20 Jan 2015

How the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Apparatus Is Being Turned on Protesters

Activists organizing protests against police brutality in New York are marking Martin Luther King Day with a march beginning in Harlem. Some attendees might be surprised along the way to encounter officers in blue jackets with the words "NYPD Counter Terrorism" emblazoned on the back. But Linda Sarsour, a prominent Muslim-American activist and member of the anti-police brutality group Justice League NYC, one of the sponsors of the march, is almost used to it by now.
As head of the Arab American Association of New York, Sarsour has been a leader in the fight against police misconduct. Much of her energy has gone into speaking out against the NYPD's expansive spying program that since 9/11 has targeted Muslims and activists. She's part of a broad coalition trying to change policies ranging from surveillance to " broken windows" policing, the philosophy that going after minor offenses will deter serious crime.
"When I see counterterrorism folks amongst protesters, it sends me a message that I'm the enemy, and that they are trying to keep other New Yorkers safe from those protesting for their civil rights," said Sarsour. "It vilifies the people who are being peaceful and asking for something they should already have, asking for things like ending of police brutality."
The police wearing the counterterrorism jackets at protests are perhaps the most palpable sign of the agency's transformation since 2001. Before 9/11 the NYPD had no counterterrorism bureau and the Intelligence Division focused its resources on gang activity. After the September 11 attacks, however, billions of dollars were poured into the department to counter the threat of terrorism, as a 2011 60 Minutesreport showed. Critics of the NYPD's post-9/11 turn have been arguing that practices devoted to fighting terrorism have violated the Constitution.
Now, they say, the NYPD is unleashing its counterterrorism tools on activists against police brutality, conflating legitimate protest with the threat of terrorism.
After a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, the NYPD's Intelligence Division—which plays a leading role in the department's counterterrorism work—was sent to monitor protests in Missouri. A few weeks later, when thousands of New Yorkers flooded the streets, bridges, highways, and landmarks to protest the grand jury decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD cop who placed Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a chokehold that resulted in his death, counterterrorism officers were deployed at the demonstrations. And after themurders of two NYPD officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an 18-year-old Brooklyn resident was arrested and charged with making a "terroristic" threat after allegedly posting a violent anti-cop cartoon on Facebook. (The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)
Mathieu Deflem, a University of South Carolina sociology professor who has studied the NYPD's counterterrorism policies, wrote in an email that "from the police viewpoint, certain measures will be needed as they do have to engage in crowd control." But he cautioned that the vast security apparatus set up after 9/11 makes it "likely that counterterrorism measures will be applied to other forms of crime or problematic behavior... This brings about, as a consequence, a criminalization of protest and possibly even a 'terrorization' of other crimes."
Still, Nicholas Casale, a former detective who was involved with NYPD counterterrorism operations in the mid 1990s, told VICE that there was nothing inherently nefarious about the presence of counterterrorism police officers at protests.
"When you have a protest, that protest has to be policed. You have a limited finite number of officers. So you're going to have to reorganize your deployment of officers," he said. "When there's an extemporaneous demonstration as we saw, let's say with Occupy Wall Street—where they would appear in different locations—the police department has to draw officers to police the crowd, to stop traffic, to separate from the crowd from people who want to get to work."
But counterterrorism agents have gone beyond just policing protests by getting directly involved with arrests.
On December 13, tens of thousands of people marched through Manhattan to call attention to police violence and demand accountability for the killings of Garner and Brown. After the sanctioned march petered out, a smaller number of protesters headed to the Brooklyn Bridge. At one point, the demonstrators split in two, with one group on an elevated pedestrian walkway and another group on the highway. According to the NYPD, officers saw Eric Linsker, a 29-year-old professor, holding a garbage can. Fearing that he was going to throw it on officers below, they moved to arrest him. But at least six other demonstrators intervened, allegedly assaulting the police and allowing Linsker to escape.
In the early hours of December 14, law enforcement—which had identified Linsker by an ID card in the backpack he left behind—raided his home and arrested him. The arresting officers, according to media reports, were members of the New York–area Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a unit that includes NYPD officers and FBI agents. Under former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, the number of NYPD detectives assigned to the JTTF went from 17 to 125.
Martin Stolar, Linsker's defense attorney, says that the involvement of JTTF officers in an arrest of this sort was "extremely unusual." He added that "to have the Joint Terrorism Task Force misappropriated to [a] demonstration arrest [is] something that is shocking... [The NYPD] overreacted to September 11, and they see terrorism under every corner." Linsker is not being charged with anything close to terrorism, though. Instead, he's accused of a litany of crimes like inciting a riot, assaulting a police officer (though even prosecutors acknowledge it was other demonstrators who hit officers), possession of a weapon (he had hammers in a backpack), and resisting arrest.


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