Spying on Occupy: Prosecutors Subpoena Tweets, NYPD Arrests Protesters for ‘Thought Crimes’
Several stories in the news this week – and it's only Tuesday – reveal the scope of the spying and surveillance activities of the NYPD and DA's office, who are monitoring Occupy Wall Street.
Taken individually, these stories may not seem earth-shattering. Yes, the NYPD was monitoring Occupy, but the NYPD is sort of legendary for its overzealous spy and harassment programs (just ask any Muslim New Yorker or victim of the Stop and Frisk policy). But examined together, it becomes clear that the NYPD and District Attorney's office are devoting enormous resources to spying, harassing, and intimidating what has thus far proven itself to be an overwhelmingly peaceful protest group.
Kira Moyer-Sims told her story of police harassment to the New York Times. On Nov. 17, Moyer-Sims was near the Manhattan Bridge, buying coffee while her friends waited in a nearby car. The fact that she was more than a dozen blocks away from an Occupy Wall Street protest didn't stop police officers from surrounding her and the people in the car. All four were arrested and taken to a police facility in the East Village where, according to their lawyer, Vik Pawar, they were strip-searched and had their requests for a lawyer ignored.
"I felt like I had been arrested for a thought crime," Moyer-Sims told the Times.
Pawar said the police charged Moyer Sims, Angela Richino and Matthew Vrvilo with obstructing government administration, though the DA's office declined to prosecute them.
Reporter Colin Moynihan goes on to recap how over the past few months, according to protest organizers, police officers or detectives have been posted outside buildings where private meetings were taking place, have visited the homes of organizers, and have questioned protesters arrested on minor charges.
“The N.Y.P.D. surveillance does not appear to be limited to unlawful activity,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We count on the police, of course, to be on the lookout for terrorists and terrorism, but to think you could be on that continuum just by going to a peaceful protest is nuts.”
One of the examples of harassment in the article is an allegation from an OWS organizer named Sandy Nurse, who arrived at her apartment building in Bushwick Dec. 16 to find uniformed officers outside. The officers told Nurse they were there to conduct a "security check" for a condition they would not identify.
Nurse told them they could not enter, but an officer nonetheless used his foot to prevent the front door from closing behind her, followed her into the entryway vestibule, and threatened to arrest her for obstruction of government administration. Nurse does not see this visit as a coincidence, but rather directly tied to her activities with Occupy.
“It means that they are watching us,” she told the Times. “They know who we are, where we live and where we are organizing.”
Prosecutors have been busy this week subpoenaing the Twitter records of a previously arrested Occupy Wall Street protester, Jeff Rae, whose tweets I've referenced many times in this blog. Yesterday, Rae tweeted "URGENT: The District Attorney in NY has subpoenaed my twitter account," and linked to an image of the notice from Twitter that reads:
Dear Twitter User:
We are writing to inform you that Twitter has received legal process, dated March 8, 2012, requesting information regarding your Twitter account, @jeffrae. A copy of the legal process is attached. The legal process requires Twitter to produce documents related to your account.
Please be advised that Twitter will respond to this request in 7 days from the date of this notice unless we receive notice from you that a motion to quash the legal process has been filed or that this matter has been otherwise resolved.
To respond to this notice, please reply directly to this email.
This notice is not legal advice. You may wish to consult legal counsel about this matter.
Attached below is a copy of the DA's subpoena that reveals Rae is one of five total accounts subpoenaed.
In October, Rae was arrested during the mass protest on the Brooklyn Bridge.
While it's not yet clear who the other four Occupy defendants are, in January prosecutors filed a similar subpoena against Malcolm Harris, another arrested protester.
"I was a little bit blown away," Rae told Reuters. "It's interesting that in places like Egypt our leaders applaud people for using Twitter and social media for their movements. Here, I'm being subpoenaed for using social media."
Rae says his attorney, Paul Mills of the National Lawyers Guild, would file a motion to quash.
Martin Stolar, a NLG lawyer representing Harris, filed a motion to quash as well, but that motion is still pending.
What's most outrageous about these subpoenas is that prosecutors haven't revealed why they're collecting these tweets or what evidence they hope to gain from rifling through them. In the meantime, the collective effect on the Occupy community is a chilling one. Obviously, being told by the DA's office that you're being treated as an effective suspect in an unknown crime is intimidating.
In speaking with Occupiers, it's clear many protesters operate under the assumption that the police are always watching them, and that everything they say and put on the internet is probably being monitored. The psychological toll is great. And again, these are largely peaceful protesters who have done nothing except dare to attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights. If prosecutors or police know of some plotting crime cell, then they should make that information public, but if they're investigating future crimes, or "thought crimes," then what they're doing is tantamount to systematic harassment.
Update: Rae expressed to me surprise and alarm that his Twitter account had been subpoenaed by the DA's office.
"The subpoena for my tweets is stemming from my arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge along with 700 other people on October 1, 2011. That said the DA is asking for a month and a half worth of tweets," Rae wrote, adding "I'm not sure why the DA has targeted me except for the fact that I was part of Occupy since day 1 and was very vocal reporting what was going on there on Twitter."
Rae mentioned that, yes, tweets are public, but "I do feel that when the government is going to go through people's twitter accounts it can have a chilling effect on freedom of speech."
Jeff Rae's Twitter notice and DA subpoena: Twitter Subpoena