This article was originally published in the April 2, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.
In 2008, officers from the New York City Police Department took a trip to New Orleans to spy on the people of this city. The occasion was the People’s Summit, a grassroots response to a New Orleans meeting between the presidents of the U.S., Mexico and Canada to expand “security cooperation” as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Activists from across the hemisphere came together to present an alternative vision of globalization, one that empowered communities rather than corporations. Among the local organizations that participated were the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, and the local chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
The gathering consisted mostly of panels, workshops and discussions. There was street theatre from local day laborers, testimony from Mexican and Canadian workers, and links drawn between corporate profiteering after Hurricane Katrina and the corporate exploitation that was encouraged by NAFTA. Local antiracist activists led story circles – a method for communities to come together through their stories that was developed during the civil rights movement by participants in the Free Southern Theatre.
Although there were some street protests, there were no arrests, not even of the symbolic kind. There was certainly no physical threat to anyone in power – other than the threat of ideas.
And yet, in this time that we are told that municipalities must cut back, that there is no funding for public sector workers and teachers’ unions are under attack, the city of New York sent spies to New Orleans to observe this gathering and write it up in a report. Among the local organizations specifically mentioned in the report are members of the local chapter of Critical Resistance, and what the report calls the “Jena Coalition,” referring to activists who had organized around the Jena Six case.
This is far from the first time the NYPD has been caught spying far outside of New York. In a recent series of reports, the Associated Press has documented a wide array of excesses the department has engaged in under the guise of safety. An undercover officer took a whitewater rafting trip with Muslim college students and the department aggressively monitored and infiltrated mosques and Muslim businesses. The NYPD operates in at least 9 foreign countries, and apparently has no hesitation about traveling anywhere in the world they may find useful information.
Recent revelations about NYPD abuses go beyond spying. The notorious stop-and-frisk program, which has led to the criminalization of virtually an entire generation of young men of color in the city, is one example. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that more than four million stops and interrogations from 2004 through 2011 led to no evidence of any wrongdoing – about 90 percent of all stops. Other recent revelations about NYPD abuses have included arrest quotas, sexual assaults, and the harassment and arrest of an officer who had turned whistleblower.
Here in New Orleans, public outrage has been mounting over the abuses carried out by our own city’s police department. The recent killings of Wendell Allen and Justin Sipp have produced sustained outrage. Allen’s killer remains free, just as Trayvon Martin’s killer has not been charged.
The racist treatment of the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the charges against the Jena Six, the execution of Troy Davis, and now the shooting of Trayvon Martin. All of these cases have created public outrage, a promise of a national conversation on race, and a desire for systemic change. Revelations of NYPD spying and the daily harassment known as Stop-and-Frisk show that police show a daily disrespect for the rights of the public.
Among the most recent discoveries, we have learned that one of the officers who participated in the killing of Justin Sipp wrote racist comments about Trayvon Martin on a news website.
The US Department of Justice is more engaged in oversight of local departments than they have been in at least a generation. But, at least here in New Orleans, the presence of DOJ investigators seems to have not changed the department. The question becomes: what will it take to bring real change in the nation’s criminal justice system?
Image above: From protests as part of the 2008 People's Summit.