by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
A small group of people waited outside Utica’s Cornerstone Community Church the evening of Wednesday, November 16 for a scheduled activist meeting leading up to the Expect Resistance – Post Election Rally. The rally was planned weeks earlier to protest disastrous ongoing policies that would continue under either a Clinton or Trump presidency: mass incarceration, mass deportations, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry, endless wars and mass surveillance. A community activist welcomed people into the church including two unfamiliar faces, and led them upstairs to make signs for the rally. But these two people were not activists – they were undercover cops. They started to demand information from people gathered at the meeting. I was not present when they first went inside the church but I arrived shortly thereafter.
I approached the two undercover cops and asked what they were doing there. They wanted names of activists and inquired about the intent and plans for the demonstration. They implored that they were there to “protect us” and “inform us on how to successfully plan a protest since some were canceled in the past because there was not that much community support.” Only after I asked them did they identify themselves as Sgt. Keith Phillips and Capt. Don Cinque with the Utica Police Department. I asked them to leave and they refused, saying that they wanted information and that they were waiting for their supervisor. I told them it was a private church and they had no business there. They eventually went on their way but only after repeated demands that they do so.
Five minutes later, I stepped outside and another plainclothes officer, Deputy Chief Ed Noonan, walked up and introduced himself. Again, he attempted to get more information about our political activities, only to be turned away. He informed me that he would be there at the rally the next day. I responded that he had nothing to worry about.
Initially, I thought that during the rally the next day that only a few police would show up, maybe introduce themselves and be on their way. I expected a police cruiser to occasionally drive by. That’s it. But the response was much worse than what I had anticipated.
If you’re reading this and you’re wondering why local activists are not sitting down with police to discuss our political views, and our plans for protests and community organizing, the reasons are many. The most basic reasons concern the First Amendment and Constitutionally-protected rights. We have the right not to discuss these matters with police. But many of our reasons also stem from a deep mistrust of the police, gleaned from our experience with law enforcement in the past and our understanding of the role that police play in gathering intelligence on and repressing social movements, both throughout history and even today.
After having long conversations with those gathered that night, a number of them young, a number of them refugees, about what happened, and hoping that people would not be scared away from the rally because the police came into the church, we packed up and all went home for the night.
The next day I got another call from the same activist who let people into the church. For security reasons, her real name will not be used in this article – she will be referred to as “Julie.” The police called her family member on the phone for no other reason than to intimidate and harass. Her family member was so distraught about the phone call and worried so much about her safety that Julie ended up staying home that evening. The police tactics of harassment to prevent Constitutionally protected free speech activities of local residents seemed to be working. There were a few other people who were at the church the night before who also did not show up to the rally the next day. The UPD seemed to be repeating what transpired over this past summer with the agency’s reaction to a Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally that was planned but never got off the ground. I’ll explain that in more detail in a moment.
The post-election rally had a heavy police presence which was both covert and overt; this was a radical shift from past policing practices in Utica. At least a dozen different police cars were parked at or near the rally or drove by. One was parked throughout the evening in the private parking lot of Cornerstone Community Church, while at least one other was spotted parked across from, and facing, the home of one of the organizers of the rally.
Several painfully obvious undercover cops mingled in the crowd to gather intelligence for the department. They mostly sat on a nearby bench but from time to time, asked demonstrators questions. On top of the building that houses Gigliotti’s Driving School on the corner of Genesee St. and Park St., two plainclothes officers were spotted with what appeared to be binoculars and cameras. This was directly across the street from where the protest was held.
During the protest, some local students were in a nearby parking lot operating a small drone that was filming the protest. They decided to fly the drone to the undercovers stationed on the roof to get a closer look.
Despite the attempts made by local law enforcement to unleash a shroud of fear and anxiety over the group gathered that night, the protest was a success. Nearly 100 people showed up, including people who had never protested before that night. Several people were moved to give impromptu speeches and one musician played his guitar, leading others in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and other songs. Dozens of people signed up to get involved with activism locally and promised to come back to get involved with community organizing.
Several activists, and one legal observer with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) stayed after to watch the Utica Fire Department assist the two undercovers stationed on top of the roof in climbing down on an extension ladder. A few of us recorded what happened. And this is where things got strange. One by one, the two men climbed down the ladder. They said little and refused to respond when asked if they were law enforcement. A reporter with the Observer Dispatch confirmed that the two men were law enforcement but she was not told specifically who they were or what department they were with. Initially, we thought they only had cameras, but one of them was carrying what appeared to be a large gun bag. We can only take an educated guess about what was inside. They had flack jackets in the trunk of their car emblazoned with the words “Police” and “US Marshall.” They drove into the night, leaving a group of us with more questions than answers about what had happened. Why was local law enforcement going to such great lengths to intimidate activists and have a show of force at a peaceful demonstration?
Black Lives (Don’t) Matter to the Police
From what I have experienced over the last several years, this policing strategy is new in Utica. In rallies organized in the past, the UPD has generally had a hands-off approach. On occasion a police cruiser would drive by a demonstration but that seemed to be the extent of their involvement. But why did the UPD shift their approach so recently and so suddenly? A little context is needed here.
This past summer a Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally was planned for Utica but the UPD acted quickly to prevent it from even happening. The police turned a community member into an informant against other activists, sent detectives out to harass and intimidate organizers of the rally and their families, and spread lies to the public about the intentions of the activists.
In July a member of the community was angered over death after death of Black people at the hands of the police across the nation and wanted to do something about it. She was put in touch with local activists to help her plan a protest and rally in Utica. I was one of those activists. There were only two planning meetings. We warned her from the very beginning that she would be contacted by the UPD for wanting to plan this (her name was attached to the event page for the rally on facebook) and we informed her of her rights.
There were some disagreements in the meetings about what to do specifically about the case of Walter Washington, a Black man who was killed by UPD Officer, now Sergeant, Samuel Geddes on Oneida Street in the summer of 2005. The police, then District Attorney Michael Arcuri and the local media all ran with the story that Washington was armed, and Geddes shot him out of self-defense. Michael Arcuri only talked to some, but not all, of the witnesses near the end of the investigation, as if it were only an afterthought and the case had already been closed. The investigation was riddled with so many problems, inaccuracies and contradictions. Eleven years later, information about Geddes’ intentions that night continue to surface.
I, however, did talk to witnesses and I found a fundamentally different story to the lies that the UPD was pushing and local media was parroting. It’s a familiar story for many Black men, and people of color in general, who are gunned down by the police in this nation: Walter Washington was unarmed and was shot while his hands were up. Geddes was found to have acted in reason after an internal investigation and went back to work. He has since been promoted to the rank of Sergeant. The message to the Black community was pretty clear from the UPD. When a cop guns down an unarmed Black man, in front of his family no less, the cop will be congratulated with a promotion.
There were community meetings to address this tragedy and a Justice for Walter campaign was launched. I recall going to one such meeting where many in attendance agreed to have a protest at the police station. I clearly remember a self-appointed community leader chastising everyone in the room, saying, “We don’t want to riot. Let’s calm down.” I had no idea how or why he equated a peaceful protest with rioting. But he did. Against the wishes of many in the Washington family and many more in the room that night, a protest was never held.
Imagine what would have happened had Black Lives Matter been active in 2005. People would be calling for justice for Walter Washington all over the country. There would be demands for Officer Geddes to be indicted and DA Michael Arcuri to step down. But Black Lives Matter does exist now. The tides have changed. Once again, there is hope.
This summer was an opportunity to bring up the call for Justice for Walter yet again. In planning a BLM rally in Utica this summer, while many of us wanted to demand Justice for Walter Washington and accountability for Geddes and Arcuri, the young woman who was planning the protest did not. She thought it was too confrontational, that people would riot. It felt like a repeat of 2005 all over again. I stepped back once I realized Walter Washington’s case would not be brought up and thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.
We eventually learned that she became an informant for the UPD. She attended a meeting with the heads of every department in the Utica Police Department, the District Attorney, and even Sergeant Geddes. What was discussed at the meeting is still unclear but we do know that it happened.
And that’s when police started their campaign of harassment and intimidation. They made phone calls, they pounded on doors, they demanded names of people, they wanted to know information about peoples’ political activities, and asked about the whereabouts of various activists. They went to people’s homes and even to their workplaces. One officer sent a message to Julie and her family that “the UPD is very sensitive about the Walter Washington case,” and that we should watch ourselves.
Two detectives stopped at my parents’ house to ask about my whereabouts and gather information on me. They claimed it was for my own safety. That the UPD was concerned. They cared. After the detectives left, the reality of what happened sunk in with my parents. They became concerned, frightened. Not about my involvement with BLM, but what the police might do to me, perhaps even harm me. But they had it easy. They’re white. They live in Clinton.
Those activists who were Black or refugees and live in Cornhill were treated differently by the police. Kimberley Jones is an activist in the Black community who received constant harassing phone calls from a detective. Her house was visited by the police when she was at work and her children were home alone. The police discovered what her work schedule was and told her about that. Were they trying to intimidate her or her children when they decided to stop by when they knew she would not be there? They finally stopped bothering her when she challenged them about not investigating an unsolved shooting of her son. Months prior, her teenage son was an innocent bystander who was shot – he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was rushed to the hospital for an operation and has since struggled in his recovery. The UPD never once called Kimberley or her son about any leads or any investigation into the shooting. The shooter was never found. The UPD was far more concerned spending time and resources criminalizing her for being involved with Black Lives Matter.
Another activist, Lana Nitti, was visited at her job by a police officer. He seemed awkward and out of place there but the message he sent to her was pretty clear: we’re watching you. This was a message that was even more clear to Julie and those close to her. While Julie was away at work, two detectives pounded on the door of the restaurant her family owns. Her family member, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, answered the door. Julie recounted what happened next, saying that the language that the police used made it sound like she was “in trouble and doing something wrong but I wasn’t.”
They then explained that the UPD has no history of “white on Black violence,” or of the police force ever doing any wrong in the Black community. They tried to dissuade Julie from getting involved with Black Lives Matter, saying that there was no need for that in Utica and that it was “pointless.”
The officers brought up my name a number of times and spread lies about me. They said that I had a history of doing illegal things, that I had gotten in trouble and that the community looked down on me. They brought up Derek Scarlino’s name too. “They painted you and Derek as criminals and all the other activists as criminals,” Julie recalled.
The two officers then got Julie on the phone. They attempted to get her to cooperate with them, to separate her from the rest of us. They tried to find a weak point in our group. “It was intimidation but I got the feeling that they were trying to pull private information from me, private information that the cops had no right knowing.”
“They knew what they were doing. They went to a home, a private business. They really appealed to my weak points. It seems to be a pattern that they come after me because my family is foreign… me being new to our collective network and activism,” she explained. She added that “As a Muslim and a refugee, I can tell you one thing, I did not feel safe with those police tactics.”
Another young refugee and well known activist locally, Trinh Truong, was also a target for the UPD. They visited a family member’s home but failed to reach her. She has been an activist since the early days of Occupy Wall Street but had never dealt with anything quite like this.
With the initial organizer of the rally becoming an informant to the police, and the UPD harassing and intimidating activists, many of us decided to postpone our own rally for another day. This was the same exact rally the two undercover officers, Phillips and Cinque, mentioned that had to be canceled because there was “no community support.” They failed to mention that this rally that never actually happened because the community did not support it was completely the undoing of the UPD, that it was the original organizer-turned-informant of the rally, rather than us activists, who did not get support from the community.
Every civil rights and civil liberties attorney we talked to over the summer was shocked at the behavior of the UPD. Letters were sent and calls were made on our behalf by the NYCLU and National Lawyers Guild to the UPD to back off. Even though we stepped back, the attorneys for the City of Utica singled me out, and demanded I see them for questioning in October. I was not arrested and was not charged with anything. My attorney could think of no legal justification for why they demanded to question me. His guess was that it was a continuation of their strategy of intimidation.
From the Red Scare to COINTELPRO: Police Repression of Social Movements
This shift in policing should be a great concern to all. Rather than protecting and serving the people, the police view any critique to the power structure as a threat and those who offer that critique, whether through the lens of movements like Black Lives Matter or in the rise in political protests after the election, as enemies. This is as true nationally as it is locally. History teaches us, that the UPD is no stranger to this repression.
One of the major functions of law enforcement is to keep surveillance on, and if possible neutralize, social movements and political activists on the Left. This trend goes back to the early days of policing and at times became excessive, and violently so. This is especially true during the years of the first Red Scare which peaked in 1919-1920 as well as during the turbulent 1960s.
During the first Red Scare, federal and local law enforcement coordinated efforts to destroy the labor movement, as well as the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other radical organizations. Union and socialist halls and offices were raided, radicals were kidnapped and beaten by police and vigilantes, scores of other radicals were thrown in prison, many were deported and others were lynched or killed in other gruesome forms. Criminal-syndicalism laws were passed in countless states which made it a crime to be an anarchist or syndicalist.
This national repression was also unleashed on Utica activists. Federal agents and local police kept a constant surveillance on the building which Garro Drugs now calls home. One-hundred years ago the building acted as a hub for radicals of every stripe: Communists, socialists, anarchists and Wobblies, most of whom were immigrants. When strikes erupted in the knitting mills in Utica, Little Falls, and New York Mills, activists were rounded up en masse, severely beaten by police and thrown in prison. While those on the radical Left were constantly hounded by the law enforcement, there is evidence that preferential treatment and protection was given by the UPD to the growing white supremacist and fascist movements at that time.
Years later, when the rebellion of the 1960s erupted, yet again there was a nationally coordinated crackdown from the forces of law and order. It was a rebellion that gave birth to the Black Freedom and Civil Rights struggles, Black Power, Chicano pride, the American Indian Movement, the antiwar and student movements, prison revolts, women’s liberation, gay liberation and so many more. J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI at this time and under four presidential administrations his agency waged a secret war called COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program).
The purpose of COINTELPRO was to employ tactics of surveillance, psychological warfare, harassment, intimidation and violent force to disrupt and destroy these movements. As is the case today, those who were viewed as offering a critique of the power structure and trying to actively create an alternative to it were seen as the enemy. The FBI worked hand in glove with local law enforcement to repress these movements. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the main targets of COINTELPRO, but so were the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement. In what was in many ways a repeat of the Red Scare, law enforcement raided Panther offices, imprisoned countless activists and in some cases carried out targeted assassinations. One of the most famous cases was the police raid and planned assassination of Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
These are not mere facts of history for us. We find inspiration and insight from these past social movements. It only makes sense to also learn how the US government worked tirelessly to destroy them.
COINTELPRO Under Another Name: The Repression Continues
As far as contemporary social movements are concerned, the same tactics used by the government and law enforcement during the Red Scare and with COINTELPRO persist, but in different form. Some of us have experienced this first-hand before we moved to Utica.
Local activist Lana Nitti was living in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that community. She felt motivated to move to New Orleans to assist in rebuilding a city that the government completely abandoned. She became an organizer with Common Ground Relief, a collective established by former Black Panthers, anarchists and community activists to offer free food, free reconstruction of homes and buildings, free legal aid and free health care in a clinic they set up. The most powerful and wealthiest nation in the history of the world was unwilling and unable to provide the most basic needs for survival to this impoverished community. A group of radicals, however, did meet the needs of the community. It was not known at the time, but one of the collective members, Brandon Darby, was an FBI informant.
Lana recently reflected on her time spent at Common Ground. “One of the biggest reasons why Brandon Darby was there in the capacity that he was, was that we were getting so much done in the community and people looked to us as a source of relief outside of FEMA and the government. We were getting traction in the community and developing respect in a way that made people in power uncomfortable. Brandon Darby was there to disrupt our ability to provide those basic needs to these people.” Darby later was involved with an entrapment case of two young men from Texas during the RNC protests in 2008. The two activists were sent them to prison. He has since made a career out of his work as an informant and has become a darling of the far right.
While Lana was busy organizing in New Orleans, I was living in Olympia, WA and was also immersed in community activism. It was the height of the antiwar movement and I had helped launch Port Militarization Resistance (PMR), a group that used civil disobedience with the ultimate goal of stopping the use of local ports for shipping military equipment to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. We were successful in shutting down the Port of Olympia in 2007 and, to this day, effectively kicked out the military. We also worked closely with the GI Resistance movement and Iraq Veterans Against the War. On a national level, Washington State was the epicenter of the antiwar movement as far as GI resistance and direct action were concerned. In the eyes of the government, law enforcement and military, we had to be stopped.
Activists were suspicious of some kind of law enforcement surveillance. Many of us were routinely stopped, pulled over and followed by police. At one point, I found myself going to court in four different counties at the same time where I faced various trumped up charges stemming from my activism. All of this eventually made sense when I discovered that my friend and fellow activist John Jacob was not who we had all believed him to be. His real name was John J. Towery and he was a paid informant for the US Army. He was involved with a massive surveillance network that included a dozen federal agencies (FBI, DHS, ICE, etc.), local and regional law enforcement and every branch of the military. He was not the only spy. There were many others. Over the years, 1,000s of documents and public records came to light, detailing this vast surveillance network. Much of the work was done through a Fusion Center, a shadowy post 9/11 development that blurs the lines between local police, federal agencies and the military to assess “threats to national security.” Many of these “threats” however were groups like ours that were peaceful and practicing our Constitutionally-protected rights. In spying on us and infiltrating PMR and other activist organizations, the military has violated a number of laws, including the Posse-Comitatus Act. The army even went so far as to place several activists on a domestic terrorist watch list. We have been battling this out in court for the last several years but President Obama’s DOJ has fought us rather fiercely. There are many parallels of this repression in major national movements.
After Occupy Wall Street took the nation by storm, and gained traction with millions of people to contest the norms of American capitalism, a nationally coordinated crackdown of the movement was deployed. It involved the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and a number of mayors across the country. Big banks and corporations also employed mercenaries to assist in smearing and disrupting the movement as well as protecting their assets. Informants, undercovers and agent provocateurs were revealed in Occupy groups across the nation. Activists in Texas with Occupy Austin were facing felony charges from a non-violent direct action protest from materials that were provided by an undercover cop who was working for a Fusion Center. The FBI and police in Cleveland took advantage of five young, vulnerable men and created an entrapment case which was effective in unraveling the movement in Cleveland. These are only a few examples but the stories are many.
A similar, yet more violent, fate awaited Black Lives Matter. Heavy militarized police forces have been unleashed on demonstrations in city after city. The case of Baton-Rouge is an illuminating example of this kind of repression. Anton Sterling was killed by the police and the Black community rose up to demand justice. Without warning or justification, a mass arrest of protesters by riot police occurred this past July in Baton Rouge. The entire city was closed and was on a temporary lock-down. The FBI sent out a memo from their Baton Rouge field office just days prior titled “Violence Against Law Enforcement Officers and Riots Planned for 8-10 July 2016.” It was filled with false and inflammatory information and images but it gave local law enforcement a green light to crack-down on BLM.
Baton-Rouge was not the exception, but the rule. This line of thinking was encouraged by federal agencies to local law enforcement across the country. This does however shed light on calls I received from the UPD in the past before scheduled BLM protests where I was asked if we were “planning any riots.” BLM has been labeled “extremist,” “violent” and even “terrorist” by a number of federal agencies. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund discovered through records received from a FOIA request that the FBI, DHS, DOJ and Fusion Centers under the Obama administration established a pattern of repression and stifling dissent when it comes to Black Lives Matter. More and more, the police resemble a foreign occupying army in our communities. They not only view groups like BLM and Occupy with suspicion and contempt and see them as the enemy; this is extended to entire communities and populations.
The UPD is catching up to law enforcement elsewhere in the nation. Is what the department engaged in classified as outright repression? Certainly not on the level of COINTELPRO or the Red Scare, but they seem to be using suggestions from the same play book. Police Chief Williams did admit on the morning talk show Talk of the Town that the UPD has been communicating with other police departments to learn how to deal with BLM and the chief did get training in the past with the FBI. Did he learn anything in his training about how to disrupt social movements, or how the Bill of Rights were an inconvenience to policing? Time will only tell.
A Way Forward
The Utica Police Department and City of Utica are walking on very thin ice at the moment. Despite demands sent to the UPD and the city from both the NYCLU and an attorney with the NLG to stop their tactics of intimidation and stop infringing on our civil liberties, the department continues to do so.
While Mayor Palmieri likes to boast to the public and media that Utica is “a city that loves refugees” the reality on the ground is that his police department is stifling activism around refugee and immigrant rights, in addition to anti-racist activism in the form of BLM. The department has very actively turned refugees away from getting involved with local activism and doing something positive for the community.
If we seriously look at the history of social movements and take note of the opposition they faced from those in power, we can glean some powerful insight that will help us make sense of our current situation. Any social movement that was successful, however we measure that success, faced repression from law enforcement. This was as true in Utica as it was in New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. It holds truth today. Although what we have been up against thus far in Utica pales in comparison to the repression that the Black Panthers and others faced in the 1960s or Wobblies faced in the earlier part of the century, there is no reason to believe that it will not or cannot get worse.
The only real solution, the only real way to push back is that while the police continue to divide and destroy, we must build and create. Like those activists that came before us, we must envision a different kind of society where these systems of coercion, violence and force cease to exist. Where we live off of the practice of mutual aid and cooperation. As the nation enters a dark and uncertain future with the election of Trump, we need to create a loving community, one where people speak up, get out in the streets, defend others and stand up for our rights. If we can learn anything from law enforcement and those in power that they protect, it’s that if they see us as the enemy today and are actively infringing on our rights, they will do everything in their power in this new political climate, one that may bring up the same horrors of the Red Scare and COINTELPRO, to trample on or completely erase those rights we still hold on to.
If you’re angry, you should be. Join us in the streets. We have a movement, and a new world, to build.