The New York Daily News recently exposed a story centered around two Occupy Wall Street activists, Christina Gonzalez and Matthew Swaye, who have been targeted by the NYPD.
In speaking with Occupy activists, it quickly becomes clear that protesters are extremely paranoid when it comes to the topic of the police. Many activists, based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, believe undercover police are constantly in their midst, or target demonstrators perceived to be the “leaders” of Occupy, even though, as the group has emphatically stated since its inception, the movement has no leader.
These suspicions are not without foundation. Undercovers do attempt to infiltrate Occupy, and most recently, two agents did so quite quite successfully in the case of the NATO 3.
Gonzalez and Swaye are a unique example of police harassment because they weren’t exactly perceived as leaders, and they weren’t suspected of committing a crime. Rather, the NYPD branded them “professional agitators,” whatever that means. Police have been circulating flyers that look suspiciously similar to wanted posters, featuring the couple’s mug shots (the two have been arrested for civil disobedience in the past), warning officers to “Be aware that above subjects are known professional agitators,” and notes the “subjects’ MO” is to videotape officers “performing routine stops and post on Youtube.”
Gonzalez frequently videotapes police activity, such as stop and searches of vehicles, and other actions she perceives as police harassment. Here is video of Gonzalez filming police who are idling in front of her home.
It’s not a crime to videotape police officers in New York City, and the “routine stops” detailed on the flyers is a departmental euphemism for the controversial Stop and Frisk action, a policy of racial profiling Gonzalez expressed her disdain for to me back in January at an Occupy protest in Harlem.
The mood at the protest that day was tense—not in the usual melodrama played out between police and protesters– but between pro-Obama supporters and those criticizing the president’s policies.
However, Gonzalez did not seem intimidated by the uneasy environment and she certainly didn’t mince words. First, she criticized the president for attending a swank fundraiser.
“I’m outraged that the president of my country, who I voted for, who hasn’t done a damn thing for this country, has the nerve to come to the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem and charge $100-to-$25,000 for a seat to hear him speak—about what, I don’t know, because I can’t afford to get inside.”
Then, she moved on to criticizing the NYPD’s policy of stop-and-frisk.
“Meanwhile, in this city right now, the NYPD are using these [Stop And Frisk US 250] forms, which is basically the new Jim Crow, which says that they have the ability to go out and stop people in the streets, almost 700,000 people they stopped in 2011, 85 percent of them were black or brown men. There’s something wrong with that.”
Here’s Gonzalez discussing Stop and Frisk with Democracy Now!:
At the risk of stating the obvious, I feel it’s important to stress that filming police officers and peacefully protesting (even when using a loud, authoritative tone) is perfectly legal. Gonzalez and Swaye weren’t secretly recording police, but rather exercising their rights as citizens.
Yet, now the couple is being treated as criminals.
New York Daily News:
“What we do is not a crime,” said Swaye, adding that the NYPD flyer looks more like a “wanted poster” than a police department advisory.
“It’s more insidious than a wanted poster because it’s undefined,” Swaye said. “People can take their pick: Are we dangerous, criminal, insane?”
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time the NYPD treated a citizen filming their activity as a criminal.
In 2009, police arrested blogger and freelance photographer Antonio Musumeci on the steps of a New York federal courthouse for the crime of “unauthorized photography on federal property.”
The result of his arrest was the NYPD issuing him a citation, and the NYCLU countering with a lawsuit that resulted in a settlement in which the federal government agreed to issue a directive acknowledging that it is completely legal to film and/or photograph on federal property.
On Oct. 13, 2010, a federal judge signed a settlement in which the federal government agreed that no federal statutes or regulations bar photography of federal courthouses from publicly accessible property. It agreed to issue a nationwide directive to members of the Federal Protective Service (the agency responsible for all government buildings) instructing them about the rights of photographers. Since Musumeci had been charged with violating a regulation that applied to all federal property, not just courthouses, the NYCLU hold the position that the settlement in effect covers photography og all federal buildings.
NYPD spokeswoman Inspector Kim Royster denied the poster was an attempt to silence the couple, and told the New York Daily News it was designed only to alert officers at the stationhouse.
Alert them of what?
Surely, police officers know there are individuals who call themselves activists who use all kinds of tools to monitor police behavior (not just videotaping, but Twitter too).
While it’s illegal to arrest anyone for filming police in New York City, the NYPD have circumvented those inconsequential legal barriers to launch a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Gonzalez and Swaye, who simply attempted to hold police accountable for their actions. That duty doesn’t make them professional agitators but rather concerned citizens.
The couple, who met at a Pace University rally in December and shared their first kiss on New Year’s Eve at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, told the New York Daily News, “There’s nothing radical about us.”