A return to the BOSS era?

February 9, 2015

The NYPD is resurrecting infamous strategies for policing dissent, reports Don Lash.

POLICE COMMISSIONER William Bratton made an ominous announcement in late January: the New York Police Department (NYPD) plans to deploy a Strategic Response Group (SRG) of 350 heavily armed and armored officers. Bratton said that the officers would be specially trained to deal with "events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai, or what just happened in Paris," placing peaceful protest in a single category alongside terror bombings and mass shootings.

As Natalia Tylim noted in SocialistWorker.org:

It's a scary thought that we might face an even larger, more organized, better armed police force at protests than what we already do. It certainly puts in perspective what we are up against, and how tactical and organized our side needs to be.

After his announcement was greeted with outrage, Bratton declared that he had misspoke and that what he really meant was that there would be two new units: a heavily armed one to respond to terror threats and a separate Strategic Response Group to handle protests and spikes in neighborhood crime.

A 1971 rally for Black Panther Party members on trial in New York City
A 1971 rally for Black Panther Party members on trial in New York City

Even after this "clarification", the call for a special protest unit is a signal that the NYPD intends to return to the days of its notorious "red squad," the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS). The NYPD has attempted to monitor and suppress radical political activity since its creation as a professional police force in the 19th century, but the creation of BOSS in 1955 marked the beginning of its modern era in political policing. In its early years, BOSS concentrated on "Old Left" Communists, using infiltration and intimidation to disrupt political activity.

As Frank Donner demonstrates in his masterful study of urban red squads in the 1960s and 1970s, Protectors of Privilege, BOSS stepped up its efforts in response to the antiwar and Black Power movements of the late 1960s by becoming larger and more aggressive. Activities included covert placement of undercover infiltrators and provocateurs, cultivation of informers, surveillance and open harassment in the guise of investigation.

As was the case with other urban police forces, the NYPD was ruthless in its pursuit of the Black Panther Party. BOSS engineered a series of prosecutions based on conspiracies largely invented by its own operatives, which were hyped relentlessly in the media. While the BPP conspiracy trials mostly ended in acquittals, most notably in the "Panther 13" trial in 1971, they were successful in disrupting the BPP and hastening its demise.

Leaders were imprisoned while awaiting trial, for two years in the Panther 13 case, and the organization's political and community service programs were paralyzed. The acquittals did not effectively refute the media portrayal of the BPP as a terrorist organization, a historical distortion that is carefully maintained to this day.

Equally important, the repression, infiltration and disinformation campaign fueled anger and suspicion within the BPP, directly contributing to a split among angry BPP cadre, some of whom formed the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA's decision to assassinate randomly selected police officers, killing two NYPD patrol officers in 1971 and two more in 1972, was disastrously self-defeating, as it merely emboldened the police and made liberal politicians even more afraid to exercise control over the police than they had been previously.

THE CURRENT demands for further militarization of the NYPD--and Bratton's plan to give police more leeway to patrol political protest--follow a steady process of eroding the always inadequate restraints imposed on the NYPD following revelations of widespread abuses by BOSS. A class action lawsuit called Handschu v. Special Services Division was filed against the NYPD in 1971 for illegal political surveillance and other repressive measures, resulting in an order issued 14 years later placing limits and imposing oversight on police political surveillance.

The Handschu order nominally ended the era of BOSS, although critics argued the oversight was too weak to prevent abuses. For the NYPD, however, even weak oversight was too much, and the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center gave it the opportunity to eliminate some of the Handschu protections. In 2003, a federal judge granted the city's request to eliminate the oversight provision and gave the department more leeway to conduct surveillance.

Despite gutting Handschu, the city has managed to violate what protection remains, as during the 2004 Republican National Convention. The Handschu guidelines have also been ignored and evaded in the NYPD's indiscriminate spying on Muslims within the city and beyond.

The NYPD will take any opportunity to reassert its suppression of political dissent, and in this it will be aided by the media, prosecutors and the courts. As occurred after 9/11, a climate of fear can provide an opportunity to weaken or eliminate controls on police surveillance, infiltration and repression of political activity, so it's to be expected that the NYPD will move against the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups organizing peaceful protest.

The era of the BLA assassinations was recently invoked by Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch, who said the December 20 killings of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by a deranged gunman from Georgia took the city back to the 1970s, when Lynch claimed it was "open season" on cops. Lynch claimed the NYPD was once again a "wartime police department."

The media coverage that ensued rehashed the BLA killings, but predictably failed to note that they were a response to police assassinations of BPP members, frame-ups and false prosecutions, the 1971 Attica Prison massacre by state police, and countless other acts of police violence against the BPP specifically and the Black community generally. Unlike the BLA shooters, who were imprisoned for life, no police officers were ever punished for their acts of violence.

THE PBA's ferocity was echoed by New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Speaking at Officer Ramos' funeral on December 27, Cuomo said:

The threats against New York's police are an insult to the law-abiding New Yorkers, and they will not be tolerated. They will be investigated, and they will be prosecuted. And I want you to know that 75,000 police officers and National Guardsmen statewide have your back every step of the way.

Talk of mobilizing an army consisting of every cop in the state as well as the National Guard is an absurd response given the nature of the attack on Liu and Ramos, but it was warmly received by the PBA.

Just as punitive bail and manufactured or exaggerated threats were used to intimidate activists in the heyday of BOSS, NYPD and prosecutors are attempting to sensationalize an alleged assault on officers on the Brooklyn Bridge on December 13 to justify excessive bail requests and elaborate conspiracy charges.

Equally significant, they are publishing pictures of "witnesses" to alleged attacks on officers, including a National Lawyers' Guild (NLG) observer, which might have the effect of chilling participation in demonstrations and possibly destroying the value of NLG support for the movement.

So does the creation of SRG, coupled with the intelligence-gathering, infiltration, disinformation and prosecutorial abuse already commonplace mean that BOSS is back? Is it a case of saying hello to the new BOSS, the same as the old BOSS?

There is much that is similar in the NYPD's response to the Black Power movement in the BOSS era and the Black Lives Matter movement today. What is new is the one-sided arms race the NYPD has embarked upon. The NYPD has already invested in the weaponry, but is using rhetoric about officer safety to normalize the use of military-scale and military-style repression on peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

The absurdity of Bratton's claim that the NYPD needs to deploy more weaponry is readily apparent. On August 24, 2012, a disturbed man visited his former employer in the Empire State Building and killed a former co-worker with a pistol. He exited the building and encountered officers on the crowded street. Police not only shot and killed the gunman, but they also managed to hit no fewer than nine innocent bystanders with stray bullets and fragments. It's unlikely that an after-action report would conclude that the NYPD had inadequate firepower.

SRG, while not justified by any threat faced by the NYPD, is part of a long-term strategy, already largely executed, of reviving its BOSS-era routines of surveillance, disruption and intimidation, this time bolstered with 21st century military technology--BOSS on steroids. As was the case in the BOSS era, what happens in New York occurs in other major cities, but New York often leads the way.

As participants in the movement, we need to keep in mind how the BOSS tactics were used to disrupt the Black Power Movement, and incorporate that awareness into our strategy and tactics today. At the same time, we need to fight the normalization of combat weaponry against peaceful protest, and the continued militarization of police departments.

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