Prior to the Republican National Convention, I thought I knew all about the militarization of Manhattan -- the transformation of the island into a "homeland-security state" -- and about New York City as the paradigm for the security culture that increasingly grips American society. After all, I wrote about it in "Fortress Big Apple." It turns out I didn't know the half of it. Only after writing that piece did I discover that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had purchase two experimental sound weapons known as Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) which I had once described in writing about U.S. experimental weapons research in Iraq. I had then termed the deployment of an LRAD here during the convention "improbable" -- yet there it was out on the very same streets I was walking. I also looked out my window and caught sight of the ultimate blending of corporatism and the police-state -- the Fuji blimp -- now emblazoned with a second logo: "NYPD." This spy-in-the-sky, outfitted with the latest in video-surveillance equipment, had been loaned free of charge to the police all week long.
But even finding out about these new high-tech tools of the homeland security-state didn't make things clear to me; nor did the ever-present roar of helicopter rotors as those of us in the streets during the RNC were surveilled from above; or even when Brendan Galligan of the NYPD Aviation Unit bluntly told a reporter from the local ABC TV affiliate: "I'm looking for any kind of crime on the grou[nd]. In this case, we're looking for roving mobs of people traveling in unison, that might indicate some sort of problem for the ground troops." "People traveling in unison" a crime? "Ground troops"? I should have fully understood then, but I didn't.
I didn't quite get it when I saw the stone-faced feds out on the streets with those ever-present ear-pieces piping in commands from who knows where; nor as I scuttled between concrete barricades and metal fences in the area around Madison Square Garden while remote cameras tracked my every move; nor when a march I was in was flanked by a phalanx of bicycle-riding police; nor when a corps of plainclothes cops on scooters trolled the streets near Times Square. You would think that I would have understood it when the peaceful group of activists I was with were pushed off the sidewalk by police in front of us, while the cops in back ordered us onto the sidewalk; or when, left with no options, we tried to escape by crossing Broadway only to have some of our number caught in the NYPD's literal dragnet -- rolls of orange plastic netting which were repeatedly unfurled all across the city, snagging protesters, press, legal observers, pedestrians, and bystanders alike. I can't understand why I didn't get it when I looked up from watching some cops press a man's head to the pavement to see a hoard of police on horseback heading down the street towards me; or when officers from the NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) filmed me, apparently for walking in a park or perhaps for what I might do, prompting a young woman to sidle up next to me and whisper "they're tailing you" --making me wonder, was the warning sincere or could she be with them too?
I witnessed the fleets of black SUVs with police escorts roar down virtually empty city streets near the Madison Square Garden bubble. On numerous occasions, I saw flatbed police trucks filled with the very interlocking metal barriers that a judge had ruled could no longer be used to pen in protesters (as the NYPD had been doing for about a decade) -- and I saw those metal barricades pressed back into action on multiple occasions. I witnessed a black van door slide open, revealing tactical-gear clad troops of some sort, brandishing automatic rifles. I witnessed cops and feds on rooftops with binoculars and cameras trained on me and/or my compatriots. I saw cops peering through the near-blacked out windows of unmarked cars and noticed the NYPD's "radio emergency patrol vehicles" wherever protesters seemed to gather.
I repeatedly walked through gauntlets of blue-uniformed cops and white-shirted brass to and from the subway in Union Square Park -- where the three guys in jeans and untucked button-down shirts (which every so often showed the outlines of their guns) graciously smiled one evening as I snapped a picture of their undercover activities. Much less jolly were the secret service agents, one clad in polo shirt and khaki pants, who moved in behind me prompting a legal observer at an event to collect my name and contact information in case I should be snatched off the street; even less jolly was the beefy NYPD officer with no visible badge or name tag who made it a point to shove me as I attempted to take a picture of an orange-net arrest before offering a less-than-convincing "excuse me!" as he strode away.
Police vans with netting over the windows; helmeted riot gear-clad cops; NYPD "paddy wagons"; constant sirens; cops who shoved at us with their night-sticks; armed park police filming with camcorders; radios crackling information to uniformed officers outside almost any subway stop, on street corners, on subway platforms, and on the trains themselves; even those menacing, or sometimes just weary-looking, ultimate conscripts of the homeland security army, the police attack dogs on street patrol, didn't fully hammer home the reality of Fortress Big Apple. What did was the 10' by 20' chain-link pen with razor wire over the top that I found myself in after being arrested for the crime of trying "to change trains," as a Washington Post reporter wrote, after sitting "silently on a subway train going uptown" to "protest deaths in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."
The floors of the pen were covered with a layer of grime -- a mix of what might have been oil, grease, battery acid, transmission fluid, antifreeze, diesel fuel, and possibly leaded gasoline; the pipes overhead gave the appearance of incomplete asbestos abatement; the rotting food and old milk cartons behind the detention pens helped to further drive it home. Like so many others, I was illegally arrested and taken to a makeshift detention center set up by the city especially for the protesters. It was the old municipal bus garage which bears the name "Marine and Aviation Pier 57" but has now been dubbed "Guantanamo on the Hudson." Of course, being incarcerated in New York's own Gitmo (before being packed off to central booking and then a cell in the infamous "Tombs") rather than in America's "offshore archipelago of injustice" -- Abu Ghraib, the actual Guantanamo, or "Camp Justice" on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, to name but a few -- means I fared infinitely better than most victims of America's security culture run amok. Still, the visible abrasions on my wrists from the plastic cuffs (fastened so purposefully tight) that restricted the blood flow to my hands while I was in transit to jail aboard a corrections bus, or the tears of the woman in a cage on the same bus suffering from also too-tight hand restraints (which left the cops in a joking mood), do show the bare traces of the Abu Ghraib mentality alive in America's security forces, at home as well as abroad.
Of course, in communities of color and poor neighborhoods, such tactics, and worse, are old hat -- as my cell-mates behind the arraignment courtroom were quick to point out. But now the NYPD is field-testing new tactics and tools to use against us all. Perhaps most distressing, they've established a precedent and the tacit acceptance of the public as well. Most New Yorkers either left town or failed to vigorously protest the chilling effect of the growth of the homeland-security complex.
I heard first hand of seemingly baseless preemptive arrests and intimidation by federal agents -- an activist en route to work grabbed off the street by the feds; another apparently tailed by a black SUV and shadowed by plainclothes agents. The question is: Will this stop now that the RNC has left town or will it simply become the accepted way of doing things in New York City and elsewhere around the country?
The RNC gave the NYPD (coordinating with the feds) a perfect opportunity to stockpile weapons systems, high-tech equipment, and surveillance devices. It allowed them to refine, perfect, and implement new tactics (someday, perhaps, to be thought of as the "New York model") for use penning in or squelching dissent. It offered them the chance to write up a playbook on how citizens' legal rights and civil liberties may be abridged, constrained, and violated at their discretion. In short, it gave them a free hand to transform New York City into a true homeland security statelet.
Nick Turse writes regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-industrial-entertainment complex. He was jailed by the homeland-security state when he dared to ride the subway with a "war dead" placard around his neck (scroll down to photo). He asks that you consider donating to the NYC Legal Work Fund Collective for RNC Arrestees and/or the National Lawyers Guild who saved him more than once during the protests.
Copyright © 2004 Nicholas Turse