By Alex Kane
Activists organizing protests against police brutality in New York are marking Martin Luther King Day with a march beginning in Harlem. Some attendees might be surprised along the way to encounter officers in blue jackets with the words “NYPD Counter Terrorism” emblazoned on the back. But Linda Sarsour, a prominent Muslim-American activist and member of the anti-police brutality group Justice League NYC, one of the sponsors of the march, is almost used to it by now.
As head of the Arab American Association of New York, Sarsour has been a leader in the fight against police misconduct. Much of her energy has gone into speaking out against the NYPD’s expansive spying program that since 9/11 has targeted Muslims and activists. She’s part of a broad coalition trying to change policies ranging from surveillance to ” broken windows” policing, the philosophy that going after minor offenses will deter serious crime.
“When I see counterterrorism folks amongst protesters, it sends me a message that I’m the enemy, and that they are trying to keep other New Yorkers safe from those protesting for their civil rights,” said Sarsour. “It vilifies the people who are being peaceful and asking for something they should already have, asking for things like ending of police brutality.”
The police wearing the counterterrorism jackets at protests are perhaps the most palpable sign of the agency’s transformation since 2001. Before 9/11 the NYPD had no counterterrorism bureau and the Intelligence Division focused its resources on gang activity. After the September 11 attacks, however, billions of dollars were poured into the department to counter the threat of terrorism, as a 2011 60 Minutesreport showed. Critics of the NYPD’s post-9/11 turn have been arguing that practices devoted to fighting terrorism have violated the Constitution.
Now, they say, the NYPD is unleashing its counterterrorism tools on activists against police brutality, conflating legitimate protest with the threat of terrorism.
After a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division—which plays a leading role in the department’s counterterrorism work—was sent to monitor protests in Missouri. A few weeks later, when thousands of New Yorkers flooded the streets, bridges, highways, and landmarks to protest the grand jury decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD cop who placed Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a chokehold that resulted in his death, counterterrorism officers were deployed at the demonstrations. And after the murders of two NYPD officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an 18-year-old Brooklyn resident was arrested and charged with making a “terroristic” threat after allegedly posting a violent anti-cop cartoon on Facebook. (The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)
Mathieu Deflem, a University of South Carolina sociology professor who has studied the NYPD’s counterterrorism policies, wrote in an email that “from the police viewpoint, certain measures will be needed as they do have to engage in crowd control.” But he cautioned that the vast security apparatus set up after 9/11 makes it “likely that counterterrorism measures will be applied to other forms of crime or problematic behavior… This brings about, as a consequence, a criminalization of protest and possibly even a ‘terrorization’ of other crimes.”
Still, Nicholas Casale, a former detective who was involved with NYPD counterterrorism operations in the mid 1990s, told VICE that there was nothing inherently nefarious about the presence of counterterrorism police officers at protests.