Volume 76, Number 52 | May 23 -29, 2007

Villager file photo

Billionaires for Bush, here doing street theater with a Karl Rove look-alike outside a Chelsea fundraiser headlined by the real Rove in February 2004, were among local antiwar groups surveilled by police during the R.N.C.

Police spied on many local groups during convention

By Alyssa Giachino

With the public release of more than 600 pages of surveillance notes by the New York Police Department last week, organizations that protested at the 2004 Republican National Convention confirmed their suspicions that dozens of nonviolent groups were being monitored.

Some reacted with outrage, saying civil liberties were trampled on and that public expression of political dissent is under attack. Others

were gleeful, feeling vindicated that their paranoia about infiltration proved valid.

Then there was the reaction of civil rights attorney Ronald Kuby, who said he is deeply offended that his name was not included.

“My street credibility has been seriously compromised,” Kuby said sarcastically. “Am I not a greater threat to national security than LL Cool J? Have I not protested the war more loudly than Alicia Keys?”

Kuby was referring to the surprising appearance of several household names in hip-hop and R & B in the police documents, which also listed Russell Simmons and Jay-Z, all of whom were invited to participate in the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network concert that was scheduled during the R.N.C.

Many of the organizations that participated in organizing activities related to the R.N.C. were aware of police surveillance, and even joked during planning meetings about the presence of undercover police or federal agents.

“It’s interesting to see hard proof, hard copies,” said Nancy Kricorian, director of the New York chapter of the antiwar group Code Pink, which is mentioned numerous times in the police documents. “Because you can have your suspicions. It’s kind of affirming to see the evidence.”

Although Kricorian was not surprised that Code Pink was mentioned in the documents, she said, “That doesn’t make it right.”

“For women whose immigration status is an issue or for women whose communities have contentious histories with the police, the fear of police surveillance might make them think twice about participating in political organizing or in showing up at a demonstration,” she said. “That is why there are civil liberties protections against this kind of spying — the spying itself has a chilling effect on organized dissent.”

It is unclear which elements of the surveillance program may have violated civil rights. Police say much of the material was collected from Web sites and listservs, and many of the planning meetings were open to the public.

“Some information is not solely based on Internet stuff, and that is of questionable legality,” Kuby said. “There has to be some kind of criminal predicate to investigate political activity.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which together with The New York Times, sued the city to obtain the police records, has called the surveillance program “broad, clumsy and often unlawful.” The monitoring of the diverse groups that participated in events around the R.N.C. equated political dissent with violence, the N.Y.C.L.U. said.

Civil liberties attorney Martin Stolar said the documents are “just the tip of the iceberg,” and other kinds of surveillance likely took place that the public is still unaware of. Dozens of groups appear in the files, including Not In Our Name, Kensington Welfare Rights, New York City Anarchist Tribes, United for Peace and Justice, Grandmothers Against the War and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as well as the magazine High Times.

“These organizations that are not talking about anything criminal end up in police files,” Stolar said. “That’s of concern because it harks back to the old days when they used to keep files and dossiers on organizations and groups that did nothing illegal but had dissenting opinions.”

However, he also said, “Unless you’ve been sleeping through the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you are kind of aware of [police surveillance]. It’s to be expected.”

The surprise seems to lie in the detail with which the police recorded the minutiae involved in coordinating multiple organizations.

“The whole thing was surprising because it’s such a bizarre waste of resources,” Kuby said. “There are real terrorists who want to kill all of us; none of them made it on the list. For every Depends-wearing granny using a walker that is being followed by the police, there is some loonzy kazooney jihadist that is going unmonitored.”

John Penley, a longtime Yippie activist, criticized the lack of transparency and local input into the monitoring program, and said the Police Department has likely overreached its authority by expanding into states other than New York, and even outside of the United States.

“The N.Y.P.D. has now expanded to an international intelligence-gathering service,” he said. “You can see how easily they can overstep their boundaries, and there is apparently no civilian oversight. As history tends to show, police departments tend to abuse things like this.”

Aron Kay, better known as the “Yippie Pie Man,” is named multiple times in the police documents, where he was identified as an “eccentric activist” who was “calling for like-minded activists to target President Bush for a ‘pie in the face’ attack during his appearance at the RNC.”

The Villager appears to have fans in the N.Y.P.D., as one of the documents mentioned that “Local media reports quote Kay as stating that denial of camping permits in New York City Parks could potentially incite violent protest action.” An article had appeared in the Feb. 25, 2004, issue of The Villager in which Kay was quoted saying that a denial of the Yippies’ request for a camping permit for Tompkins Square Park “May cause a problem; it may cause a riot.” Kay subsequently said he had only intended to invoke 1968’s Chicago Riots, rather than current events, and regretted having made the comment.

St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, which provided meeting space for planning activities and meals for thousands of protesters during the R.N.C., is named in the police documents, as well.

Reverend Frank Morales said, “It is immoral, potentially illegal and inappropriate” for the police to monitor peaceful meetings inside a church. “St. Mark’s has traditionally championed the right of protest but also the importance of the ethic of nonviolence,” he said.

Geoffrey Blank, who earned notoriety for using a battery-powered megaphone without a permit in Union Square, said he is “exuberant” that the documents were made public.

He plans to use the references to him as evidence that the police targeted him for arrest during the R.N.C. In October 2006, Blank was convicted on two counts of resisting arrest and one count of using amplified sound without a permit, all from incidents in 2004.

“I remember the police following me, so it’s not like this is some mystery to me,” he said. “I was saying [during the trial] these charges have nothing to do with resisting arrest. These charges are just a smokescreen for silencing me because of what my message was because I was outspoken against Bush, against the war in Iraq.”

Robin Eublind, an actor with Billionaires for Bush, a satirical street theater group, said the multiple appearances of his group in the police documents is part of the Billionaires’ nefarious strategy to dampen the impact of other protest groups.

“We’re trying to usurp their media hit on the revelation of surveillance,” he said, adding that the Billionaires thrive on media attention.

“There’s no such thing as bad press or bad surveillance when you’re media whores,” he said.

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