Police Spying in the Birthplace of the First Amendment

By DAVE LINDORFF Counterpunch 10/8/06

This past Thursday I was invited by the group World Can’t Wait to talk about impeachment and Bush’s preparations for war against Iran at a Philadelphia rally–part of the group’s Oct. 5 “Drive Out the Bush Regime” campaign of 170 such rallies around the country. Assembled on the mall in front of the Rizzo Municipal Offices building in central Philadelphia in front of me were some 300 people, mostly young, and all well-behaved, if high spirited.

While I was talking about the Bush administration’s impeachable crimes against the American people and the Constitution–in particularly the ramming through Congress of a bill that, for the first time since American patriots drove the British out of the 13 colonies, authorizes indefinite detainment without charge and imprisonment of American citizens without the right to a trial–I noticed two men in sunglasses with a high-quality video camera and a high-quality still camera with telephoto lense filming the assembled crowd of several hundred mostly young people.

After I spoke, I walked over to the two men and asked what station they were with. I was pretty certain they were police, despite their total lack of identification, because normally news organizations plaster their cameras with their station call letters and these cameras had no such identification on them. When I pressed them, both men turned their cameras directly on me, from just two feet away, filming me as I denounced their intimidation.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” I said, as young people around me looked on in surprise. “This rally has a police permit, and all the people here are legally exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”

The two men remained silent, and continued to grimly film and photograph me as I spoke. I began telling everyone around me who the men were and what they were doing, and some of the young people began to pester the officers themselves.

I later saw a member of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Civil Affairs Unit, a Captain William Fisher, who unlike the camera detail, was clearly identified as a police officer by both a card pinned to his shirt, and by a prominent armband saying: Philadelphia Police Department.

Asked why the men were filming the crowd, he responded briskly, “This is a free country. This is a public space. You’re free to be here, and they’re free to come too and to take your picture.”

I allowed as this was true, technically, but that clearly there was an element of intimidation involved when police come and film the faces of everyone who comes to an event that is about criticizing the government.

“Oh, you’re so `70s,” he said, looking at my gray beard and balding head. “This is the 21st Century. Get with it, man.”

Indeed, he’s right.

It is the 21st Century.

When I was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, it was discovered that the Los Angeles Police Department was sending unmarked police officers like these armed with video cameras to press conferences at places like the Los Angeles Press Club, where they were setting up and filming certain events as part of a campaign of keeping tabs on activist groups.

This revelation caused a sensation, with front-page articles in the Los Angeles Times, and inquiries into the practice by irate members of the Los Angeles City Council. In the end, the police were forced to back down and cease the practice, at least for a time.

Now, here in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, this trampling of the freedom of assembly and speech seems to merit no attention at all in the local mainstream media. When I called the Inquirer’s police reporter, Barbara Boyer, to alert her to what had happened, her response was “Well, I could take your picture on the sidewalk, too, if I wanted. It’s not illegal.”

Apparently the Philadelphia Police Department and most of the local media think that it’s appropriate for police to film people who are exercising their Constitutional rights, and that this is what we do in “21st Century America.” To me, though, this seems more like 1930s Germany, or 21st-Century China.

Inspector Robert Tucker, who heads the counter-terrorism task force of the Philadelphia Police Department, confirmed in a phone conversation the next day that the two men with the cameras were working for him. He apologized for their lack of identification, and for their unwillingness to identify themselves, promising that at future public events, they and others doing that kind of work would wear prominent identification showing they were with the police. But he insisted that their work was appropriate.

“At events like these, there are usually anarchists who show up,” he argued, “and they’re the ones that sometimes end up breaking glass and causing problems.” (It’s an argument that might justify video cams on every street corner of Philly, since crime is everywhere.) He said that by filming the whole group, it would be possible to identify those people later if there were incidents. Asked why the officers were videotaping the entire crowd–and the speakers like myself who were clearly identifiable anyhow–he offered no answer. Tucker claimed that the tapes and photos made at the event would ordinarily not be retained, but would be “taped over at the next event” unless there were an incident involving an arrest, but he also noted that the department does maintain files on “some people.”

What makes this whole thing feel particularly creepy is the anti-terrorism bill just passed by a Congress of supine Republicans and cowardly Democrats, which gives the president the authority, on his own, to call anyone an “unlawful combatant,” or a supporter of terrorism, and to lock them away in a military brig with no right to a trial or even a lawyer. When you put this police surveillance in that context, it becomes intimidating indeed. Especially since the Philadelphia Police counter-terrorism unit is an integral part of the federal joint counter-terrorism strike force, making it easy for such film materials to migrate over into federal hands.

It seems to me it’s time to get back not to the 1970s, but to the 1770s, when Americans knew what was happening to them, and stood up and said, “No more!”

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s new book is “The Case for Impeachment”, co-authored by Barbara Olshansky.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com