The Spying Game

New York cops and civil libertarians resume their fight over political surveillance

It's worth remembering that the issue here isn't whether the cops can surreptitiously investigate terrorist groups or potential plans for criminal activity by violent protesters like the window-smashing anti-globalization crowd. That's all fair game under the rules approved by the court in '03. Police may also film arrests at a demonstration or crimes in progress, as well as install closed-circuit cameras to patrol high-crime areas.

Interim Order 47 is about something else entirely: the filming and photographing of constitutionally protected protests.

Marching in a demonstration is different from voting, or reading political literature, or even sending a letter to your member of congress. Stepping out into the streets in political protest means that friends, neighbors, or co-workers could see you on the evening news. The media can film you doing it. But while a protester gives up his or her right to be strictly anonymous, "you're not giving up the right to be free from being in a police file for the rest of your life," says Jethro Eisenstein, another one of the Handschulawyers.

It's not clear that the police are creating such files. But it is clear that they are making videotapes. In one example, the cop cameras were present two weekends ago at a small protest in front of the mayor's townhouse, where people were advocating that the city seek more control from Albany over rent control laws.

Of course, bigger protests also get taped. A report by the NYCLU contends that during the 2004 Republican National Convention, "countless numbers of police officers with video cameras filmed tens of thousands of people who were engaged in wholly lawful and peaceful activity."

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