NYPD Plan to Bring Back the Red Squad

Revolutionary Worker #1175, November 17, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

On September 25, the NYPD asked a federal court to toss out certain formal restrictions on the activities of the political police that have been in place since the 1980s. The NYPD claims that they need to be free of these rules--set up by a 1985 consent decree--because the restrictions limit the ability of the police to "combat terrorism." They argue the "changed circumstances" since the September 11 attacks require much more freedom for their spying and political-police operations.

If the court grants the NYPD request, the political police--the "red squad"--will have even greater powers to target Muslims, political activists, and others that the authorities view as "threats."

Talking to the press, one of the lawyers involved in the case that led to the 1985 consent decree made a comment about the NYPD request: "The history of this country in times of war is that frequently, civil liberties have been dramatically curtailed. Looking back on those periods, there has been a lot to be ashamed of." A spokesman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee told the New York Times : "I'm not speculating that granting those powers can lead to abuses. It's a matter of recent history."

A Dirty History

In the 1960s and '70s, the NYPD's red squad went under the name of the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS). It was perhaps the most influential and dangerous of all the big-city red squads.

In his book Protectors of the Privilege: Red Squad and Police Repression in Urban America , Frank Donner wrote: "In its heyday [BOSS] transmitted to outside agencies three times as much intelligence information as it used in its own operations in New York City. Its more experienced operatives traveled to distant points to observe New York City-based targets and to exchange information with agents of other urban agencies."

A New York Times article in 1980 gave a glimpse of the magnitude of BOSS activity: "The Police Department agreed to release 300,000 pages of information gathered and filed by its special services division--known as the Red Squad--to the 250,000 people on whom dossiers have been kept by the department since 1955."

It was BOSS that sent NYPD cop Gene Roberts undercover to get next to Malcolm X and report back--right up to the day when Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom.

It was BOSS that sent agent Roberts along with others to infiltrate the Black Panther Party, with the aim of destroying that organization. These agents worked together to cook up a case, alleging a grab bag of various crimes against Panther members. These targets of BOSS became known as the Panther 21. This BOSS operation culminated in a trial--in which a jury took less than 90 minutes to acquit all of the Panthers.

Anyone who stepped out or took a stand against the system was a potential target of BOSS. In 1971 a group of political activists who had been targeted by BOSS--Black Panthers, Yippies, anti-war activists, and others--filed a class action lawsuit against the New York City authorities. The case would drag on for 14 years.

The Handschu Decision

In 1985 New York City officials signed a consent decree to settle the lawsuit. Under the settlement, the police were officially prohibited from sending agents to infiltrate groups without at least a pretext of "probable cause"--reasonable grounds for supposing that an actual crime is being planned or was committed. The consent decree put official limits on sharing information with other police agencies, the systematic videotaping of demonstrations, and the keeping of indexes and databases on political activists. The settlement established a three-member panel, known as the Handschu Authority (named for one the people in the lawsuit), to oversee political-police operations.

While the Handschu decision established some restrictions, it never stopped the political police from operating. BOSS changed its name to the Public Security Section (of the NYPD Intelligence division) and continued to conduct operations. One former NYPD intelligence officer recently told Newsday , "I had heard of Handschu, but I didn't know its details."

An example of continued red-squad activity came during the 1987 upsurge of protests against oppression of Black people. Word leaked out that the NYPD had established a "Black Desk" to target the people's struggle. Police officials denied the existence of a Black Desk. However, in 1999 Newsday profiled two women NYPD agents who had been sent to target the revolutionary nationalists known as the New York 8 as well as other prominent activists at the time of the 1987 protests.

The two agents said that they were assigned to work undercover for the Protective Research Unit of the Public Security Section. This was a squad of two dozen officers, all Black or Latino. The agents said they were assigned to attend public political meetings to find out what was happening and to get closer to the activists they were spying on.

More recently, the tracks of the red squad appeared during the January 2002 protests against the World Economic Forum (WEF). While the NYPD mobilized legions of cops to intimidate and corral the anti-globalization demonstrators on the street, they also sent in undercover cops.

In one reported example, undercover police were posted for two days outside the apartment of a member of the anti-globalization coalition Another World Is Possible. In another incident reported by the Village Voice , "An organizer of the Intergalactic Anarchist Convention was tailed from Sunday's East Village march by an officer who called him by name and followed him all the way out to his Staten Island home." A person "volunteering" at the Independent Media Center was later spotted entering an unmarked police car. Many people saw the police videotaping a legal demonstration.

In the Name of"Protecting Freedom"

Now, the NYPD wants to take its red-squad operations to a whole new level. The NYPD is pushing for something similar to what the FBI has recently done. In May U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft officially relaxed the guidelines so that local FBI agents can initiate spying operations without "probable cause." These changes will put many groups under much closer police surveillance-- especially in Muslim communities and among radical political trends.

In their filing to the court, the NYPD essentially asks that the Handschu restrictions be scrapped and that the Handschu Authority remain only to review political-police operations after they have been undertaken.

The filing by the NYPD is intended to paint an intimidating picture of the "terrorist threat." It contains a chronology of incidents from Detroit to China, outlines recent indictments (not convictions) of alleged "terrorist cells," and describes at length various Muslim organizations in this country that the U.S. government accuses of supporting terrorism. Attached to the filing is an "Al-Qaida Manual"--the NYPD alleges that the document indicates how al-Qaida is plotting attacks inside the U.S.

The affidavit was written by David Cohen, NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence, who was with the CIA for 35 years. The CIA worked intimately with some of the very forces mentioned in the affidavit--those that the U.S. considered "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan in the 1980s and are now attacked as terrorists.

The affidavit cites a 1999 speech to the U.S. State Department by a "moderate Muslim leader" claiming that "extremist ideology has taken over more than 80 percent of the 3,000 mosques in the United States." The implication is that the NYPD has justification to send agents into 80% of the mosques in the city.

And running through the affidavit is an Orwellian theme: that "the openness of American society" is being exploited by those who "escape detection by blending into American society." The NYPD declares that it must be allowed a completely free hand to send agents to snoop around mosques, infiltrate political meetings and organizations, build up databases on activists, videotape protesters, and so on--all in the name of "protecting American freedom."

Global Reach

In January, Police Commissioner Kelly said that the NYPD is adopting a "global perspective." Deputy Commissioner Cohen declared, "It is obvious that the NYPD must not be prevented from full participation in the international war on terrorism."

One effect of overturning Handschu would be that NYPD will be able to feed more fully into the larger political-police network nationally and internationally. "The NYPD must be empowered to work in close partnership not only with federal government but with every state, thousands of municipalities, and other countries as well," Cohen said.

A clear look at what the NYPD is trying to do shows it isn't about making people "safe." The NYPD's move to further unleash its red squad targets broad sections of Muslim people, immigrants, and political dissenters. And it is part of the efforts of the U.S. rulers to "secure the homeland" as they lash out with murderous ferocity against the people of the world.

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