Civil Rights attorney Norman Siegel called a press conference Sunday, “outraged” that the NYPD was taking photographs of demonstrators at last Thursday’s school closing protest in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house. He was responding to a story posted by the Voice last Friday, in which our video shows NYPD personnel taking photographs inside and from the roof of the Rudolf Steiner school, adjacent to Mayor Bloomberg’s residence.
Siegel believes the video shows the NYPD violating the Handschu Agreement, the result of the landmark court case in which a group of activists successfully sued New York City for using the NYPD to intimidate demonstrators and suppress free speech.
“Handschu sets limits, when there’s a first amendment protest activity, of what the police department can do with regard to recording people’s activities,” says Siegel. If there’s no unlawful activity going on, photography shouldn’t be happening.
But Paul Browne, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, says the photography wasn’t improper. “At the direction of Department legal personnel present, the NYPD took still photographs of the demonstration — none of them focused on individuals — for crowd control planning purposes permitted under Handshu.”
Siegel was representing about a dozen parents, educators and students who had attended the peaceful protest. On their behalf, he said “We want an explanation as to, one, why these officers were taking pictures of the protesters, and two, what is the NYPD planning to do with these pictures?”
Julie Cavanaugh, a teacher and organizer of the protest, said the NYPD surveillance creates a “climate of intimidation.” Many demonstrators expressed a fear of not just of being targeted as troublemakers by the NYPD, but also within the Department of Education, which is under Bloomberg’s control.
“The Mayor controls eights seats [of 13] of PEP [Panel for Educational Policy]” says Seung Ok, a teacher at Maxwell High School. Maxwell is one of 19 schools that could be closed at the next PEP meeting on Tuesday, and Ok, who is fighting the closing, thinks the photographs are just one more form of intimidation for people who speak out.
Khem Irby, an elected parent leader who has kids in the school system, said “I am a little fearful for my children” after being photographed. “If someone knows who you are, sometimes things happen.”
The origins of Handschu go back four decades, but the issues it raises are far from settled. Just last Friday, the Times ran a story about the city failing to properly notify a plaintiff in a lawsuit about an update in Handschu. The judge in that case, Charles S. Haight Jr. of United States District Court in Manhattan, has continuing jurisdiction over Handschu. If the NYPD fails to adequately answer Siegel’s questions, “We will file a formal complaint with Judge Wright.”