Installation view of Unlikely Historians (Photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a building across from city hall, through a stone façade, a metal detector, and a dimly lit colonnade under construction, a curious exhibition of photographs, video, and ephemera of political movements from 1960s and ’70s New York occupies a single marbled room. The materials are the sort of thing one might find at Interference Archive, or in the Activist New York exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York: pictures of young people marching in denim and headbands, newsletters from groups like the Yippies, a flyer for an anti-war fundraiser, a bumper sticker advocating relief for Biafra. In fact, they were collected not for historical preservation, or by the activists of these movements, but by the New York City Police Department, and are part of the exhibition Unlikely Historians: Materials Collected by NYPD Surveillance Teams at the Municipal Archives.

The NYPD’s surveillance dates back to the early 1900s, when the “Italian Squad” — a collection of tough Italian American policemen — was formed not only to disrupt organized crime and Black Hand extortion, but also to monitor anarchist activities. That squad grew into the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations, or BOSSI, which infamously infiltrated the Black Panthers and other progressive groups during the 1960s and 70s (the period given most attention in the exhibition). Not long after, Barbara Handschu and 15 others involved in political organizations filed a class action lawsuit against the NYPD, claiming that the infiltration, intelligence gathering, and punishment of political groups had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech. They won: in 1985, the courts prohibited infiltration of meetings without “specific information” that the group was involved in crime, and also established a record-keeping procedure called the Handschu Authority, designed to leave a paper trail that would prevent future abuses of power.

A case on militarized groups in New York

An introductory text briefly touches upon this history (and thus the reason for these records’ existence at the Municipal Archives). But besides that, there is, shockingly, nothing to explain the particular history of how the NYPD collected and used these objects, nor how this display might be relevant today. If there is a mission statement for the exhibition, it is the cautiously worded attempt to “provide unique documentation of one of the most turbulent eras in the City’s and nation’s history.”

Left to fill in our own context, the pieces on view offer a chance to reflect on the unsettling presence of the NYPD both during that fraught era and in city politics today. The objects sit in thematic cases, one each for armed radical groups, international issues, anti-war movements, and feminism and queer liberation. On view are some great moments of political theater, such as the mass of people wearing eerie, nozzled gas masks during a 1970 Earth Day parade, or the multi-racial group of protesters carrying oversized photos of Mao, like so many American red guards, outside of a UN General Assembly. There are civil rights rarities, like a button from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and a facsimile of Martin Luther King’s pivotal speech at Riverside Church denouncing the Vietnam War. And, of course, there are quick dives into intra-communist politics, like the Bulletin of International Socialists announcing Castro’s embrace of Stalinism and attack on Trotskyism.

The curation of the cases is loose: each case is accompanied by a set of labels printed to look like manila files, offering brief encyclopedia-like entries on each group. The experience is meant to mimic digging through the NYPD files oneself. In the section focusing on militarization of groups, called “By Any Means Necessary,” the curatorial neutrality becomes a problem. An image of weapons seized from the Black Panthers is placed side-by-side with weapons seized from right-wing Minutemen; a photograph of the Black Liberation Army sits next to a photo of a poster reading “Racial Purity is America’s Security” at a neo-Nazi demonstration. Any use of arms and militant rhetoric, this case suggests, is dangerous. This logic, which echoes President Trump’s “violence on many sides” statement, also tacitly condones the NYPD’s disruption of those groups in equal measure.

In certain areas of the exhibition, the NYPD’s motives become clear, offering a window into the modes and extent of its surveillance. On two walls, large screens play silent footage captured by the NYPD. One film, of a 1969 Black Panther rally in front of the City Courts building, shows the camera doing a slow, close-up pan across the faces of protesters, wearing their signature berets and leather jackets. We can only assume the NYPD wanted clear images in order to create files on those individuals. Perhaps they were even put to use in the infamous Panther 21 case two years later, in which the NYPD arrested twenty-one members of the party, all of whom were, after a costly legal battle, acquitted of wrongdoing.

On one table, there is a reproduction visitors may flip through of the “S.I.R. Pocket Lawyer,” a sort of early know-your-rights pamphlet distributed by the Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco for gays and lesbians targeted by the police. With the tag line “In Case of Arrest,” the pamphlet encourages you to “Remember, the walls have ears,” and answer most statements “I DENY THAT” or “MAY I CALL MY LAWYER.” In the hands of the police, it must have been used to find loopholes or weaknesses in this advice, and more effectively criminalize queerness.

The S.I.R. “In Case of Arrest” pamphlet

The Handschu decision is being contested today. In the wake of 9/11, the NYPD filed to negate certain parts of the decision in order to “fight terrorism”; the courts sided with the NYPD, as long as they filed the U.S. Attorney General’s guidelines for such actions. Now, the NYPD may surveil groups if they have information “which indicates the possibility of criminal activity” [italics added]. In 2005, the NYPD filmed two demonstrations; the court initially ruled that this violated the terms of Handschu, but later reversed the decision because the protesters were “disorderly.” That case, and the NYPD’s right to film peaceful protests, is ongoing. This current context, too, is missing from the exhibition.

Without a critical look at the NYPD’s power and judgement, the exhibition fails the Handschu Authority’s mission — to prevent future abuses of power by recording the past. Hopefully, in upcoming public programs like the panel on “Using Police Surveillance Files in Historical Research,” the Municipal Archives will fill in more of this missing information. These materials remind us that no archive is neutral. Preserving, retelling, and unearthing difficult histories like this one is, in fact, one of the most politically engaged acts we have today.

Unlikely Historians: Materials Collected by NYPD Surveillance Teams, 1960-1975, is on view through February 28, 2018, at the Municipal Archives Gallery (31 Chambers Street, Civic Center, Manhattan). 


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Ryan Wong

Ryan Lee Wong is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. He has worked at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Chinese in America, where he was assistant curator.