Who Is That Masked Man?
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
Who Is That Masked Man? New York Police Admit Profiling
by Eric Laursen, In These Times
This city was treated to a most unusual political trial in
June, when 12 anarchists appeared in Manhattan Criminal
Court charged with "masquerading in public" on May Day 2000.
It was the first prosecution in decades under a 150-year-old
state law that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dusted off two years
ago to block a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Thanks to an earlier court decision, the non-jury trial gave
the anarchists a rare opportunity to discuss and defend
their beliefs in court--including the black clothing and
bandannas that have become common at protests. But perhaps
most important, officers who took the witness stand admitted
what critics have long charged--that New York police allowed
out-of-town police to attend rallies here and videotape them
to profile activists in preparation for protests in other
cities. Judge Ellen Coyne's ruling is expected in
The case concerns the arrest of a group of anarchists just
before an annual May Day march. Police amassed along the
parade route had received a briefing from an NYPD "disorder
expert" that the crowd could include "WTO-Seattle-type
protesters." A police surveillance videotape shows that the
anarchists, some of whom were wearing bandannas and some
not, were standing quietly when they were suddenly jumped by
police, wrestled to the ground and arrested.
The defendants were held in jail for as long as 36 hours on
a range of charges including violation of the mask law,
which prohibits two or more persons from "congregating" in
public while wearing masks to obscure their identities. The
vaguely worded statute was adopted back in the 1840s, when
the state was trying to suppress the "Rent Wars," a series
of tenant farmer uprisings against landlords. The mask law
languished for many years, but other cities facing
large-scale political protests--including Philadelphia,
Windsor, Ontario and Quebec--have adopted their own
"If Judge Coyne comes down in favor of the anarchists being
able to participate in political events while wearing
masks," says Beth Haroules of the New York Civil Liberties
Union, "the message to the city is they shouldn't be using
loitering laws to clear the streets of people expressing
political beliefs." The NYCLU has filed a separate request
with federal Judge Harold Baer to declare the mask law
Attorney Ron Kuby, who represents the anarchists, compares
the case to those of Chinese, South Korean and Iranian
activists who have worn masks at demonstrations in those
countries for fear of reprisal. "At least some of these
defendants were aware that there was ongoing surveillance of
their movement in preparation for the [then upcoming]
Republican National Convention," which Kuby says justifies
their wearing masks. "Indeed, the Philadelphia police were
there [at the May Day rally] taking pictures of them."
At trial, Kuby grilled Michael Fox, who was in charge of the
arrests, and Thomas Graham, a deputy inspector with the
NYPD's disorder control unit, about their own knowledge of
anarchism. Neither was familiar with the leading anarchist
thinkers Kuby mentioned Kropotkin, Bakunin, Berkman--and
Graham testified that a 60 Minutes segment was his principal
source about the movement.
Fox also acknowledged for the first time that the NYPD and
other police departments have been cooperating to profile
demonstrators whom they suspect of being "Seattle-type"
activists. This included officers from Philadelphia and
Morristown, New Jersey, some of whom were recognized by the
defendants from those cities, and who were in New York
videotaping the anarchists before they were arrested.
Although the defendants expect an acquittal, that alone will
not eliminate the mask law as a threat to activists. "Even
if we can prove to them that prosecution is fruitless in
these cases, that doesn't prevent the police from making an
arrest," Kuby notes. "Either the district attorney has to
tell them that it's not prosecutable, or the new mayor of
New York has to say 'don't do it.' "
This year's May Day was again marred by arrests when police
charged a group of activists who were performing street
theater at a march in support of immigrant workers. Police
arrested five--one for violating the mask law. The NYCLU is
collecting activists' arrest stories going back to 1998 for
a possible class-action lawsuit against the NYPD.
Haroules is optimistic about the anarchists' chances of an
acquittal, noting that the courts have become "a lot more
jaundiced in their evaluation of the tactics the police are
using." But for her, the real goal is to change police
action: "Unfortunately, that stance hasn't filtered down to
the behavior of the cop on the street."
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