Who's Watching?

NYC activist groups react to new NYPD spy tactics

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."

Grandmothers Against the War at their weekly Fifth Avenue vigil. No police were present. Or were they?
photo: Shiho Fukada
Grandmothers Against the War at their weekly Fifth Avenue vigil. No police were present. Or were they?


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.

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