It is safe to say that most New Yorkers have tried to erase any memories of the 2004 Republican National Convention. Whether they are one of the 1,800 or so people illegally detained by the NYPD in a former bus depot during the convention, or among the vast majority of business owners who lost money because the delegates never left Times Square, or simply one of the area residents offended by the Republican Party’s shameless exploitation of 9/11, most locals would rather forget that rather sorry episode. (The RNC’s “overall theme,” as Stephen Colbert noted on the Daily Show, was “a time for unmitigated gall.”) But try as one may to repress any thoughts about it, the RNC currently is back in the headlines, and its consequences, unfortunately, are alive and well.
The recent revelations that the NYPD had spied on everyone from grannies to indie rockers across the country prior to the RNC are surprising only because of the operation’s scope. As Jim Dwyer reported in the Times, the thousands of pages of documents released thus far (because of ACLU lawsuits) show only a handful of groups declaring any intent to commit acts of violent protest; what the NYPD really did was compile a set of full-scale dossiers recording the political views of engaged citizens across the land. From a civil liberties standpoint, such actions are plainly illegal. Yet from a historical standpoint, they could be invaluable, providing a window into the reasons why millions wanted to speak out against the “worst president ever.” Such a position does not at all justify spying—instead, it means that since the records exist, the public indeed has a right to see them.
An ardent foe of the right to protest, Mayor Bloomberg dubiously continues to justify the NYPD’s program because of the need to stop “any potential terrorists or anarchists planning to cause or take advantage of any disruptions” during the RNC. How that accounts for the department’s spying on church groups and many other peaceful organizations is entirely unclear. Meanwhile, the police are continuing the war against Critical Mass bicyclists initiated during the RNC. The battle pits more than just the cops vs. bicyclists, of course. The NYPD’s real aim is to control—via permits, intimidation, ticketing and arrests—the right to protest in the city. (On the last Friday of March, three Critical Mass riders were arrested and another 44 ticketed.) Mayor Bloomberg is on-board with the effort, and led by Speaker Christine Quinn, the rubber-stamp body otherwise known as the City Council is, too. But as the current controversy over the RNC shows, nobody’s rights are safe when the NYPD determines what qualifies as legitimate political dissent.