Union associate legal director Christopher Dunn says a number of groups have called in since the Times article worried about police spying. Their fears illustrate how police tactics can undermine organizations.
“Most groups rely on people who don’t necessarily know each other,” says Dunn, “and they’re always trying to recruit new people to work on their activities. And when you all of a sudden have to worry about whether people are cops, it really puts a damper on organizing activities. You get a phone call asking about an event, and you wonder if this is a cop.”
It seems that activist groups are boxed in. Trying to expose police spies might sow division. Letting them roam spurs distrust. However, there are ways to resist surveillance or infiltration. One is filing a freedom-of-information request to see if you or your group has been targeted. NYCLU is planning to file a number of these very soon on behalf of activist groups. “It creates a legal avenue through which one might be able to force disclosure about certain types of surveillance,” Dunn says.
Activists might never know if the police are watching them. Many just assume that they are. Some take solace in the logic that the cops wouldn’t bother spying unless the message was starting to resonate. “You’d think they wouldn’t care about a bunch of grandmothers, but we’re making an impact, I guess,” says Joan Wile of Grandmothers Against the War, part of the Grannies for Peace coalition.
Another comfort, says DiPaolo, is that the exposure of police tactics can also have a chilling effect upon the police themselves. After seeing cops at events for years, DiPaolo got a surprise at a recent memorial to fallen bicyclists. “They weren’t there,” he says.