Activists organizing protests against police brutality in New York are marking Martin Luther King Day with a march beginning in Harlem. Some attendees might be surprised along the way to encounter officers in blue jackets with the words "NYPD Counter Terrorism" emblazoned on the back. But Linda Sarsour, a prominent Muslim-American activist and member of the anti-police brutality group Justice League NYC, one of the sponsors of the march, is almost used to it by now.
As head of the Arab American Association of New York, Sarsour has been a leader in the fight against police misconduct. Much of her energy has gone into speaking out against the NYPD's expansive spying program that since 9/11 has targeted Muslims and activists. She's part of a broad coalition trying to change policies ranging from surveillance to " broken windows" policing, the philosophy that going after minor offenses will deter serious crime.
"When I see counterterrorism folks amongst protesters, it sends me a message that I'm the enemy, and that they are trying to keep other New Yorkers safe from those protesting for their civil rights," said Sarsour. "It vilifies the people who are being peaceful and asking for something they should already have, asking for things like ending of police brutality."
The police wearing the counterterrorism jackets at protests are perhaps the most palpable sign of the agency's transformation since 2001. Before 9/11 the NYPD had no counterterrorism bureau and the Intelligence Division focused its resources on gang activity. After the September 11 attacks, however, billions of dollars were poured into the department to counter the threat of terrorism, as a 2011 60 Minutesreport showed. Critics of the NYPD's post-9/11 turn have been arguing that practices devoted to fighting terrorism have violated the Constitution.
Now, they say, the NYPD is unleashing its counterterrorism tools on activists against police brutality, conflating legitimate protest with the threat of terrorism.
After a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, the NYPD's Intelligence Division—which plays a leading role in the department's counterterrorism work—was sent to monitor protests in Missouri. A few weeks later, when thousands of New Yorkers flooded the streets, bridges, highways, and landmarks to protest the grand jury decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD cop who placed Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a chokehold that resulted in his death, counterterrorism officers were deployed at the demonstrations. And after the murders of two NYPD officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an 18-year-old Brooklyn resident was arrested and charged with making a "terroristic" threat after allegedly posting a violent anti-cop cartoon on Facebook. (The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)
Mathieu Deflem, a University of South Carolina sociology professor who has studied the NYPD's counterterrorism policies, wrote in an email that "from the police viewpoint, certain measures will be needed as they do have to engage in crowd control." But he cautioned that the vast security apparatus set up after 9/11 makes it "likely that counterterrorism measures will be applied to other forms of crime or problematic behavior… This brings about, as a consequence, a criminalization of protest and possibly even a 'terrorization' of other crimes."
Still, Nicholas Casale, a former detective who was involved with NYPD counterterrorism operations in the mid 1990s, told VICE that there was nothing inherently nefarious about the presence of counterterrorism police officers at protests.
"When you have a protest, that protest has to be policed. You have a limited finite number of officers. So you're going to have to reorganize your deployment of officers," he said. "When there's an extemporaneous demonstration as we saw, let's say with Occupy Wall Street—where they would appear in different locations—the police department has to draw officers to police the crowd, to stop traffic, to separate from the crowd from people who want to get to work."
But counterterrorism agents have gone beyond just policing protests by getting directly involved with arrests.
On December 13, tens of thousands of people marched through Manhattan to call attention to police violence and demand accountability for the killings of Garner and Brown. After the sanctioned march petered out, a smaller number of protesters headed to the Brooklyn Bridge. At one point, the demonstrators split in two, with one group on an elevated pedestrian walkway and another group on the highway. According to the NYPD, officers saw Eric Linsker, a 29-year-old professor, holding a garbage can. Fearing that he was going to throw it on officers below, they moved to arrest him. But at least six other demonstrators intervened, allegedly assaulting the police and allowing Linsker to escape.
In the early hours of December 14, law enforcement—which had identified Linsker by an ID card in the backpack he left behind—raided his home and arrested him. The arresting officers, according to media reports, were members of the New York–area Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a unit that includes NYPD officers and FBI agents. Under former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, the number of NYPD detectives assigned to the JTTF went from 17 to 125.
Martin Stolar, Linsker's defense attorney, says that the involvement of JTTF officers in an arrest of this sort was "extremely unusual." He added that "to have the Joint Terrorism Task Force misappropriated to [a] demonstration arrest [is] something that is shocking… [The NYPD] overreacted to September 11, and they see terrorism under every corner." Linsker is not being charged with anything close to terrorism, though. Instead, he's accused of a litany of crimes like inciting a riot, assaulting a police officer (though even prosecutors acknowledge it was other demonstrators who hit officers), possession of a weapon (he had hammers in a backpack), and resisting arrest.
Stolar has kept a close watch on the NYPD for decades. As Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman—the Pulitzer Prize–winning former Associated Press journalists who exposed the NYPD spying program—recount in their book Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD's Spying Unit and Bin Laden's Final Plot Against America , Stolar helped discover that the NYPD had effectively set up the New York City chapter of the Black Panthers. In 1971, while representing Black Panther members accused of planning to bomb a series of targets, Stolar and other lawyers learned that undercover NYPD detectives founded the chapter and then spied on those who signed up, according to Apuzzo and Goldman.
After a team of lawyers got the Black Panthers acquitted, Stolar and other attorneys sued the NYPD in federal court, charging that their surveillance of activists violated the Constitution. The lawsuit eventually exposed how the NYPD cast a wide net in its surveillance activities. The police had a "black desk" that monitored black people, and an "extremist desk" that spied on anti-war organizers. In 1985, the parties finally settled what came to be known as the Handschu case, named after plaintiff Barbara Handschu, a civil rights lawyer.
The court imposed guidelines, now known as the Handschu agreement, on when, exactly, the NYPD can spy on activists. Under these rules, the police initially could only investigate activities protected by the Constitution when a crime was about to be committed. Undercover agents were to be deployed only if necessary. And the police were barred from keeping intelligence files on people unless they engaged in criminal activity.
September 11 changed the game. In the aftermath of the attacks, the NYPD went back to court to ask for a change in the Handschu agreement, and was largely successful. Now, the department is free to use undercover officers to investigate without knowledge of a specific crime; there only has to be a possibility that a crime is being committed.
Much of the NYPD's subsequent spying activities have targeted Muslims, as police officers have infiltrated mosques and employed informants who use inflammatory language to ferret out terrorists. The NYPD also created a "Demographics Unit" that mapped out Muslim communities in the city and in Newark, New Jersey, a squad that was shut down by Mayor Bill de Blasio to much fanfare earlier this year.
But as he tries to appease both bitter cops and protesters enraged at a broken criminal justice system, the mayor is discovering that just having officers with "counter terrorism" on their uniforms around demonstrations is source of tension.
"It's conflating dissent with terrorism," said Stolar, "and that's really extraordinarily dangerous and very un-American."
Alex Kane is a New York–based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Middle East Eye, AlterNet, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter.