- The New York Police Department spent decades infiltrating political organisations and spying on politically active New Yorkers.
- While surveillance continues in some form today, a public exhibit at the New York City Municipal Archives showcases what police spying looked like in the 1960s and ’70s during one of the most turbulent political periods in modern US history.
- But few New Yorkers know about this vast collection of surveillance materials.
- Business Insider dug through the archives to discover the scope of NYPD spying – and to see what they found.
In the dank quarters of a courthouse just a block away from City Hall in lower Manhattan, dozens of brown boxes of declassified surveillance records – compiled over the course of decades by undercover police detectives – remain largely un-examined, never before seen by the public.
The records include a mix of internal police reports and memos, photos, newspaper clippings, event fliers, political campaign buttons, and posters.
They are available for anyone to view. You just have to ask.
In September, the New York City Municipal Archives launched an unprecedented exhibit showcasing NYPD surveillance materials from 1960 to 1975, one of the most turbulent political periods in modern American history.
The exhibit, “Unlikely Historians: Materials Collected by NYPD Surveillance Teams“, gives visitors a small taste of just how far NYPD detectives went to infiltrate political organisations and investigate people they considered a threat.
But it ultimately represents just a fraction of the overall collection. Of the 520 boxes of NYPD surveillance materials in their possession, archivists at the Department of Records have only reviewed and catalogued about a quarter of them. The un-reviewed materials are temporarily stored at their office in Brooklyn.
“We’re just starting to get the word out,” Rossy Mendez, the collection’s lead archivist, told Business Insider. “So people don’t really know it exists.”
We visited the archives to see for ourselves:
The New York City Municipal Archives, which maintains the city’s historical records, is located at Surrogate’s Court in lower Manhattan.
In a storage room in the building’s basement, records and old video reels are meticulously organised.
The NYC Municipal Archives has a vast collection of materials, including records dating back to the colonial era. But in 2015, the department received one of its most politically divisive collections yet.
As part of a class-action settlement in 1985, the NYPD was forced to hand over surveillance materials collected by its Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI), which later became known as the Special Services Division. Both units are no longer active.
The settlement — known as the Handschu agreement — limited police surveillance powers, and forced the NYPD to hand over the materials it had collected on people. Those, plus a trove of photos the department took over decades, make up the vast collection.
Before those powers were curtailed, the NYPD had extensive surveillance authority. Undercover detectives routinely infiltrated political organisations and followed outspoken activists they deemed potentially subversive.
The “Unlikely Historians” exhibit showcases some of the groups and individuals police tracked from 1960-1975, as well as some materials the NYPD collected along the way.
Undercover officers practiced a variety of tactics to stay informed on political activities throughout the city.
They took photos of individuals during mass protests, closely monitoring where they were going, what they were saying, and who they were meeting.
Police had a presence in virtually every political movement of the 1960s and ’70s, including the anti-Vietnam War protests, fair housing demonstrations, communism, and the civil rights, gay rights, and environmental rights movements.
But the NYPD also monitored individuals and groups with international dimensions, including activists sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and protestors calling for independence in the former African states of Biafra and Rhodesia.
Detectives kept meticulous files on the people and groups they tracked, taking photos in the field, recording conversations, and writing internal letters reporting their surveillance findings to their higher-ups at the NYPD.
On August 21, 1963, the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights-era group, staged a protest against corrupt housing practices. A NYPD officer was there to capture the scene.
A NYPD detective also snapped photos at a pro-China demonstration in September 1971.
An officer collected this 1968 flier for an event featuring Muhammad Ali. At the time, the boxing legend was banned from the sport for refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
That same year, student demonstrations rocked the US.
In New York, police kept tabs on student groups protesting the Vietnam War.
Police also kept a close eye on neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies and speeches.
While the city’s archivists who maintain the collection say they have to remain as objective as possible, they also relate to the surveillance materials in different ways.
“I see the same issues that were addressed in these files in contemporary times,” Rossy Mendez told Business Insider. “[The collection] kind of resonates with me in that way.”
For Mendez, one of the most startling pieces of the collection was “finding [Martin Luther King, Jr.] in the photographs and his head with a circle on it. It was really interesting to find out the police were following him.”
Quinn Bolewicki, a photo archivist and digitization specialist at the Municipal Archives, said she was fascinated by the quality of the photos taken by the detectives. “The police were trained [photographers]. They were actually good at their job.”
In 2011, Bolewicki took the lead in archiving the first batch of nearly 200,000 photos the NYPD handed over to the Municipal Archives that year. Those images, spanning from 1897-1975, were cleared for public release by the NYPD since they were no longer deemed necessary to the department.
It took Bolewicki five years to catalogue that collection. So far, she has digitised about 30,000 of the 200,000 total photos.
Mendez says the NYPD sees value in the collection and that the department was actually supportive of the exhibit. She is currently in talks with several police officers who are interested in examining some of the files for research they’re conducting on cold cases and current investigations.
Academics conducting research and individuals looking for information police may have collected about themselves and their families frequently visit the Municipal Archives to look through the surveillance materials, as well.
Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the Vietnam War have been the most researched subjects so far, Mendez said.
While the exhibit focuses on police surveillance of the past, questionable spying continues to this day.
After the 9/11 attacks, police sought more surveillance authority to prevent future terrorist attacks. This resulted in widespread warrantless spying on Muslims throughout New York City. Police tracked where they ate, prayed, and shopped.
In 2014, the NYPD disbanded the unit that spied on Muslims. But in an age of increasing technological connectivity, civil rights activists remain vigilant, and the debate over police surveillance powers — and what their limits should be — endure.
Source: The New York Times
The Unlikely Historians exhibit is on view at the Municipal Archives Gallery in New York until March 31, 2018.
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