Spies Like Us.

It’s not been a good two weeks for law enforcement. The worst of it came first, with the murder of two auxiliary police officers (a quick aside — I know there a myriad reasons for that qualification, but I rankle at its consistent appearance; they died doing police work under the guise of a uniform and a badge), followed in quick succession by the indictments in the Sean Bell case and, now, a rather damning report that the intelligence gathering done in advance of the Republican National Convention in 2004 may have reproduced, if not exceeded, some of the most compromising intrusions on private citizens right to assembly since the Sixties.

The Times reported on Sunday that officers in the Intelligence Division sought to infiltrate a broad range of groups who they believed to be actively organizing protests in advance of the RNC. Based on their review (the materials are still not public), the Times concludes the majority of the organizers were explicit in their intention to demonstrate peacefully and lawfully. This qualification would seem to be a direct violation of the Handschu guidelines, which were established after similar behavior in the Sixities led to a lawsuit preventing such espionage. The NYPD reports that all their efforts were reviewed and determined to not be violations.

These are sad and damning accusations: that those who have been afforded exceptional authority in service of protecting the lives of the innocent (and the rights of the guilty) have abused that exception by continuing to treat those they have determined to be innocent as criminals. Is there a greater betrayal to our notion of democracy? It stands in stark and ugly contradiction to the brave efforts of two young men who crept up a darkened street in pursuit of a murderer and lost their lives because they wished only to protect those very same innocent civilians.

People ask me what this blog is about, and I offer a tortured amalgam of William Whyte, Jimmy Breslin and Michael Sorkin — ostensibly about the unique dialectic of people and place that give New York its character. A character that seems more like a charade each passing year. But people still try, such as the ardent, democratic efforts of citizenry united in opposition to a political figure. It is, after all, the essence our identity. The Boston Tea Party wasn’t a private equity IPO or a reality TV audition.

One of the most crucial notions our Framers introduced was the right of a person to live their life free from oppressive oversight. New York is full of colorful anecdotes that persist and inspire, from Duchamp leading the charge on Washington Square to Wigstock. And there is just as long a tradition of labor and political protest (I’ve been by more than one loud and demonstrative union protest supporting the NYPD and FDNY).

Some groups, such as Billionaires for Bush, are rather sanguine, stating: “We suspect they were looking for stock tips.” And there is a degree of levity and realism contained therein: protest will be subject to attempts at control. Best to not trust those you do not know well in such planning sessions. But when moralizers want to pass judgment on that which they cannot rationalize, we are subject to phrases like “I know obscenity when I see it.” As so it if a fair equivalent to then say that this activity does not pass the smell test.

This is worth belaboring because of the simple principle of our essential rights. But, like the barker says, there’s more. A billion dollars more in this case (this is the estimated value of wrongful arrest cases lodged against the city after the RNC). The vast majority of the 1,800 people detained have been had their charges dropped. Many were held for two days in conditions that were potentially unlawful. And the NYPD wants to prohibit release of this information because it may unfavorably prejudice the cases.

I don’t quite have a good analogy for this, but in essence the city is saying “We spied on a lots of people we knew were innocent. Then we arrested many of them, held them illegally, had to drop charges (in some instances because officers were proved by videotaped evidence to be giving false statements), and now want to defeat the lawsuits by restricting access to this information.” Go ahead, wrap it all up under the rubric of ‘terror threats’ and ‘intelligence operations’.

But the NYPD was infiltrating church groups and sending out missives to distant police agencies because of concerts. I don’t think it’s incumbent upon us to come up with an argument why this is wrong — I think it’s time to ask is the NYPD to present their model of what allowable conduct should be for law-abiding citizens, because the emergent picture implied by events like this might antagonize more than a few aged hippies.

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