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Back in the 1930s and 40s, the NYPD was keeping a close eye on potentially subversive political groups. By photographing rallies, funerals, meetings, and even an unsettling Nazi summer retreat on Long Island, the movements of these individuals were followed by the “Alien Squad.” This month the New York City Department of Records and Information Services released some of those images online.
Much of the surveillance was carried out under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, although the Alien Squad, as it was nicknamed, dates to the Civil War where it monitored rebels and sympathizers. As James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto write in NYPD: A City and Its Police:
In 1923 it became the radical squad, in 1931 the alien squad, and in 1946 the Bureau of Special Service Investigations (BOSSI) … By the time World War II came along, the FBI was firmly established as the nation’s domestic-security agency and the NYPD was cast in a decidedly secondary role.
However, according to Daniel O. Prosterman in Defining Democracy: Electoral Reform and the Struggle for Power in New York City, the FBI likely “did not know about the full extent of surveillance operations undertaken by the NYPD under Mayor LaGuardia’s direction.” And from a look through the Department of Records photographs, it was indeed extensive.
There are captures of large rallies in Madison Square Garden, with the “America First” meeting on May 23, 1941, part of the brief America First Committee started in 1940 as non-interventionist and ended by Pearl Harbor. There’s also the “Spanish meeting” in May 21, 1939 promoting aid to refugees, as well as 1938 Communist meetings with impassioned speakers and choirs of young women in matching outfits of boleros and white shirts. Then there are fascist allies and organizations like the militant Christian Mobilizers in 1939 at Innesfield Park — an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic group that would become the American Destiny Party.
Most surreal are the photographs of Camp Siegried in Yaphank on Long Island. There members of the German American Bund — an American group aimed at promoting the Nazis in a favorable light — donned uniforms, built a mocking tank from cans, and even planted a Swastika topiary. In contrast is the Stop Hitler parade in 1939, a reaction to Germany’s March 25, 1939 taking of Bohemia and Moravia.
It’s easy to forget that Communism and fascism movements were having the same kinds of incendiary moments in New York City as in Europe in the mid-century, and the photographs are a reminder of the complicated political history within the five boroughs. The Alien Squad images are just a fraction of the 30,000 items released to the Municipal Archives this month that makes for over 900,000 digitized records in their online collections. And the surveillance isn’t quite over. They’re currently working with New York University’s Tamiment Library in an attempt to identify people in the photographs.
View more photographs from the NYPD’s Alien Squad surveillance online at the NYC Department of Records.