Security or Suppression?

Examining NYPD Crackdowns on Activists

In answering criticism about the "debriefing form," police never mentioned any suspicions of terrorism, even though such fears have been the department's overriding justification for greater political investigation power. Similarly, although the NYPD argued security concerns in forbidding an anti-war march past the United Nations on February 15, it conceded having no specific information about terrorist threats when asked in court. And when people recently were arrested for convening on a midtown sidewalk to protest a prominent Defense Department contractor, police also failed to cite any terrorism-related worries.

The stricter policing of protesters seems to be happening for its own sake. Kelly explained the unauthorized political questioning as a well-meant attempt "to help us determine what resources are needed to police certain demonstrations in the future." O'Looney said, "The department will continue to ask arrestees questions regarding the name of their organization" to plan for "future events."

With the war in Iraq apparently fading, only one upcoming political issue holds the potential to galvanize hundreds of thousands to take to the streets: the arrival next summer of President George W. Bush to showcase his re-election bid in post-September 11 New York. Asked whether the 2004 GOP convention was among the "future events" for which the NYPD was gathering intelligence, O'Looney said, "We are only in the committee stage of looking at security measures."

But over a year in advance is not at all soon to begin the mammoth security preparations the convention will require, according to John Timoney, who was first deputy commissioner of the NYPD during the 1992 Democratic convention here and then chief of police during the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia. Now chief of police in Miami, he told the Voice last week, "I guarantee you they've already started planning, getting intelligence of a general nature." In 1992, he said, "I began planning for that literally a year ahead of time. And that was for a Democratic convention, with no sitting president."

In advance work for the 2000 GOP convention, Timoney sparked criticism from civil libertarians for conducting surveillance at non-public activist meetings and photographing protesters not just in his city but also at protests in Seattle and New York. His officers monitored protest plans on the Internet and arrested activist leaders—some said as a preemptive tactic to prevent them from directing protests. Philadelphia police had the help of thousands of agents from the FBI, Secret Service, and other police forces.

Even so, protesters managed to vandalize police cars, deface City Hall, and, in the thousands, throng major intersections downtown to block traffic. The Republican mayor and governor of New York are unlikely to permit such blemishes to mar the patriotic backdrop that the national GOP envisaged when picking this unlikely town for its pep rally. The convention will culminate with a Bush speech on September 2 at Madison Square Garden, just days before the third anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Within one week of the January 6 announcement that the Republican convention was coming to New York, "we told the NYPD about wanting to talk about how protests are going to be policed," said Dunn of the NYCLU. The organization's former director, Norman Siegel, negotiated with police on behalf of protesters in 1992. He said last week that police moves so far this year signal a harsher approach in 2004. For instance, the arresting of protesters who crowd sidewalks without first issuing a warning to disperse is a pattern he called "unprecedented."

Asked whether convention preparation would include what many consider to be the most invasive tactic, undercover infiltration of activist groups, O'Looney said, "The answer is no." But this year the city won the right to do precisely that, when it got the 1985 surveillance ban—called the Handschu agreement after one of many activist plaintiffs who sued the city in 1971 for unconstitutional surveillance—loosened by citing terrorism concerns.

The NYCLU has demanded that police issue written guidelines for political questioning. Such internal rules already exist, as compelled by the judge who eased the 1985 surveillance ban, but activists' lawyers in that case want the regulations spelled out in an enforceable court order. They have also demanded that the city preserve any remaining records on the "debriefing form" for future litigation, and the city has agreed.

In the meantime, Timoney anticipated high tension over the big political standoff to come, given partisan clashes, post-September 11 anxiety about security, and the daunting physics of cramming 50,000 Republicans into midtown Manhattan. The most volatile factor, he laughed: "It's New York."

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