City Hall, Once Again

At a few minutes before 6 pm on Sunday, 1 October 2000, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) performed in front of a police surveillance camera (one of 16) installed at City Hall, at which a rally and a sleep-in were scheduled to take place starting at 6:30 pm. Designed to mark the one-year anniversary of pro-landlord changes made to New York State's rent stabilization and control laws, the rally and sleep-in were called by the Metropolitan Council on Housing, among other groups. Though the defense of rent laws is not on the SCP's agenda, the group decided to participate because the demonstration was held at City Hall, which is a highly surveilled area and one at which the SCP performs all-too-infrequently. (Indeed, the group has only performed twice at City Hall -- on 29 February 2000 and 17 March 2000 -- because the place is active at precisely those times (weekdays) that the various members of the SCP are at work and inactive on the weekend, when the group's members are "free." The City Hall rally and sleep-in solved the problem in that they were held on a weekend evening.)

So as not to upstage the rally, the SCP performed and departed before it got under way. (The group tried to meet before the rally in City Hall Park, which is immediately to the south of the City Hall building, but it was closed at 5:30 pm -- seven-and-a-half hours early -- because the NYPD feared that the demonstrators might try to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to public assembly and free speech in a place that they would be physically comfortable and likely to encounter their fellow New Yorkers. Phrased another way, the police wanted to make absolutely sure that none of the demonstrators defied the court order that said that they couldn't hold their sleep-in at the park. And so both the rally and the sleep-in took place on the concrete-carpeted sidewalk between City Hall and the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, where there were, of course, no benches, trees, grassy knolls, or fellow New Yorkers, just cops, gawkers and news reporters.) As a kind of welcome-to-the-demo, the SCP repeatedly performed two plays, You are being watched for your own safety and Headline News, while the organizers were setting up their banners and microphones, and the demonstrators and news crews began to arrive on the scene.

The SCP also displayed a new, two-sided board -- created for this particular performance and for similar ones in the future -- that proclaims NO N.Y.P.D. VIDEOTAPING ALLOWED! on one side and HANDSCHU CONSENT DECREE (787 F. 2d 828) on the other. The text of the flyer that the group handed out during the performance also referred to the Handschu Consent Decree (as well as to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Originally proposed in 1980 as part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the New York Police Department's "Red Squad" by Barbara Handschu, Abbie Hoffman and several others in the early 1970s, the Handschu Consent Decree (HCD) created a specific authority (the Handschu Authority) to make sure that the NYPD abided by a set of guidelines that regulated police surveillance and investigation of political groups and individuals. Made up of lawyers from the NYPD and the Mayor's Office, the Handschu Authority must be informed and give its approval if the NYPD wants to violate the Fourth Amendment's provisions against unreasonable search and seizure by photographing or videotaping people solely on the basis of their political beliefs and activities. Because of the one-sided composition of the Authority and the original court's desire to regulate rather than outlaw police surveillance of political groups, the HCD was contested in 1985 by a variety of individuals and groups, including Howard Zinn, Grace Paley, the Communist Party, Paul Avrich, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Bertell Ollman, Paul Robeson, Jr., and many, many others. In 1986, a judge ruled against the challenge to the HCD. Well-intentioned but fatally flawed, the decree has been the dead-letter-of-the-law to this day.

In the last two years, the HCD has been openly violated by the NYPD at several protests, including Khalid Mohammed's Million Youth March in Harlem, the Ku Klux Klan's rally in Manhattan, and the May Day rally at Union Square. (For information on the last of the three, see the SCP's report on its action that day.) In each case, the NYPD either used or allowed other police officers to use film and video cameras to record the faces of law-abiding demonstrators without getting the approval of the Handschu Authority. One can be sure that the pictures taken by these cameras can easily be added to computerized databases. The video cameras in the NYPD's arsenal are quite sophisticated: some of them can use microwave transmitters to relay live images to any receiving location within 300 miles. Press reports indicate that the NYPD has a van and two helicopters that are equipped with video-microwave transmitters, and that Manhattan is full of antennae and relay transmitters. But as a recent (and rather lame) anti-IMF/WB protest on Second Avenue and 44th Street showed, the NYPD still uses old-fashioned camcorders to identify protesters: they are wielded by officers from the Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU), who comply with the Handschu Consent Decree and the Fourth Amendment by hiding their cameras in their pockets when they aren't being used.

Among the things the SCP hoped to accomplish by performing at a highly visible protest at City Hall was to photograph TARU officers in the act of photograhing or videotaping the SCP in violation of the HCD. But, except for a brief appearance by the "Pig Brother" van, which at about 6:20 pm rolled by but didn't stop at the demomstration, the TARU was not in evidence, either before or during the SCP's performance. Such is the situation of the SCP: to be both happy and disappointed that the "Red Squad" didn't show!

Despite this ironic, bitter-sweet turn of events, the SCP's performance was a great success, and was so for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the performance -- in addition to being an effective exposure and denunciation of the city's surveillance cameras -- was a good working example of sympathetic but autonomous action. Unlike Fran Luck and the other wingnuts from the Housing Solidarity Alliance, the SCP collaborated in the rally -- the group was even photographed and videotaped for broadcast by NY1 News -- without ever trying to speak for it, change its tone or take it over. Second, the performance was presented by the largest number of SCPers ever assembled in one place. In attendance were Scott, Bill, Susan, Miranda, Gus, Kate Rebelfux, Gus, Kristin, Beth, Deb, and Ethan. Third, the performance introduced the SCP and its style of protest to several members of activist groups that had never seen or even heard about the group. These included members or individuals acting on behalf of Charas, the No Spray Coalition and the Green Party.

The entire proceedings were videotaped by Jed and Amanda, who are making a documentary on the SCP, and photographed by SCP member Scott.

Addendum: Report by Susan

As the rest of the SCP were holding up boards protesting unconstitutional surveillance in public spaces, I was giving out flyers with a map showing the locations of the surveillance cameras at City Hall & in the park. I spoke with one young black man who was very interested in the map & he picked right up on the fact that the cameras are used for racial profiling. He took some extra flyers to show his friends. I spoke with a couple from Holland who were aware of the surveillance problem especially in England where they said they had noticed the cameras are everywhere. They said that in Holland the citizens were included in the decision of where & when cameras can be used, and they agreed that the kind of total surveillance being perpetrated on the citizens of UK & US is a violation of civil rights. . . . I spoke to two young black men in hooded t-shirts who said nothing but nodded vigorously & took extra copies of the map as they went down to the subway. An older man wanted to know why I thought [so-called] SECURITY was bad, so I talked about the videotaping of demonstrators & the pre-emptive arrests of activists in Washington DC. He was there to complain about the rent increases, so he agreed that he wouldn't like to be profiled as an agitator.