Undercover Police Have Regularly Spied On Black Lives Matter Activists in New York
Documents obtained by The Intercept confirm that undercover police officers attended numerous Black Lives Matter protests in New York City between December 2014 and February 2015. The documents also show that police in New York have monitored activists, tracking their movements and keeping individual photos of them on file.
The nearly 300 documents, released by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Metro-North Railroad, reveal more on-the-ground surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists than previous reports have shown, conducted by a coalition of MTA counterterrorism agents and undercover police in conjunction with NYPD intelligence officers.
This appears to be the first documented proof of the frequent presence of undercover police at Black Lives Matter protests in the city of New York, though many activists have suspected their presence since mass protests erupted there last year over a grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.
The protest surveillance and use of undercover officers raises questions over whether New York-area law enforcement agencies are potentially criminalizing the exercise of free speech and treating activists like terrorist threats. Critics say the police files seem to document a response vastly disproportionate to the level of law breaking associated with the protests.
The documents were released to activists after several requests under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, which asked for records from the MTA, MTA Metro-North, the New York State Police, and the NYPD pertaining to Black Lives Matter protests at Grand Central Terminal between November 2014 and January 2015.
In the 118 pages released by the MTA, the names of undercover police officers are redacted at least 58 times in five December 2014 protests, 124 times at five protests in January 2015, and 10 times at one protest in February 2015. The Intercept has been unable to contact any of the undercover police reporting on protests because the MTA said it redacted the “names of undercover police officers,” citing the New York Public Officers Law stipulating that certain records, which “if disclosed could endanger the life or safety of any person,” may be withheld. Metro-North also redacted the names of undercover officers. Both entities also said they redacted location and contact information for regular MTA police named in the documents.
Together the 118 MTA and 161 Metro-North documents also showed monitoring of an additional protest in November 2014, 11 protests in December 2014, nine protests in January 2015, and two protests in February 2015 by MTA officials and undercover police working at times in conjunction with NYPD officers.
In response to The Intercept’s request for information on the use of undercover police officers at Grand Central protests, MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg issued the following statement: “The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department must ensure the safety and security of millions of people who pass through our railroad systems every day, at a time when transportation networks have been persistently targeted by terrorists. We accommodate peaceful protest in our transportation system, while also ensuring that protest activities do not prevent customers from using the system for transportation. We take all appropriate police measures to ensure the safety and security of our customers, but we do not discuss the particulars of those operations.”
The NYPD has not released documents in response to the request, but documents released by the MTA and Metro-North show that NYPD officials have also been involved in the surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests in Grand Central and beyond. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of the documents released include live updates on protests from undercover police officers, reporting on group sizes, and the tracking of protesters’ movements around the city, particularly the movements of New York’s “People’s Monday” protests, which focus attention on, and demonstrate on behalf of, victims of police brutality, and which repeatedly convene at Grand Central. Some of the reports go further than tracking group movements, however, referring to specific activists and including photos of them.
In one document concerning a protest on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for example, an officer, whose name is redacted because of his undercover status, sends frequent updates on protesters’ movements in Grand Central. The officer also notes that Jose LaSalle, founder of New York police watchdog group Copwatch Patrol Unit, has been “observed inside Grand Central Terminal.” LaSalle is mentioned four times in the documents, twice for delivering a “mic check” and twice for his mere presence, as seen in document below. His picture also appears in the files several times:
“I think its just another example of how anyone who is practicing their constitutional rights and speaking against the government is going to be considered a domestic problem,” says LaSalle. “It’s sad because all we’re doing is speaking because we feel there is no justice for people being brutalized by the system. It’s sad we have to be targets of surveillance when were not committing crimes.”
Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College associate professor in sociology, whose work focuses on policing, argues this is part of a long history of police surveillance of activists like LaSalle. “Historically, law enforcement, both local and national, have a track record of keeping files on activists, engaging in surveillance, and targeting for excessive enforcement action people identified in leadership roles in social movement,” he said. “The evidence shown by these documents raises warning flags about resources committed and, more importantly, the degree to which local police agencies are potentially targeting non-violent activists.”
The documents also hint that such surveillance operations may be targeting groups across the city. For example, one email chain from December 9 included a table with the protest plans of four groups, including those of “Students and Faculty from East Side Community High School,” a public school in Manhattan’s East Village:
Though the documents were obtained from the MTA and Metro-North, they include several references to collaboration with NYPD officers. In one email from January 1, 2015, for example, an undercover police officer shares attached field reports and photographs of a protest at Grand Central, which MTA counterterrorism agents provided “in conjunction with NYPD Intel team members.”
In another document, sent February 13 concerning a demonstration at Grand Central, Anthony D’Angelis, identified in the document as an MTA liaison with the NYPD’s counterterrorism division, shared and labeled a photo of Alex Seel, a local photographer. In the documents, D’Angelis uses an NYPD email address.
It is unclear if any of the undercover police officers, whose names are redacted in the documents, are themselves NYPD personnel. According to the ACLU, if the NYPD is collecting information about protesters at Grand Central along the lines of the photographs that MTA appeared to collect, it may be in violation of the historic “Handschu agreement,” which regulates the department’s monitoring of political groups.
Under the decree, “the NYPD is not permitted to retain information gathered from public events unless it’s connected to suspected criminal or terrorist activity,” says Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney at the ACLU. “They cannot identify someone and have their photo in their files unless they have evidence supporting reasonable suspicion that he was about to commit criminal activity or had engaged in criminal conduct.”
Regardless of these legal gray areas and the confusing blend of agencies engaged in the surveillance, several protesters at Grand Central say they are perturbed by the photo file’s existence, considering that Seel did not share his name publicly that night and usually only comes to the protests as a quiet photographer. “I was surprised that they had photos of Alex,” says Kim Ortiz, a Black Lives Matter organizer with the Grand Central People’s Monday group, also known by its hashtag, #PeoplesMonday. “He doesn’t do any of the planning. It’s very telling. If they’re focusing on someone who’s a silent supporter, I can’t imagine what they’re doing to people more at the forefront.”
Seel says he was “surprised by how specific they were with me, calling me photographer, and a documenter, and I’m pretty sure that photo is from Penn Station, so they definitely had it on file or something. If you look at my A14 pictures, I caught some serious stuff — cops pushing people over — that’s my take on it. … So it’s definitely a fear tactic used to break down certain aspects of the movement. They know that we’re the lens of the movement.”
The MTA and Metro-North documents also show that numerous counterterror and intelligence agents are involved in this monitoring, despite repeated references in the documents to the “peaceful” and “orderly” nature of the demonstrations. The Department of Homeland Security similarly commented on the lack of violence at Black Lives Matter protests in documents describing monitoring of those protests, published previously by The Intercept.
In an MTA document from January 12, D’Angelis, the NYPD counterterrorism division liaison, shared pictures that an unnamed “activist posted” of police milling around Grand Central. The photos in the email appear to be from the Twitter account of Black Lives Matter activist Keegan Stephan. Just beneath the photos, D’Angelis’s email claims the document is for “deterring, detecting, and preventing terrorism.”
In another document from a December 7 protest for Eric Garner, Detective Keyla Hammam, identified as a member of the MTA’s Interagency Counter-Terrorism Task Force, shared a photo of prominent activist and former Philadelphia police officer Ray Lewis. An undercover police officer made an entry accompanying Hammam’s photo, mentioning Lewis’ past activities with Occupy Wall Street and stating: “A retired Philadelphia Police Officer in uniform is one of the protesters at Grand Central Terminal. He is also known to NYPD as a protestor in OWS and has an arrest record with NYPD.” (Lewis was arrested on disorderly conduct charges in connection with an Occupy Wall Street protest; the case was later closed by prosecutors.)
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Lewis said when asked about the monitoring. “From my experience in law enforcement, I know the key concept to knocking out all protests is taking out leaders. So they see certain people and target them.”
Vitale, the sociology professor, argues that police response to peaceful protests and civil disobedience is often wrongly designed to resemble counterterrorism operations, illustrating a broader mission creep in policing over the last decade. “Protests by their nature are disruptive, and that by itself should not be grounds for surveillance and file-keeping,” he said. “But in the post-9–11 environment, there’s been a major shift towards risk aversion and massive expansion of intelligence gathering in a way such that protest activity often gets lumped in with terrorism investigation.”
In January, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton stirred controversy when he announced that the department would commingle efforts against terrorism with the containment of protests. Bratton said his new Strategic Response Group “is designed for dealing with events like our recent [Eric Garner] protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.” Bratton also noted, “In New York, dealing with terrorism, and large-scale disorder, and other so-called ‘black swan’ events involves similar skill sets.”
Many Black Lives Matter activists argue the surveillance documented in the MTA files does not constitute crime or terrorism prevention, especially given how non-confrontational the People’s Monday protest events have been.
“We do the same thing every week,” says Stephan, the People’s Monday organizer whose Twitter photos were in the documents. “We read aloud the facts of their cases, and statistics about police killings, generally. … The biggest confrontation that has occurred was when police threatened to arrest us for doing die-ins, but ultimately, they didn’t even make arrests for this — and haven’t — because even when we do die-in we aren’t obstructing access to the trains.”
Indeed, many of the MTA and Metro-North documents support Stephan’s claim, mentioning that the protests remain “peaceful,” “orderly,” “in order,” and “all orderly.” According to one email exchange from January 19, 2015, still in the swing of the post-Eric Garner non-indictment protests, top MTA officials casually discussed a Grand Central protest, CC’ing the Metro-North’s chief security officer and remarking that protesters “just began chanting. The usual routine.”
Nonetheless, this intelligence gathering on activists by undercover police and counterterrorism agents continued, according to the documents.
Comedian and Black Lives Matter activist Elsa Waithe believes the purpose of this intense police surveillance is to chill dissent and gather information in order to better target organizers. Waithe stopped attending the weekly Grand Central protests after an April 14 demonstration in which video shows her being shoved by a man identified as a police officer, allegedly because Waithe was trying to film an arrest.
“Weeks before the assault, a police officer referred to me by name, and I don’t know how he knew it,” says Waithe. “We were in Grand Central just about every single week before, so they set up a crow’s nest — like two to three guys with cameras standing up high above the concourse — a lot of those photos in your documents look like it must have come from that angle. When you know they’re recording and watching you — that’s a feeling I can’t ever shake. I don’t know what they’re doing with all those hours of tape because there’s nothing much there. It’s just being used to intimidate us.”
Waithe argues this prior surveillance in part contributed to her assault: “The day it happened, someone was getting arrested pretty roughly so I went to go film cause I’m a member of Copwatch. The officer shoved me back like a football player and I fell to the ground. I fell onto a wrought iron metal tree guard, and had to be taken in the ambulance because of severe swelling in my ribs. I think they already had information on me and saw that as an opportunity.”
Nonetheless, according to organizers, the intensity of this surveillance was expected from the get-go and dogged many of them even before the Black Lives Matter movement. Angie Brilliance, an organizer from Chicago with the group Black Youth Project 100, recalls fighting in a 2012 campaign for a mental health care facility in one of Chicago’s black neighborhoods, only to find out that some of the most provocative organizers among them may have been police informants.
“We need to be aware, especially given the digital organizing of the modern era, about how we’re being tracked,” says Brilliance. “I know we and many groups we’re affiliated with try as much as possible to not put any plans down on digital documents, to meet in person, and other strategies I probably shouldn’t make public — we have to learn from what the state did to break up our ancestors’ struggles.”
Most Black Lives Matter activists interviewed by The Intercept noted that while the intense surveillance of their lives gave them pause, it wouldn’t stop them from protesting.
“Some of this surveillance is meant to scare us and potentially to figure out what people’s next steps are,” says DeRay Mckesson, an activist whose prominent social media presence has reportedly been monitored by both private cybersecurity firms and the Department of Homeland Security. “But what we’re doing is right.”
Originally published at theintercept.com on August 18, 2015.