It is the politically white-hot evening of November 1 last year — on the eve of one of the most consequential presidential elections in U.S. history. A burly, dressed-downed figure is storming toward a row of overflow holding pens in a precinct station house, in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, while tauntingly shouting out the name “Hawk Newsome!” over a din of plaintiff chatter.
The stranger seeks to suss out Walter “Hawk” Newsome, cofounder of the Greater New York Chapter of Black Lives Matter, who has already endured nearly five grueling hours of isolation. That seemed to him to be punishment inflicted before being brought to trial. Along with scores of antiracism demonstrators protesting the bald-faced trespasses of the MAGA far right in their city that Sunday, Newsome had been summarily snatched off the streets, supposedly by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and rendered to this cold and drafty lockdown.
A self-described “officially recognized” New York Police Department “community liaison” — not authorized to speak about counterintelligence operations they’ve “heard others being briefed on” — told the Voice on condition of anonymity that the activist is among “the highest-profile black militants” most likely to be under surveillance at any given time. He can’t be left alone, the watchdog claims, “because of the charismatic role he continues to play” in the urban theatre of Black identity and anti-police-brutality accountability politics.
“I’m paranoid, brother,” says the 44-year-old Newsome as he sits down to Halal food in the Bronx 10 months later. He hastens to bring up an incident in which an overwhelming presence of “human eyeballs” tracked his movements the day he marched with 20,000 souls in Times Square to deliver a legislative action plan called “Black Opportunities.” His observers, according to Newsome, wore buttoned-up polo shirts with a distinctive American eagle insignia, and dark slacks. “I noticed these guys in these weird shirts standing next to my fucking car and I was like, ‘Damn, is this the Feds? This ain’t NYPD.’ ” During another march, he encountered the same crew and took photos of their attire. “We got the shirts, and it was NYPD counterintelligence,” he says. “It was counterterrorism.”
But nowhere did this paranoia kick in more fiercely than in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where George Floyd, trapped under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, had begged futilely for his life. Dogged by grief, Newsome led a delegation of BLMers to the site where Floyd’s knell of death — “I can’t breathe!” — became the anthem of a new generation of civil rights warriors.
And there, Newsome recalls, the spies, the enemies of Black lives, followed them. As he tells it, a young white man, who’d been tailing the group for several blocks, pounced on them as they sprawled out on a sidewalk, weary from marching and shouting themselves hoarse. He kept asking too many questions, “Hey, what are you guys doing out here? Where you from? Do you know what the fucking plan is?”
Newsome spoke out, letting their tormentor have it, just in case he happened to be “Minneapolice” or “FBeye.” “Don’t nobody know what the fucking plan is!” he sneered.
The man kept on babbling, digging for the answers: “What you guys doing down here?” Again, Newsome bristled. “Nobody knows what the fucking plan is! It’s the will of the people. We down here to support the people. Who wanna march, then we march with the people.” To dispel any lingering doubt that he’d blown the cover of an agent provocateur, Newsome turned to his followers and declared, “We gotta get the fuck outta here!”
What really landed Newsome behind bars back in his hometown of New York seven months later was the police expectation of a throwdown in defense of social and racial equality going terribly awry (we will come back to this in detail later.) But the crushing denouement of the would-be clash with the far right may have a lot to do with who this native son is, and what one federal court judge referred to as the “unlawful surveillance of African American groups” and leaders “solely based upon … race, social and or political positions.”
Newsome would be equally, if more intensely, scrutinized if he crossed the line into New York’s suburban Rockland County. Almost all of the admitted spying on Black Lives Matter and other movements for social justice in the upstate county, where a little-known challenge to their First Amendment right to free speech was fiercely litigated, has been accomplished via outlaw enforcement of so-called “intelligence-led policing.” The social and political ramifications of this blunt force instrument of suppression would extend far beyond Rockland County, as law-enforcement authorities and law-and-order hawks sought the upper hand in their war of attrition against the Black Lives Matter movement.
As early as 2013, as the Black Lives Matter movement burgeoned in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, in Florida, law-enforcement officials in Rockland County, under the guise of wanting to combat “criminal activity” with a bigger stick, entered into a security pact between the county and the town of Clarkstown, one of its five municipalities. That scheme, for want of a better description, would come to be known as the Rockland County Intelligence-Led Policing and Prosecution Center, Special Investigations Unit (SIU). It was flawed from the beginning.
At best, the SIU’s attempt to “monitor, collect and share data” about criminals operated more like a fishing expedition. At worst, it included surveillance of the Rockland County chapter of Black Lives Matter, and attempts to ensnare them. The SIU had also trained its focus on other Black activist groups, which at the time were warning that systemic police violence was endangering the lives of Black men and boys.
According to court documents, in July 2015, the SIU “learned of the existence of ‘WE THE PEOPLE,’ an African American community group in Rockland County with no criminal records or history of violence.” As part of its mission to awaken consciences around the topic of racially motivated police shootings of Black people, We the People planned to stage a play entitled A Clean Shoot? The court documents went on to note: “Advertisements for the play featured an image of a police car with a ‘white subject pointing a handgun out of the vehicle window.’ ”
Barely a month later, according to the same documents, the SIU “conducted an electronic investigation” of We the People. Again, despite not finding one iota of incriminating evidence that “any of the members of WE THE PEOPLE were engaged in or were reasonably suspected to engage in criminal activity,” the SIU generated a report rife with innuendo. By November 2015, according to the SIU and Rockland County DA reports, the unit had “conducted electronic surveillance on two Black Lives Matter Movement members [but] found no criminal misconduct or threat of criminal conduct from Black Lives Matter or those two individuals.” Despite concluding that there wasn’t “any justifiable basis” for spying on the group and its members, the SIU ramped up “electronic surveillance” on six other BLMers — and again it came up empty.
But concern that the unit might be going rogue raised more than a few eyebrows of those who had been peering into its activities. “I mentioned before, you really should not have Black Lives Matter listed as a target for surveillance,” the Rockland County DA’s office chafed in an email to SIU director Stephen Cole-Hatchard. The SIU, presumably, had by then taken on the starkness of a SEAL Team and become a law unto itself. During a Black Lives Matter rally, in July 2016, activists “observed snipers from the Clarkstown police department on a nearby roof.” Vanessa Green, a Black Lives Matter member, said that during a speech delivered by Dr. Weldon McWilliams IV, a preacher and founding member of the Black Lives Matter Lower Hudson Valley Chapter, she “saw a red sniper rifle dot appear on” him.
In a federal lawsuit it filed against the town of Clarkstown, the Black Lives Matter group maintained that their activities were based entirely on a “call for justice” and racial equality and “that the killing of unarmed people of color by law enforcement must stop.” In a mixed ruling in 2018, Judge Nelson S. Román, for the Southern District of New York, agreed with the activists that they had the “right to be free from retaliatory surveillance and intimidation” and that the surveillance “resulted in the chilling” of their expression of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Judge Román opined that the BLMers’ “pursuit falls squarely within matters of public concern, particularly at a time when awareness of violence between law enforcement and unarmed people of color is rapidly increasing.”
However, he also ruled that SIU director Cole-Hatchard and another town official were entitled to “qualified immunity,” meaning (in this interpretation of the trending hot-button issue in American policing) they were “not personally involved” in the SIU’s “illegal actions.”
With protests erupting daily throughout the nation and the world over the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Tamir Rice, and other unarmed Blacks, targeted surveillance allegedly led to a further uptick in so-called false flag attacks being carried out against the myriad movements for Black lives and legacy civil rights organizations. Rogue law-enforcement officials and their far right compatriots have sought to hamstring some of Black America’s most outspoken political leaders and anti-racism activists through trumped-up arrests, malicious prosecution, and frivolous lawsuits.
Local and federal law-enforcement agencies operating under the aegis of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which may have been involved in knocking Hawk Newsome off his bully pulpit, have been following all too familiar tactics drawn from the playbook of COINTELPRO — the FBI’s dark and dreadful Counter Intelligence Program, which infiltrated, discredited, and encouraged the assassination of leaders of the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s and ’70s. That COINTELPRO now rears its ugly head, disguised as intelligence-led policing, may augur ill for the Black Lives Matter movement, and should come as no surprise.
“It continues today,” the veteran radical lawyer Lennox S. Hinds tells the Voice. “Nothing has changed in terms of the approach that law enforcement has taken,” adds Hinds, who defended the Black communist Angela Davis, Black Liberation Army fugitive Assata Shakur, and, later, wrote the prescient Illusions of Justice: Human Rights Violations in the United States. “There is still a coalition between federal and local law enforcement in the sense that the local police forces have an intelligence unit, which is linked with the FBI. And who they are targeting are the modern or contemporary individuals and groups they identify as domestic security risks.”
Law for Black Lives, a relatively new organization of radical lawyers advocating for social change, is one such group that attracted the attention of the federal government. The FBI launched an investigation of Law for Black Lives, alleging that it is part of a domestic terrorist network. According to one account, unpacked by Hinds and shared for the first time with the Voice, the probe had been kept under the radar until the FBI notified Law for Black Lives that it was the target of surveillance.
“I was contacted to provide some legal representation because the founders of Law for Black Lives were contacted by the FBI,” affirms Hinds, himself a founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL), the 53-year-old, once-feared bulwark against FBI overreach. (The group had been on hiatus for the past 15 years, but in the wake of the creation of Law for Black Lives, which had stepped in to fill the void left by its predecessor, it is staging a comeback within the younger, more alacritous movements for Black lives.)
Law for Black Lives itself is an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement. “When that movement emerged, the intelligence unit of the FBI and local law enforcement began targeting them identical to COINTELPRO,” Hinds claims. “They were trying to find out who these people were, who came up with this slogan and this organization. What is their background? Who they’re linked with, etc.” The aim of the FBI, Hinds alleges, is to undermine the core mission and purpose of groups like Law for Black Lives.
“There will be demonstrations out there and demonstrators are going to be arrested,” Hinds offers. “They’re going to need bail, they’re going to need people to represent them in court, because when people demonstrate, try to exercise their First Amendment rights, they end up being criminalized. Police beat them up and charge them with assault. So, you will need this new generation of radical lawyers to defend them.”
Seething with outrage fueled by unprecedented public mourning over George Floyd’s gruesome murder, Hawk Newsome’s BLMers had signaled a more hard-line stance against a heap of MAGATS (Make America Great Again Trump Sycophants) who had descended on a still-
COVID-ravaged New York City that Sunday before the presidential elections.
The threat alone of direct action would not have sufficed to rout the MAGATS back to their malodorous swamp: Because, as Newsome puts it, “If you don’t meet these white supremacists head on they grow in power.” Etched in Newsome’s psyche is the “Unite the Right” rally stomping, with murderous consequences, through Charlottesville, Virginia. A prevaricating President Donald Trump had given free rein to what the journactivist and professor Jason Johnson calls “the Ku Klux and its Klan.” With Trump’s tacit agreement, the KKK openly recruited diehard nativists to embolden its resurgence under the MAGA leader’s watch.
“So, we’re not having it, right?” recalls Newsome that recent afternoon in the Bronx, as the Voice jogged his memory about the day the MAGATS came to town, and how it was he, not they, who got thrown in jail. “We got down there [only to realize] it was the police turning on us, trying to stop us from walking down certain streets, trying to disband what we were putting together instead of focusing on these Trump supporters.”
Inside the precinct, Newsome was isolated from the rest of the detainees in a cell down the hall. So, hearing his name being bandied about the joint unnerved the paranoid brother. It had echoed from what turned out to be the jolting megaphone voice of a white detective. Newsome instantly disliked the man’s persona. This wasn’t your typical “po-po”: In Newsome’s mind, the guy was a ranking Five-O, a sinister face of NYPD intelligence.
“Hawk Newsome!” The prisoner’s name rang out once more, with that type of I’m-coming-for-you resonance one would expect from criminal-underworld woofin’. “He seemed like a very arrogant white man who didn’t give a damn about me,” Newsome recalls thinking at the time. After the cop confirmed Newsome’s suspicion that he was indeed from NYPD intelligence, Newsome lashed out. “Don’t you have any white supremacists to investigate? Because according to the FBI, they’re the biggest terrorist threat in the country.”
The cop seemed nonplussed by the question, the way Newsome tells it, treating it more like a flippant joke. “Well, I was out, hanging out in Long Island with my son, and they called me and told me I had to investigate you,” the cop reportedly retorted. “So, I need to know what’s going on with you and Black Lives Matter.” Newsome was so energized by the banter that he was oblivious to the hushed silence at the time: Everyone, it seemed, was eavesdropping. But that lull gave him time to reload on the fly a rapid fire of full-throated zingers for the man he now calls “a racist white boy.” (Newsome wanted to make clear why he had used the belittling pejorative so candidly, in his talk with the Voice.)
“I was like, ‘Don’t you understand why we out here fighting? Don’t you know what this is about?’ And he looked me square in my eye and said, ‘To me, all lives matter.’ Now, this is not something that average white people say. This is something that racist white people say. This is something that Republicans say…. When somebody looks you in your face and says, ‘All lives matter,’ that means they’re against you and everything you stand for. And what’s crazy is … what’s concerning is, this is the NYPD counterterrorism unit. This is a small department with a lot of power that they use not for terrorists, but for protesters. So it’s amazing how they classify us who are fighting for civil rights. They classify us as terrorists.”
Next, the investigator teasingly broached the topic of comedian and rapper Nick Cannon’s close ties with Newsome’s chapter of Black Lives Matter. Cannon has been one of the group’s most gracious benefactors, promoting and funding its causes and direct-action protests throughout the country. “So, you and Nick Cannon are building your own police force, and you want to replace all white cops?” asked the officer, gnawing at the raw red meat MAGATS relish. It was a mocking reference to published remarks Newsome says were taken out of context. “No!” he told his inquisitor. “Actually, what I said was, ‘We’re going to defend our communities at all costs.’ That’s what I said.”
Now, it’s “the white boy” playing the race card: “You and Nick Cannon, you’re going to kick all the white police out of your communities?”
“Did you read the article?” Newsome asked him, growing resentful of the bad Abbott and Costello routine that seemed to be drowning out matters of real life and death. “Did you actually read the article and listen to the interview, so you can know exactly what we’re doing? And he said, ‘No, I don’t get into all of that.’ He didn’t do his research and he didn’t care. Either that or he was just trying to get me excited to get [an actionable] response out of me.”
Then Newsome “flipped it back on him”—that false concern the cop had expressed over the exclusion of whites and white cops in particular from the possibly all-new, totally Black-run neighborhoods: “You should be more worried about white supremacists than about us because they’re the ones responsible for the most bloodshed in this country, for centuries of bloodshed in this country.” So, no, he’s not building racist outposts, Newsome emphasized to the cop. What he wants is that DMX moment of temporary sanity before he totally loses his mind “up in here.” What he wants, to put it explicitly, is to “get the fuck outta here!”
Not giving up, Newsome continued to lay out to his interrogator what he believes is the NYPD’s hidden motive behind its stepped-up campaign of illegal surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement. “So, this is what y’all do, right? This is what NYPD counterterrorism does. They follow people around who are fighting for rights for Black people — people who feed our communities, people who open schools in their communities. You’re fighting against us who are really doing good. Y’all are fucking jokes.”
After that, the cop who’d reluctantly taken on the impossible assignment of flipping Hawk Newsome left without so much as a goodbye. “In all honesty, I got the sense that he had the feeling I wasn’t going to say anything to him, but he had to come and see me as a formality. You know what I mean?”
This whole experience of agitating against police brutality while having to watch one’s back from all fronts has given Newsome a thicker skin, which he says doubles as psychological armor for this paranoia triggered by injustice. “We are the only group that I know of who didn’t grow during George Floyd,” he says. “We didn’t want any new members. We actually cut. We lost members. We were very paranoid…. Our [leadership] circle is very, very, very small — just in case they trying to infiltrate.” ❖