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‘These Videos Shouldn’t Exist’: Hours Of Old NYPD Surveillance Films Of Protests Have Been Digitized


Just because the NYPD didn’t have body cams or LinkNYC kiosks or fake cellphone towers doesn’t mean they weren’t taking surveillance videos of New Yorkers throughout the last century. Over the past year, the Municipal Archives has been carefully digitizing more than 140 hours of 16mm surveillance-film footage created by the NYPD‘s photography unit between 1960 and 1980, creating a wealth of archival footage to peruse.

You can find the archives here—or you can browse by category here. It’s an overwhelming amount of footage, but there are plenty of fascinating glimpses of the recent past. Some of the footage was captured by plainclothes officers who photographed events clandestinely, while others were filmed openly with movie-style cameras positioned next to police vehicles.

A lot of the footage appears to focus on protests and marches which the NYPD was monitoring. That includes footage of the first Earth Day march in 1970, a Nation of Islam rally, CORE and NAACP protests of segregation, Young Lords building occupations, early protests by gay-rights advocates, massive anti-war marches and demonstrations after the Kent State shootings in May 1970.

The footage was released as part of the landmark Handschu agreement: Barbara Handschu and 15 other members of various political or ideological associations and organizations sued the NYPD in 1971 on the basis that the surveillance of their meetings and activities violated constitutionally-protected rights. The case was settled in 1985, and resulted in a consent decree which prohibited the NYPD from investigating political and religious organizations and groups unless there was “specific information” tying the group to a crime that had been or was about to be committed. In addition to the new guidelines for surveillance (which the NYPD has been accused of flagrantly violating), the agreement also required that the Municipal Archives receive all of these records in order to determine if they have historical importance.

“The exhibit exemplifies why the case was filed in the first place,” said attorney Martin Stolar, one of the lawyers who filed the case in 1971. “You can look at all the videos, and I don’t see any criminal conduct that the police department is recording. They’re making a record of political conduct. Why is the police department investigating people’s politics? That’s not their business, that’s why we filed the lawsuit. The reason they were making them was to identify the players involved in political movements, leadership and members.”

The NYC Department of Records writes:

The NYPD’s surveillance of individuals and organizations perceived as enemies of the status quo dates back to early 1900s. At different periods, the focus was on anarchists, labor leaders, Nazi supporters, white supremacists, socialists, and communists. The film footage dates from the heyday of the BOSSI squad, during the 1960s and 1970s when they gathered intelligence on individuals and groups arrayed along the political spectrum, but particularly civil rights, anti-war and feminist activists. Their subjects included the Communist Party, Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, the National Renaissance Party, and Youth Against War and Fascism. The footage captures the high point of the civil-rights movement and the diverse groups it inspired for black power and pride, the rights of women, gays and lesbians, and prisoners as well as the crusades against poverty, environmental degradation and the Vietnam War.

“Viewing this footage reminds me that the more things change, the more they stay the same,” said civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver. “Notwithstanding the Handschu settlement and Guidelines, the NYPD has continued to surveil, infiltrate, and disrupt communities and social justice movements, with very little transparency, and even less accountability. For example, there is an unfortunately low bar for what constitutes the kind of “criminal activity” that can trigger a Handschu-authorized investigation: The NYPD takes the position that people who are planning a demonstration that might involve potential violations of law on the order of jaywalking, disorderly conduct, or gathering in a city park in a group of 20 or more without a permit can and should be subjected to surveillance and, in some cases, infiltration and/or disruption.”

You can check out a few examples of the footage below to see if you or someone you love was filmed by the NYPD for executing their Constitutional right to peaceably assemble.

First, you’ll see an anti-war rally at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, taken on August 2nd, 1969: “By 1969, the Vietnam War had become a focal point for a wide array of social causes and concerns. Among the anti-war activists were supporters of the Black Panthers, the Gay Activists Alliance, Students for a Democratic Society, and more.”

Then there’s this anti-segregation demonstration from June 18th, 1963: “Although New York City schools were never officially segregated, this 1963 film shows NAACP and CORE members marching to protest against the de facto segregation.”

And here’s a protest from May 11th, 1970 featuring union workers against Mayor Lindsay: “The Hard Hat Riots took place when 200 unionized construction workers violently broke up a Kent State shooting solidarity rally held by college and high school students in downtown Manhattan. This film depicts one of the many parades construction workers held in the days afterward, showing their support for President Nixon and their ire for Mayor Lindsay, who had condemned the actions of the rioters.”

Stolar noted that all the videos we included here depict completely lawful activities: “So what the hell are they doing recording and archiving them in police files? Those videos should not exist, they shouldn’t exist…but it’s great that they are making it public now. It’s a lesson in what the police department, or any other law enforcement agency, should not be doing.”

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