Protest Then & Now: Government Surveillance
Planning and executing large-scale protest activity at a national political convention comes not only with the risk of arrest or violence—it can put individuals under surveillance by the U.S. government. In the months leading up to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and the 2004 New York City Republican National Convention, government surveillance performed of groups that planned to participate in demonstrations, impacted later police and legal action.
Government surveillance of political activists has changed in the past four decades due to legal and technological developments, but still persists, often under the public eye.
During the 1960s, police across the U.S. successfully filed class-action lawsuits that enabled them to legally spy on anti-war and other activist groups. Similar pre-convention spying took place before the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC). The Red Squad, the Chicago police department’s intelligence division, had carried out secret as well as overt surveillance procedures for decades, and by the 1960s, had information on 14,000 organizations and nearly 260,000 individuals, including many of the organizations that would later protest at the 1968 DNC.
Following the violence of the Convention, the Red Squad began infiltrating and eavesdropping on even more organizations and dissenters, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Lawyers Guild and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This activity was later ruled unlawful.
Undercover police spies also played a part in the fate of the Chicago 10. Robert Pierson, a Chicago police officer, went undercover and posed as a fellow activist and the personal bodyguard of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin. Pierson later testified against Rubin in court during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial.
COINTELPRO, the undercover domestic surveillance program operated by the FBI between 1956 and 1971, also played a large role in the monitoring of anti-war activists, civil rights leaders and other dissidents. Under COINTELPRO, the FBI investigated, often illegally, and maintained files on many organizations and individuals that they believed were a threat to national security, including Students for a Democratic Society, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The program was later scrutinized by a Senate committee and criticized for violating citizens’ rights.
Because the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC) took place in New York City less than three years after the 9/11 attacks, governments at the federal as well as local levels were able to relax restrictions on eavesdropping and surveillance activity under the potential threat of terrorist activity.
As detailed in a March 2007 article in the New York Times, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) worked undercover for more than a year prior to the Convention, infiltrating activist communities across North America and Europe in order to gain information on planned protest activity. The NYPD’s RNC Intelligence Squad relayed hundreds of covert reports on individuals—from members of theater and church groups to independent media producers and peace organizations that did not plan on, or later engage in, any illegal or violent action at the RNC.
Surveillance during the 2004 RNC was also unparalleled due to the use of technology. After New York was chosen as the site of the RNC in 2003, a federal judged granted the city the right to loosen restrictions on the videotaping of protesters. Police officials employed stationary video cameras atop streetlights and buildings, as well as hand-held cameras, to monitor all protests.
Was this legal? In a 1971 lawsuit known as Handschu, New York City revealed that the NYPD possessed intelligence files with a million names of individuals and groups suspected of protest activity. The NYPD’s files amounted to even more names than the U.S. Army’s national domestic spying program at the time. The Handschu settlement limited police surveillance to cases in which there had to be explicit information that a group was planning a crime prior to investigation. Opponents of the NYPD argued that these threats of crime were manufactured to legitimize the pre-RNC spying. Despite criticism, the NYPD’s undercover surveillance prior to the 2004 Convention was deemed legal due to these Handschu guidelines.
Researching legally contested surveillance activity is time intensive, and often controversial. Information regarding the 2004 convention was not made available to the public until more than a year afterwards. As of September 2008, data regarding surveillance and the 2008 RNC is still pending.