Competing with COINTELPRO, NYPD “Finds” Decades Old Political Surveillance Documents It “Lost”

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Last week, the New York Police Department (NYPD) announced that it had discovered documents detailing its political surveillance between 1955 to 1972. These “found documents” include 520 boxes containing nearly 1.1 million pages and cover surveillance of such groups as the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, Young Lords, and anti-Vietnam War activists. These documents will provide an incredible insight into not only what the NYPD did in the past, but how political surveillance operates and what impact it has – two areas that should influence discussions about ongoing surveillance not only by the NYPD, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well.

Surveillance to Rival COINTELPRO

Many activists are aware of the FBI’s notorious “Counterintelligence Program” or COINTELPRO, which operated between 1956-1971 (though the FBI had engaged in similar programs both before and after COINTELPRO). The purpose of the program was to “”expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” political organizations disfavored by the FBI.

However political surveillance was not the exclusive domain of the FBI. Many local police departments employed “intelligence” divisions that were often referred to as red squads since they were tasked with combatting political subversion, not crime. As historian Johanna Fernández commented,

What I found in my research, because I requested the COINTELPRO documents pretty early on, at the same time that I requested the police documents, is that the police documents are a lot more methodical and a lot more specific. And it makes sense, because the police is close to local communities. And this is not just about New York, but it was police departments across the nation that were engaged in disrupting and surveilling—violently, in many instances—the work of activists. And those records are more revelatory, I believe, from my study of collections of both, than the COINTELPRO documents.

The fight over the NYPD’s political surveillance is a very long saga. In the early 1970’s, widespread NYPD infiltration of activist groups and other abuses were exposed during the trial of the so-called “Black Panther 21.” As a result, radical lawyers, black liberation, gay liberation, and anti-war activists launched a class action lawsuit known as Handschu v. Special Services Division. Over a decade later, the lawsuit resulted in a consent decree aimed at remedying the NYPD’s “Red Squad” or Special Service Division’s violations of the First Amendment.

After 9/11, that consent decree was considerably weakened. Then in 2011, it was revealed by the Associated Press that the NYPD was engaged in suspicionless surveillance of Muslims, both in New York City and elsewhere. This resulted in two new lawsuits, as well as, the reopening of Handschu, which is now going to be settled some 45 years after it began.

“Lost” Records Reemerge

The saga does not end there though. As part of an agreement stemming from the 1980s Handschu consent agreement, the NYPD was supposed to preserve its dossier on political activists, as well as files documenting its surveillance of movements. Instead of preserving them, the NYPD claimed it had lost them. Since the court mandated they be preserved in the 1980s no one had been able to find them.

This set off yet another round of litigation a decade ago when historian Johanna Fernández requested the NYPD’s files on the Young Lords. In spite of a decade’s worth of litigation, the files were not produced as the NYPD continued to stick to its story that they were “lost.” That was until last week when they were discovered in warehouse in Queens that contains 10,000 boxes of uninventoried records.

While we do not when or how these documents will be made available to the public, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman recently went through some of the files gathered on her co-host Juan Gonzalez, who prior to becoming a journalist was a member of the Young Lords. These files consist of index cards including highly specific information, such as Gonzalez’s height and weight, rallies he was spotted at, but did not speak, and dates and locations of where he was spotted.

Forty-five years later the lawsuit that mandated these records be preserved has been re-opened due to continued NYPD surveillance and is now being settled. These documents should not be viewed as relics of the past, but a window into the long, continuous chain of political spying in the United States.