Activist Silenced for Fear of Surveillance
Jennifer Flynn is not a rabble-rouser. She's not an aspiring suicide bomber. She doesn't advocate the overthrow of the government. Instead, she pushes for funding and better treatment for people with HIV and AIDS.
Better keep an eye on her.
Wait! Somebody already did.
On the day before a rally by the New York City AIDS Housing Network at the 2004 Republican National Convention - a rally by an organization Flynn co-founded, and a rally that the NYPD had approved - she experienced something straight out of a spy novel.
While visiting her family in Hillside, N.J., Flynn spotted a car with a New York license plate parked outside the house. When she left to head back to her Brooklyn home that evening, the car followed hers. Shortly after leaving Hillside, two more vehicles, also with New York plates, seemed to be tailing her, too.
Trying to assure herself she wasn't nuts, Flynn tested her hunch - changing lanes, making turns, pulling over and parking. The drivers in those three vehicles mimicked her actions.
At one point, she recalled, she slowed down and one of the other vehicles ended up alongside her car. She looked over to see several men in the vehicle. She gestured toward them. The men "threw up their arms as if to say, 'We're only doing what we're told,'" she remembers.
On the New Jersey side of the Goethals Bridge, her followers pulled away. But later, when Flynn pulled up in front of her Flatbush home, she spotted another car, with two men inside, both with laptops. At 4 a.m., they were still there.
Is Flynn paranoid? Well, she is now. She did, however, jot down the license plate number of one of the vehicles in Jersey - a blue sport utility vehicle. When a reporter asked for the number, Flynn couldn't find it. Recently, it was found in a file kept by Christopher Dunn, the civil liberties lawyer she called that day in a panic.
The license plate number traces back to a company - Pequot Inc. - and a post office box at an address far from the five boroughs. Registering unmarked cars to post office boxes outside the city or to shell companies is a common practice of law enforcement agencies to shield undercover investigators.
The NYPD, however, says it didn't follow Flynn that evening. And the department's Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen has said no federal agency was involved in preconvention surveillance.
So who was following Flynn? And what, exactly, did they hope to learn about a woman the NYPD knew well, as it had been in regular communication with her about her organization's rally?
The answer - well, part of it - is a 99-mile road trip from NYPD headquarters: uptown, into the Bronx, and onto I-87. A quick switch onto the Saw Mill River Parkway, then the Taconic Parkway. Fifty more miles to go, past the leaves turning color and the country club golf courses. After that, it's the winding roads of tony Millbrook, with its horse farms and vineyards.
At last, we're in Amenia, population 1,115. It's so far from the city its dry cleaners actually clean horse blankets.
The street named on the license-plate printout exists, though the address doesn't. An auto-shop worker on the block suggests checking with the post office. When Postmaster Bonnie Colgan and an assistant are shown the printout, they stop dead in their tracks.
There's a Pequot Capital Management in midtown and a Pequot Construction in the Bronx. But no Pequot Inc. in Amenia.
"That's not a real company," the assistant says. "The people who used that box, they're from New York. They used to come here and get the mail, but not anymore."
Colgan is tempted to elaborate, but doesn't.
"I can't because of the sensitive nature of the issue," she says.
Back in the city, Flynn takes a seat at a Starbucks near City Hall and shakes her head. She still feels as passionately about what she does as she did three years ago. But she concedes the experience has taken its toll.
"I feel like I've stepped back, in a way," she says. "I feel I'm not as vocal as I was. I'm still going to sign a petition. I'm still going to organize a rally. I do it. But now I'm deathly afraid."
Flynn, 35, may one day learn who was following her. Activists have decried police tactics at the GOP convention - 1,806 arrests, protesters hemmed in with orange netting, people arrested and held for hours and hours in a West Side pier warehouse. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents seven plaintiffs suing the city over their arrests, is pushing for the release of raw NYPD intelligence reports detailing police surveillance of activists and protest groups.
Flynn says the damage is done. She sees it in the attitudes of other activists. There's less desire. More trepidation.
"When you use scare tactics, you really are curbing our right to dissent against the government," she said. "The only thing this is serving to do is squash public dissent. By going after the organizers of a rally, you really are sending a message - 'Don't hold a rally.'"
© 2007 Newsday Inc.