Grand Central Terminal was full of protests during the fall and winter of 2014-15. The non-indictments of police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island led to street demonstrations, as well as others originating at the iconic landmark.
Those protests were carefully watched by NYPD undercover officers. We know this because one of the demonstrators filed a Freedom of Information Law request in January 2015, curious to know more about the individuals with cameras often seen in the “crow’s nest” above the rotunda and deemed to be law enforcement, says Elsa Waithe, a comedian and activist.
The NYPD declined to release the information about surveillance at the terminal, saying some of the information did not exist and denying access to other parts of it. In response, a team of lawyers took them to court. Last month, the department gave up a video and 45 pages of communications between undercover officers and their handlers, confirming that the protesters were being watched.
Lawyers who argued for the documents’ release say the records may indicate violations of NYPD protocols. Either way, they represent focused surveillance of lawful political activity. Seeing those documents now stirs up the uncertainty that many protesters felt then, looking over their shoulders during a chaotic time.
For Waithe, the document release was personal: one email included a picture with the words, “Brown jacket is main protester.” As far as she and other protesters can tell from the grainy image, it’s her. “I know me when I see me,” she says.
The date and time of the picture, as well as the name of the photographer or sender, were blacked out. The only other words from the email: “Approx 15 in GC.”
This is par for the course for the documents, which largely include emails reporting on conditions at the protests: “at GC — all quiet”; “No change at GC. Peaceful.”
Sometimes, the emails report on actions: “(15-20) orderly protesters”; “Back in Grand Central. Chanting.”
Waithe observes that the observers must have gotten pretty bored, given the lack of illegal activity they were finding (one email refers to an undescribed arrest). The Grand Central Crew, as they began to be called, would do die-ins — lying on the ground in memory of people killed — or speak-outs about police misconduct. But Waithe remembers looking over the Grand Central rules to make sure they weren’t breaking the law. That’s reflected in the bland nature of the NYPD reports from the scene, summed up in the repeated phrase “NTR,” “nothing to report.” (The NYPD did not return a request for comment or explanation of the documents or surveillance.)
Despite the lack of action, some of the NYPD documents show tighter surveillance verging on infiltration. Emails like “see if u can find out the plan if they’re talking about one” and “try to listen up and find out how they are planning to leave, whether on foot, train, etc.” indicate someone working with the NYPD who is close to or following along with the protesters. There is an image of a text message that protesters say went out only to a small group. That the NYPD was able to snap the picture implies a degree of trust between the group and at least that undercover.
There are rules for NYPD surveillance of political activity known as the Handschu Guidelines. They require, for example, the NYPD to document an approval process for surveillance. From the released documents and lack of further explanation, that does not appear to have taken place at Grand Central, says David Thompson, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit that sought the information’s release.
More pressing than whether the NYPD violated the spirit or the letter of Handschu is that NYPD stops this kind of surveillance of lawful political activity, says Thompson: “It’s antithetical to democratic values.”
“I can understand looking into it,” says Waithe, the “main protester,” of the protests. It’s not inherently unlawful or even necessarily sinister to post NYPD personnel at protests — they could be looking for illegal activity, and following along if protesters move elsewhere. But if the activity is peaceful and lawful for months, wouldn’t you move on to other more pressing priorities? What does an undercover accomplish in normal situations like the one at Grand Central that a uniformed officer couldn’t?
Maybe, eventually, the undercover surveillance did move on, but the documents alone don’t show that. Instead, they validate protesters’ worst fears.
“We were all new to each other, new to organizing,” Waithe says. There were the constant watchers up above, and strange people sometimes popped up. The two older women who said they found the group via Twitter, kept coming around — eventually they were accepted as real. But what about the young woman, Waithe remembers, who always wore both mask and bandanna? “I’ve never seen anybody do two.”
One time that person said police had roughed her up, sent a picture to Waithe and another protester, asked them whether they were going to respond violently. They didn’t, and eventually the woman disappeared, but it made Waithe think more carefully about who she was talking to.
The surveillance “hinders the community building process,” Waithe says, and it just makes you paranoid. Sometimes you think: “Are they still watching me?”