Recently, the Voice wrote about a trove of historically significant records that the city had mysteriously mislaid. Lawyers for New York City had told a judge that the New York Police Department was unable to locate decades worth of records of its surveillance, infiltration, and sabotage of political movements. As we wrote at the time, the judge ultimately accepted the city’s dog-ate-my-homework argument, and it appeared that this important trove documenting some of the worst excesses of police repression might be deep-sixed forever.
After the Voice story, NY1’s Dean Meminger followed up, asking NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Lawrence Byrne about the missing documents at a press conference. At the time, Byrne all but shrugged: “Its not at all unusual or nefarious that physical documents or folders from the 1970s have disappeared,” Byrne said. “But this goes back 45 years. It’s unfortunate, we’ll continue to search for it, but we haven’t been able to locate it.”
Remarkably, two days ago, the city announced that the records it had been unable to find throughout the course of a two-year lawsuit — more than 500 boxes of documents and photographs — had serendipitously been rediscovered in a warehouse in Queens. Not that the media scrutiny had anything to do with the discovery, mind you. As Jeffrey Dantowitz, assistant corporation council, wrote in a letter announcing the find, the records were discovered by the New York City Department of Records “while conducting a routine inventory.”
Johanna Fernandez, a Baruch College history professor, first began looking for the NYPD records nearly a decade ago, as she was researching a book on the Young Lords. The Lords were a Puerto Rican nationalist group active in New York in the 1970s, who, among other things, were instrumental in driving reforms to improve the living conditions of poor residents of Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. Fernandez knew that the NYPD records of surveillance of the Lords had once existed, because she had documents from other sources alluding to the records. She also knew that under the terms of the Handschu Decree — the settlement that restricts the NYPD’s ability to monitor or interfere with people based on their political or religious activity — the NYPD wasn’t allowed to transfer or destroy the records of its previous political surveillance without getting permission from the Municipal Archives, which they hadn’t done. So where were the records? Fernandez got the runaround from the department, and in 2014 she sued for access.
The Young Lords records Fernandez sought were part of a much larger archive of police surveillance. When Joseph Settanni, an archive consultant, was brought in to take stock of the material in 1989, after a previous episode of NYPD intransigence in making the records available, his report documented file cabinet after file cabinet of surveillance reports, photographs, audio tapes, and index cards containing information on New Yorkers’ political activities. “The subject matter of the cards covers diverse information that was collected by the Intelligence Division on individuals or organizations,” Settani wrote, before appending a random sampling of entries from some of the cards, including: “Signers of Communist Party petition”; “Attended the ‘Assembly of Unrepresented People’ in Washington, D.C. to protest the War in Vietnam”; “Name appears as an officer of Catholic Lay Teachers involved in labor negotiations”; and “Spoke at Pro-Israel rally.” There is a section entitled the “Pacifist File,” as well as one devoted to the Nation of Islam.
In the course of Fernandez’s lawsuit, city lawyers told Judge Alice Schlesinger that there were no records of any transfer to the Municipal Archives, and that the documents were nowhere to be found at police headquarters. When Fernandez lost her suit last month, it looked like the records might be down the memory hole forever.
The question of just when and how the 500-plus boxes of documents made their way to a Municipal Archive facility in Queens remains unanswered, as does the question of how they came to be fortuitously discovered mere months after the city insisted a thorough search had turned up nothing.
Whatever the case, Fernandez says she considers the discovery of the documents — to which she now has access — a victory. “We’ve won an insight into the history of New York and the relationship of its people who want to see a more democratic society to the police,” she said. “These records are important not only for what they tell us about the history of police violations of civil liberties — an issue that’s still very relevant today — but ironically, because of the breadth of the surveillance, they also tell us something about life in New York and in America. They show us facets of New York history that we would not otherwise have had access to if the police hadn’t been so obsessively surveilling people.”
Gideon Oliver, Fernandez’s lawyer in the suit (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a personal friend), said he is elated at the uncovering of the documents. “Even though we lost the lawsuit, this is a complete victory,” he said. “It goes to reprove the movement-lawyering principle that the legal challenge
is not always the most important thing. In this case, the discovery happened as a result of the litigation, but also the political pressure around it.”
Fernandez agrees. “When I got the email that they had been found, my first thought was that Frederick Douglass quote: ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress,’ ” Fernandez said. “If you don’t force the city to account for its actions, and to make good on its promise to make these records public, they would not have surfaced. It’s not a coincidence that the records showed up immediately after there was media attention around this issue.”