The Twenty-First Century Police State

If you thought you had reason to be paranoid in the ’60s, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And what’s even more insulting is that it’s really just more big corporate Amerikkka, with a little globalization thrown in (meaning that a lot of the technology of spying can be more cheaply acquired in overseas markets).

Tomgram: Turse, The Mean Streets of the Homeland Security State-let

Sometime during the demonstrations against the Republican National Convention, which renominated George W. Bush in August 2004, I went on a media protest march down the Valley of the Imperial Media, Sixth Avenue, in the Big Apple. I had certainly been on enough marches in my life, but I was amazed. Back in the Vietnam era, when the police photographed peaceful demonstrators, they tended to do it surreptitiously and out of uniform. Here, police in uniform with video cameras were proudly out in the open shooting what looked like continuous footage of us all. And that was the least of it. We demonstrators were surrounded by a veritable army of police, on horseback, on motorbike, on foot. As I wrote at the time:

“The ‘march,’ which you might want to imagine as a serpentine creature heading south on New York’s Sixth Avenue, had actually been chopped into a series of one-block long segments by the New York Police Department. Each small segment was penned on its sides by moveable wooden barricades and on either end by the wheel-to-wheel bikes of a seemingly endless supply of mounted policemen backed up by all manner of police vehicles… To ‘march,’ that is, actually meant to step from pen to pen, hemmed in everywhere, your protest at the mercy of the timing, tactics, and desires of the police.”

As a light would turn red, your group on your block would be cut off from the group behind and in front of you. There was never a moment when we weren’t, quite literally, penned in. If this was the “freedom” to demonstrate, it managed to feel a lot like being jailed right out on the street.

And that was a modest experience indeed. Jennifer Flynn lived through something far more intense. As a recent Newsday piece put it: “Jennifer Flynn is not a rabble-rouser. She’s not an aspiring suicide bomber. She doesn’t advocate the overthrow of the government. Instead, she pushes for funding and better treatment for people with HIV and AIDS. Better keep an eye on her. Wait! Somebody already did.”

The organization Flynn co-founded was organizing a rally near the Republican convention. The day before it was to be held, while visiting her family in New Jersey, she found her parents’ house staked out and then herself followed by no less than three unmarked cars. She wrote down the license plate of one which, according to Newsday reporter Rocco Parascandola, was traced “back to a company — Pequot Inc. — and a post office box at an address far from the five boroughs [of New York City]. Registering unmarked cars to post office boxes outside the city or to shell companies is a common practice of law enforcement agencies to shield undercover investigators.”

The New York Police Department has denied involvement, but as Nick Turse writes below, in the year before the convention, its undercover teams had traveled the country, Canada, and Europe, conducting covert surveillance of quite peaceful activists. In practice, this is part of what the Global War on Terror has meant here — the granting of an endless license for the draconian to become part of normal life, of what passes for “safety.”

“All we want are the facts, Ma’am,” Sgt. Friday of Dragnet used to say on the TV screen of my childhood. Well, the facts now are that surveillance and “homeland security” add up to a massive, booming business (and not just in Iraq). Already our second defense department, the Department of Homeland Security, has sprouted a second, mini-military-industrial complex — and it’s not just a domestic matter either. When it comes to the profits associated with surveillance and the crackdown, Chinese surveillance companies, already raising money from U.S. institutional investors, are reportedly about to get their first foothold on the New York Stock Exchange.

Today, a world of “safety” that involves techniques and technology once associated with Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is fast becoming life as we know (and accept) it. And there’s more to come. Tom

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NYC, the NYPD, the RNC, and Me: Fortress Big Apple, 2007
By Nick Turse

One day in August, I walked into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan. Nearly three years before I had been locked up, about two blocks away, in “the Tombs” — the infamous jail then named the Bernard B. Kerik Complex for the now-disgraced New York City Police Commissioner. You see, I am one of the demonstrators who was illegally arrested by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during the protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC). My crime had been — in an effort to call attention to the human toll of America’s wars — to ride the subway, dressed in black with the pallor of death about me (thanks to cornstarch and cold cream), and an expression to match, sporting a placard around my neck that read: WAR DEAD.

I was with a small group and our plan was to travel from Union Square to Harlem, change trains, and ride all the way back down to Astor Place. But when my small group exited the train at the 125th Street station in Harlem, we were arrested by a swarm of police, marched to a waiting paddy wagon and driven to a filthy detention center. There, we were locked away for hours in a series of razor-wire-topped pens, before being bussed to the Tombs.

Now, I was back to resolve the matter of my illegal arrest. As I walked through the metal detector of the Federal building, a security official searched my bag. He didn’t like what he found. “You could be shot for carrying that in here,” he told me. “You could be shot.”

For the moment, however, the identification of that dangerous object I attempted to slip into the federal facility will have to wait. Let me instead back up to July 2004, when, with the RNC fast-approaching, I authored an article on the militarization of Manhattan — “the transformation of the island into a ‘homeland-security state'” — and followed it up that September with a street-level recap of the convention protests, including news of the deployment of an experimental sound weapon, the Long Range Acoustic Device, by the NYPD, and the department’s use of an on-loan Fuji blimp as a “spy-in-the-sky.” Back then, I suggested that the RNC gave New York’s “finest,” a perfect opportunity to “refine, perfect, and implement new tactics (someday, perhaps, to be known as the ‘New York model’) for use penning in or squelching dissent. It offered them the chance to write up a playbook on how citizens’ legal rights and civil liberties may be abridged, constrained, and violated at their discretion.”

Little did I know how much worse it could get.

No Escape

Since then, the city’s security forces have eagerly embraced an Escape From New York-aesthetic — an urge to turn Manhattan into a walled-in fortress island under high-tech government surveillance, guarded by heavily armed security forces, with helicopters perpetually overhead. Beginning in Harlem in 2006, near the site of two new luxury condos, the NYPD set up a moveable “two-story booth tower, called Sky Watch,” that gave an “officer sitting inside a better vantage point from which to monitor the area.” The Panopticon-like structure — originally used by hunters to shoot quarry from overhead and now also utilized by the Department of Homeland Security along the Mexican border — was outfitted with black-tinted windows, a spotlight, sensors, and four to five cameras. Now, five Sky Watch towers are in service, rotating in and out of various neighborhoods.

With their 20-25 neighborhood-scanning cameras, the towers are only a tiny fraction of the Big Apple surveillance story. Back in 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that there were “2,397 cameras used by a wide variety of private businesses and government agencies throughout Manhattan” — and that was just one borough. About a year after the RNC, the group reported that a survey of just a quarter of that borough yielded a count of more than 4,000 surveillance cameras of every kind. At about the same time, military-corporate giant Lockheed Martin was awarded a $212 million contract to build a “counter-terrorist surveillance and security system for New York’s subways and commuter railroads as well as bridges and tunnels” that would increase the camera total by more than 1,000. A year later, as seems to regularly be the case with contracts involving the military-corporate complex, that contract had already ballooned to $280 million, although the system was not to be operational until at least 2008.

In 2006, according to a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) spokesman, the MTA already had a “3,000-camera-strong surveillance system,” while the NYPD was operating “an additional 3,000 cameras” around the city. That same year, Bill Brown, a member of the Surveillance Camera Players — a group that leads surveillance-camera tours and maps their use around the city, estimated, according to a Newsweek article, that the total number of surveillance cameras in New York exceeded 15,000 — “a figure city officials say they have no way to verify because they lack a system of registry.” Recently, Brown told me that 15,000 was an estimate for the number of cameras in Manhattan, alone. For the city as a whole, he suspects the count has now reached about 40,000.

This July, NYPD officials announced plans to up the ante. By the end of 2007, according to the New York Times, they pledged to install “more than 100 cameras” to monitor “cars moving through Lower Manhattan, the beginning phase of a London-style surveillance system that would be the first in the United States.” This “Ring of Steel” scheme, which has already received $10 million in funding from the Department of Homeland Security (in addition to $15 million in city funds), aims to exponentially decrease privacy because, if “fully financed, it will include…. 3,000 public and private security cameras below Canal Street, as well as a center staffed by the police and private security officers” to monitor all those electronic eyes.

Spies in the Sky

At the time of the RNC, the NYPD was already mounted on police horses, bicycles, and scooters, as well as an untold number of marked and unmarked cars, vans, trucks, and armored vehicles, not to mention various types of water-craft. In 2007, the two-wheeled Segway joined its list of land vehicles.

Overhead, the NYPD aviation unit, utilizing seven helicopters, proudly claims to be “in operation 24/7, 365,” according to Deputy Inspector Joseph Gallucci, its commanding officer. Not only are all the choppers outfitted with “state of the art cameras and heat-sensing devices,” as well as “the latest mapping, tracking and surveillance technology,” but one is a “$10 million ‘stealth bird,’ which has no police markings — [so] that those on the ground have no idea they are being watched.”

Asked about concerns over intrusive spying by members of the aviation unit — characterized by Gallucci as “a bunch of big boys who like big expensive toys” — Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly scoffed. “We’re not able to, even if we wanted, to look into private spaces,” he told the New York Times. “We’re looking at public areas.” However, in 2005, it was revealed that, on the eve of the RNC protests, members of the aviation unit took a break and used their night-vision cameras to record “an intimate moment” shared by a “couple on the terrace of a Second Avenue penthouse.”

Despite this incident, which only came to light because the same tape included images that had to be turned over to a defendant in an unrelated trial, Kelly has called for more aerial surveillance. The commissioner apparently also got used to having the Fuji blimp at his disposal, though he noted that “it’s not easy to send blimps into the airspace over New York.” He then “challenged the aerospace industry to find a solution” that would, no doubt, bring the city closer to life under total surveillance.

Read the rest here.

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