How NYPD Surveillance Could Affect Eric Garner Protesters

Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO
Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO

Nationwide protests continued to erupt this week in response to a New York grand jury’s decision Wednesday not to indict the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner. The New York Police Department has already arrested hundreds of protesters as they blocked major intersections and marched throughout the city. As the demonstrations grow, peaceful protesters should expect to get caught in the NYPD’s expanding surveillance web.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has stepped up its social media monitoring in recent years, even adding a Facial Recognition Unit dedicated to combing Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to identify suspects. The department also announced in November it plans to beef up its social media monitoring to weed out lone wolf terrorists, as part of its 9/11-era programs used to track extremist movements online.

But the NYPD has a history of using surveillance tools to track individuals involved in legal protests. The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2012 faced intense surveillance, both by cameras and as the NYPD monitored organizers’ social media accounts. Twitter was forced to give up the account of an Occupy protester who was charged with disorderly conduct. The department also reluctantly disbanded its unit dedicated to mapping Muslim community members’ activities using surveillance cameras and combing online forums.

“We’ve seen the tactics of police using surveillance to monitor communities for years. Social media is just another form of communication and it’s more public than telephone,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of activist group Color of Change, told ThinkProgress.

NYPD officers traveled to Ferguson, MO during the fallout of the grand jury decision for Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was fatally shot by a police officer in August, to collect intelligence on “professional agitators” ahead of the Garner decision. Missouri protesters managed to outmaneuver police during protests by using disposable or burner phones and organizing via social media. One NYPD officer complained that the protesters were wealthy “little techie brats” who were using social media to outsmart cops.

“The NYPD encourages cooperation across units to spy on people for attempting to protest,” and any one who may be associated with protesters, Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, told ThinkProgress, mentioning the NYPD helicopters surveying thousands of protesters this week.

Police rely on social media and data collection to help them respond more efficiently to crime, but it can often step over the line. “In Chicago, [there was the] creation of the heat map predicting who would do crime based on who they are and where they live. In New York, their anti-terrorism work has pushed the boundaries of privacy,” Robinson said. “But it’s all in how they use the data. At the end of the day, police need to build trust…And monitoring protests doesn’t do this.”