This story is over 5 years old
News by VICE

NYPD's Aggressive Hunt for the Brooklyn Bridge Pranksters Is About Embarrassment, Not Counterterrorism

The excessive police response to the Brooklyn Bridge flag swap is about spectacle and force. So let's hope the culprits get away with it.

by Natasha Lennard
Jul 28 2014, 10:55pm

Photo by Richard Drew/AP

I fell in love on the Brooklyn Bridge on a dank fall afternoon in 2011. That day I was arrested, alongside some 700 Occupy Wall Street participants, for walking in the bridge's roadway. We waited in the cold drizzle to be handcuffed and ushered onto police vans. For the briefest moment, the bridge and the city felt like ours. Call me fanciful, call me delusional — I said it was love, after all.

For similar reasons, I am also in love with whomever swapped out the US flags on the bridge last Tuesday. I hope that whoever scaled the 276-foot towers to hoist up bleached-out versions of Old Glory gets away with it. The NYPD, however, aggressively disagrees.

Investigators are putting inordinate energy and resources into finding the tricksters. As well as collecting DNA evidence from the flagpoles, police have been scouring social media, tracking license plates, and analyzing all call data from two nearby cell phone towers. Officers from transport, counterterrorism, and even homicide units have been called in to track down the elusive flag swappers.

ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian pointed out on Twitter that by pulling swathes of information from phone antennas (a so-called "tower dump"), the cops are accessing the data of a "huge number of innocent people." "To find bank robbers, ok, but to find someone planting a flag on a bridge?" Soghoian noted.

Regardless of the harmlessness of the act, the NYPD can't let the bold illustration of their own vulnerability go unpunished.

The NYPD have grounded their excessive and intrusive response in, as the Daily News reports, "terror fears." Since the flag-swappers evaded NYPD bridge security, they receive the counterterror treatment, despite the non-threatening nature of their deed. If terrorism were truly the concern, however, one would think police resources would be ploughed into improving security, not hunting down a group of savvy pranksters who were able to bypass it. And, while two more surveillance cameras have reportedly been added to the towers, the public-facing NYPD reaction has centered around finding a guilty party.

Cecily McMillan's guilt: Injustice at its most basic. Read more here.

The claim of counterterrorism is flimsy at best. The authorities should not need the culprits to make sense of events. If they need the perpetrators to spell out the weak points and oversights that enabled the breach — if this can't be deduced without a direct confession — then the security situation is even worse than the flag swap alone suggests.

The police response is better understood in terms of spectacle. The flag swap itself was a spectacular act. The perpetrators left no trace of an explanation. Bleached-out star-spangled banners might evoke ideas of pacifism and anti-US imperialism, but no communiques have confirmed nor even hinted at an intended message. What is certain, however, is that with this very visual act, the tricksters showed a crack in the fortress of New York infrastructure. Regardless of the harmlessness of the act, the NYPD can't let the bold illustration of their own vulnerability go unpunished. Bullies are never more vicious than when embarrassed.

We are talking about a police force, not a police measured response unit.

When the NYPD mass arrested 700 of us during Occupy's heyday, it was ostensibly more trouble for them than it was worth. It took muddled hours to even find holding space in precincts around the city to hold every arrestee, not to mention a class action lawsuit to fight, which the police lost. Similarly, tracking down the flag swappers hardly seems worth the lengths to which they are going. This should come as no surprise: We are talking about a police force, not a police measured response unit.

Last week, the police reportedly fingered as persons of interest five youths caught on camera crossing the bridge 20 minutes before the tower lights went out and the flags were replaced. One member of the group was carrying a skateboard — a fact which media outlets have picked up on with seeming mirth. "Hey, whatever it takes to bring these skateboarding teenagers to justice," noted Gothamist, poking at the police response. Officers are also reportedly looking into whether a union member with knowledge of the bridge might have been involved.

The right to film cops is important, but it's no justice. Read more here.

While I hope the culprits remain a mystery, I like the idea that the stunt involved some combination of inside knowledge (and thus insubordination) and the sort of skater mindset that defiantly challenges and rethinks urban space. And while there's no questioning that such a stunt required certain expertise and skills, I do not love the pranksters for their talents.

Rather, I love them for reminding me of that fleeting exhilaration I felt standing on the Brooklyn Bridge roadway in 2011. Namely, in a city of seemingly interminable flows, rupture is at the very least possible.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

New York
Natasha Lennard
Brooklyn Bridge