NYPD war on terror snags artists

In the hot, fraught summer of 2004, as U.S. officials warned grimly of increasing terrorist chatter in Europe and the Middle East and threat levels remained elevated across the country, these are some of the groups that had the New York Police Department worried: al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, and the Surveillance Camera Players.

What's that? You're not familiar with the evil acts of the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP)? How about the Shadowy Revolutionary Cell? Paper Tiger? Green Dragon? Don't feel bad if the names don't ring any bells; fact is, most intelligence agents haven't heard of them. But last week, when the NYPD released a 600-plus-page summary of its surveillance activities leading up to and including the 2004 Republican National Convention, the city got an eye-opening look at what, exactly, its police department considers dangerous. The answer? Not-for-profit theatre groups, musicians, satirical street performers, politically oriented filmmakers, and others who aren't big fans of the Republican Party in general or George W. Bush in particular. Theaters Against War (THAW), LL Cool J, Russell Simmons, the Ruckus Society, the Living Theatre. As the famous German quote has it: "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my Browning." Evidently, some folks in the NYPD feel the same way.

We know this because the Bloomberg Administration, through the NYPD, drastically overstepped its bounds to ensure the thousands of Republican delegates that flocked into town could interact with New York City in the same way their president interacts with the rest of the world: from safely within a sterile bubble that provides only one-way communication, from the inside-out. (His administration's unwavering support of the NYPD through the entire affair, and their unconstitutional activity, suggests that Bloomberg, who may run for the White House as an indie candidate in '08, probably wouldn't be the best man to restore the civil rights degraded under Bush.)

To ensure things ran smoothly for the delegates, more than 1,800 people were arrested during the week of the convention, which ran Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, 2004. Many were held without charges for longer than 24 hours at a disused bus depot on Pier 57. They were denied satisfactory hygiene and nutrition, as well as communication with the outside world, prompting some to dub the facility, "Guantanamo on the Hudson."

Shortly after the convention, when the NYPD magically dropped about 90 per cent of the charges, some protesters and the NY Civil Liberties Union sued the city over the mass arrests. And though it has been fighting the suit tooth-and-nail, the NYPD finally accepted last week that it would abide by a judge's ruling in April to release details of its surveillance program. Eighteen months before the convention, the NYPD established an RNC Intelligence Squad, sending out agents to other states and other countries (including Canada), as well as scouring the Web and other sources for information on individuals and groups who were likely to stage protests at the RNC.

The Squad apparently got into shape by spying on dozens of events before the RNC itself. They tracked a collection of performers that called itself Bands Against Bush and planned concerts on Oct. 11, 2003 in 10 cities in the U.S. (Seattle, Washington D.C., Boston, the Bay Area) and Ireland. Musical acts, they warned in reports, would be interspersed with political speakers and videos. "Activists are showing a well-organized network made up of anti-Bush sentiment; the mixing of music and political rhetoric indicates sophisticated organizing skills with a specific agenda," reads the NYPD report issued prior to the event. "Police Departments in above listed areas have been contacted regarding this event," it adds, though it fails to say why other cities should have been concerned. Trolling through the vast summary provided by the NYPD (albeit with some heavy redacting) gives an impression of a city far more on edge than the politicians usually let on.

Danger lurks around every corner. In these pages, possibly legitimate dangers nuzzle up against comically dry accounts of satirists plying their trade. There was, for example, the group known as Axis of Eve, which promised a "flashing" protest against the RNC that would entail, "the participation of roughly 100 women in thong type underwear," stripping down to undergarments, "with pre-printed statements such as 'Fire Bush', 'Expose Bush' and 'Down with Bush.'"

Also targeted was the Surveillance Camera Players, an enigmatic 10-year-old organization that highlights the prevalence of surveillance cameras in New York. The group gives weekly walking tours of the downtown camera spots, but it also stages unannounced two minute performances in front of surveillance cameras that are intended for both those monitoring the feeds and passersby on the street whose curiosity might be piqued. In a lengthy explanation of its surveillance activities posted on its website last week, the NYPD categorized the SCP as an organization that contributed to a "violent or illegal civil disobedience activity."

Foul! cried the SCP. "We're very clear, we're a non-violent group," Bill Brown, the cofounder and current director of SCP, said last Friday night. "It's obviously a clear case of abuse, really pushing the definitions around what political surveillance is, or what a threat is."

On first glance, it seemed as if the NYPD had simply caught all of those cultural groups in its surveillance dragnet by accident, like those tuna fishermen who regretfully snag dolphins. After all, the police force is a blunt instrument, and can't be expected to discern nuances. But of course that's the exact role of intelligence agencies: sifting the wheat from the chaff. Which means we have to accept the NYPD really did perceive a threat from what those cultural groups were trying to provide: political and social dissent. This is a country, after all, in which the band of acceptable political discourse is cigarette slim, dominated by two parties that can often seem strikingly similar. Against that backdrop -- and the backdrop of a four-daylong stage-managed coronation disguised as a political convention -- maybe the artist is the most dangerous element conceivable.

The Theaters Against War website features a quote from Paul Robeson. "I have never separated my work as an artist from my work as a human being," he said. "I've always put it even more strongly, that to me, my art is always a weapon."

(Written by Simon Houpt in his "New York Diary" for 21 May 2007. Published in The Globe and Mail, Canada.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998