Above: Thadeaus Umpster, real name Dennis Burke, was under NYPD sruveillance for at least two years. Photographs by Willie Davis
A pair of tattered banners billowing in the wind mark the site of the Brooklyn Free Store. One reads “ANARCHY For a Better World”; the other says “Share,” with an anarchist symbol replacing the letter a.
Books and VHS tapes are packed into a line of milk crates stacked two high — law textbooks,Game of Thrones volumes, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life — and more spill out of a suitcase just behind those (vestiges of Occupy Wall Street’s People’s Library). There’s a table piled with neat sheaves of anarchist literature, Xeroxed copies of the writings of Emma Goldman, and a guide to the Free Store, written in both English and Spanish.
Piles of clothes are knee-high to the scrawny, tattooed white girl pawing through them; there are lace-up boots missing their laces and a pair of scraped-up high heels. A broken coffee maker and some nonperishables — a bottle of barbecue ranch dressing, a few jars of baby food — sit on a nearby side table. A Hispanic family walks off with a lawn mower and a bag of clothes at the same time a pudgy black pre-teen walks up to ask Thadeaus Umpster if there are any bicycles available.
“Not today,” he tells the boy. They sometimes get free bikes, Thadeaus says, but not often.
Thadeaus has a bristly brown beard that obscures most of his face — not his eyes, though they too almost disappear when he laughs and his cheeks crinkle up around them. He is proud of the Free Store; that’s clear enough in the way he surveys it. He has helped run it since January 2005, when it was still located on Grand Street (a later location on Walworth Street burned down in a suspicious fire in March 2011). He keeps most of the inventory in his apartment a few blocks away, shuttling it by bike once a week to this patch of Von King Park at the corner of Marcy and Lafayette avenues. Every Friday between noon and 5 p.m., anyone is free to come by to take the things they want, and leave the things they don’t.
It was here, on this corner, on a Friday in the fall of 2013, that Thadeaus received confirmation of something he had long suspected: He was being watched — closely — by the NYPD. The police knew the names of all of the organizations to which he belonged, and had informants inside at least one of them. They knew he would sometimes moonlight as a DJ and dutifully noted which parties he attended, which events he played.
He learned from a New York Times journalist that he was under surveillance. The NYPD, he was told, suspected Thadeaus may have been “the bicycle bomber” — a shadowy figure responsible for detonating a makeshift grenade outside a military recruiting center in the middle of Times Square in 2008. Their evidence was thin: They knew he sometimes hung out with other bicycling enthusiasts and activists, and that he was, at one time, the administrator of an anarchist blog that posted a news article about the Times Square bombing several hours after it occurred.
Everything the police had on Thadeaus at the outset of their operation was contained in the preliminary request to open the investigation, which was one in a trove of documents published on a companion website for a high-profile book called Enemies Within. Written by then–Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the book detailed the inner workings of the NYPD’s secretive Intelligence Division.
The documents, 37 in all, offered a glimpse into the Intelligence Division’s daily operations. They included an update on the installation of cameras outside radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105 and the New York offices of G-Unit Records; a request to surveil the hacker collective Anonymous for protesting the Church of Scientology; and, most notably, numerous documents describing the surveillance of Muslims across New York City.
The documents detailing the operation centered on Thadeaus also happened to expose the fact that the NYPD was conducting surveillance on at least three New York–based activist groups: the human rights organization Friends of Brad Will, the environmental nonprofit Time’s Up, and the pro-Palestine International Solidarity Movement.
It was an unsettling disclosure to many in the activist community, because New York City has an apparatus that is specifically designed to protect citizens — activists in particular — from overreaching investigations. That mechanism, called the Handschu Authority, was born out of a lawsuit stemming from a botched criminal case brought against the Black Panthers in 1971. Thirteen Panthers were tried for conspiring to bomb police stations, department stores, and the New York Botanical Gardens. A jury acquitted them of 156 charges in a matter of hours, but the trial exposed the fact that the NYPD had made a practice of infiltrating radical groups across the city.
Barbara Handschu and fifteen other activists sued in 1971 to limit the department’s investigation of political activity, and the so-called Handschu guidelines, finally enacted in 1985, included safeguards meant to protect groups from infiltration and surveillance.
Those safeguards, though, were gutted after 9-11, and the group of lawyers responsible for making sure Handschu guidelines continue to be enforced (to the extent that they still exist) are more focused on the Muslim spying case than allegations of spying on political groups. Even the city’s new inspector general doesn’t seem particularly keen on addressing the activists’ complaint that their rights have been violated, despite the fact that several of them lobbied the City Council to create the position partly out of hope that the IG would address their concerns about NYPD spying.
It’s been more than a year since the disclosure of the documents exposing the NYPD’s widespread surveillance of New York City activists, and without any increased oversight since then, it’s impossible to know if the NYPD ever stopped watching Thadeaus, Time’s Up, or Friends of Brad Will. In fact, anyone at the Brooklyn Free Store — the girl in the clothes pile, the family with the lawn mower, the kid looking for a bike, the other volunteers — might be taking notes on him right now.
Thadeaus doesn’t technically have a job. Helping run the Brooklyn Free Store is an unpaid position. For money, he sells books online that he finds being given away for free. That income pays for his iPhone and his room in an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He scavenges grocery store dumpsters for food, and, twice a month, he hosts a big community potluck called Grub, which anyone is welcome to attend. When he’s not doing any of those things, he does court support — offering practical and emotional help to people in jail or on trial.
He seems an unlikely target for a resource-intensive surveillance operation, but when he got the call from the Times reporter last fall, the news that the NYPD was watching him made sense. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d heard that FBI agents were knocking on the doors of his friends’ apartments, asking questions about him.
Thadeaus is soft-spoken, and seems to choose his words carefully, taking pains not to assign blame, as he tries to explain how his life was affected by the revelation that he was under surveillance. “I heard things about people being less comfortable with me being in certain spaces, as if I would attract unwanted police attention,” he says. He doesn’t remember anyone saying anything to him directly, but that almost made it worse. Friends who were, in his words, “really freaked out about it” stopped talking to him altogether.
Thadeaus Umpster is a pseudonym he created for himself. An NYPD surveillance request from 2008 gives his real name: Dennis Christopher Burke. The request also contains his date of birth (January 21, 1981), height (6-1), weight (160 pounds), eye color (brown), and hair color (brown). There’s a summary of his criminal history, too.
His first encounter with the NYPD came in 1999, around the same time he arrived in New York City from Massachusetts. He’d grown up just outside Boston, the oldest of four children and the son of a teacher and a writer. He was in sixth grade when his own teacher lent him a copy of a National Geographic documentary narrated by Martin Sheen about a group of homesteaders in Alaska. “It showed me this romantic, living-outside-the-system lifestyle,” he says.
After high school, Thadeaus opted to skip college and strike out instead after the kind of life depicted in that documentary, and in his favorite books: Hatchet, The Call of the Wild, andInto the Wild. Instead of Alaska, he ended up in New York, where he fashioned himself a different kind of frontiersman — one with no money, trying to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He immersed himself in the activist community — camping in squats, joining protests, dumpster-diving — that’s where he met and befriended fellow activist Brad Will. The pair stayed at many of the same squats and action camps going back to 1999, and they would later live together as roommates. They were sharing an apartment on Clymer Street in South Williamsburg on October 27, 2006. That was the night everything changed.
Four days before Halloween in 2006, Thadeaus was DJ’ing the Critical Mass after-party at the Time’s Up space on East Houston Street. It was a rainy night, but the annual Critical Mass Halloween bike ride took place anyway, sending swarms of skeletons, clowns, Mexican wrestlers, and hundreds of other costumed characters marauding through the streets of Manhattan on two wheels. Some had speakers fastened to their fixies or 10-speeds; other, more ambitious riders had them wired directly into their costumes.
Police were there, of course — they always were on Critical Mass nights — hovering around, hassling those riders they succeeded in slowing down.
That night was different, though, because Brad Will wasn’t there. Earlier that day, a world away in the backstreets of Oaxaca, Mexico, Will was shot to death. A reporter with the anti-globalization media collective Indymedia, and a longtime fixture at Critical Mass, Will was in Mexico covering protests that had erupted against Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz after police there opened fire on striking schoolteachers. Will was shot while videotaping a standoff between protesters. He was hit twice in the stomach. The shots can be heard on the last piece of video he ever recorded, followed in quick succession by the sound of the 36-year-old Will yelping in pain, and the camera jolting as he fell to the ground.
Many of Will’s friends learned of his murder during the after-party that night. The fact that the news was delivered in the middle of a dance party — with many hearing it from a woman wearing a dinosaur costume — only made it more surreal.
“All the people there knew him. We all got the news at once,” Thadeaus says. A lot of them left the party, and headed instead to the radical bookstore Bluestockings on the Lower East Side to talk about possible action. “We’re activists,” Thadeaus says. “That’s how we respond to shit.”
Over the next two weeks, Will’s friends channeled their pain into demonstrations and direct action in his memory. There was a protest at the Mexican Consulate on East 39th Street; another Critical Mass ride — this one held in his honor; a party to make puppets and posters for more demonstrations; and one big, tearful memorial at St. Mark’s on the Bowery.
After the memorial, mourners, trailed by an NYPD squad car, marched to the shuttered CHARAS/El Bohio community center, a onetime progressive enclave that was sold by the city, over the community’s objections, to a wealthy developer in the 1990s. The group didn’t spend much time at the old building. They were there just long enough to leave behind messages of remembrance, which they scrawled on the walls before moving on to La Plaza community garden on East 9th Street and Avenue C. That’s where the day ended, with friends huddled in a big circle around a bonfire, trading stories about Will.
Those two weeks immediately following Will’s death were, Thadeaus says, “one of the more positive ways I’ve seen people respond” to a tragedy of that magnitude.
The years that followed, though, would create deep fissures within that same community.
On October 27, 2007, Friends of Brad Will, a loose network that coalesced around the idea of seeking justice for Will, was planning a protest at the Mexican Consulate in honor of the first anniversary of his death. The day before it was scheduled to take place, the consulate was attacked with two crude handmade grenades. Three windows were shattered, but no one was hurt. Police were quick to compare the explosion to one two years earlier, in March 2005, at the British Embassy.
A few months later, when another similar handmade explosive detonated at the military recruiting center in the middle of Times Square, the NYPD noted with interest the amount of time it took an anarchist blog called Bombs and Shields to find and post a Fox News item on the attack. (The only other information police had to go on was vague physical description: “an individual wearing a dark hooded sweat shirt and riding a bicycle.”)
In the Request to Conduct a Preliminary Inquiry Concerning Dennis Burke and Certain of His Associates, dated March 27, 2008 (21 days after the bombing), the NYPD Intelligence Collection Coordinator and Intelligence Analysis Coordinator wrote: “Open source information indicated that at or about 0600 hours on March 6, 2008, a blog called Bombs and Shields (which below its title prints the statement “Always Keep Your Shield Between You and Your Bomb”) reprinted a news article reporting on the Times Square Recruiting station bombing.”
According to a confidential informant used in a previous investigation of Time’s Up three years earlier, the document continued, it was Thadeaus, to whom the authorities refer as “Burke,” who administered the blog. “The less than 3 hour period of between the bombing and Bombs and Shields posting on the bombing raises the possibility that Burke or someone else associated with Bombs and Shields had information concerning the Times Square Recruiting Station bombing prior to its occurrence.”
The report also noted that, according to a Time’s Up informant, in 2005 Thadeaus attended a meeting in which the group discussed a planned demonstration against the Iraq war. “Information obtained in FI # 03/03 also indicated that on August 27, 2004 during the last Critical Mass bicycle ride before the Republican National Convention began, a confidential source observed Burke taking his bicycle and pushing it forward like a shield into a group of police officers who were trying to disperse a crowd and make arrests outside St. Mark’s Church.”
Thadeaus — like the bomber — had a bicycle and an anti-authoritarian attitude.
These details, disparate as they seem, led the two NYPD analysts to conclude: “the foregoing information indicates that there is a possibility that Burke and certain of his associates, who were members or participants in Time’s Up, or who were associated with Bradley Will, have engaged in, are engaged in or are planning to engage in unlawful conduct, including unlawful activity that may be related to the Times Square Recruiting Station bombing and/or earlier similar events involving explosive devices.”
The copy of the request obtained by Apuzzo and Goldman isn’t signed, but it’s clear that it was approved: More than a year later, on April 30, 2009, another memo was written by the two NYPD coordinators. This one asked to extend for an additional year the preliminary inquiry concerning Thadeaus — or Dennis Christopher Burke — some of his associates, and a group calling itself Friends of Brad Will.
|Courtesy Friends of Brad Will|
|One of many demonstrations held in Brad Will’s honor after his death in Oaxaca, Mexico|
Before 2003, if the New York Police Department wanted to open an investigation into a political group, it would first need to secure the approval of a three-person oversight panel made up of two high-ranking members of the NYPD — the First Deputy Commissioner of the Police Department and the Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters of the Police Department — and a civilian representative from outside the department. The outside representative was appointed by the mayor.
The panel was called the Handschu Authority.
The oversight process was meant to ensure that any surveillance or infiltration of activist groups was absolutely necessary, based on “specific information” that a crime had been or was about to be committed. It was designed to protect activists from investigations that could have a “chilling effect” on the work they did; if an organization is plagued by the kind of distrust and suspicion that accompanies a surveillance operation, it makes it hard to get anything done.
But everything changed after 9-11. In 2002, the administration of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg petitioned federal judge Charles S. Haight Jr. to relax restrictions as part of the war on terror. And Haight apparently saw merit in the argument, because he approved most of the city’s requested changes.
The biggest one? Starting in 2003, surveillance requests were no longer approved by the Handschu Authority. “The modified guidelines that were adopted in 2003 called for approvals of these investigations to be made by the commanding officer of the Intelligence Division, instead of by the Handschu Authority,” says Marty Stolar, one of the lawyers involved in the original Handschu case filed in 1972. “So the approvals for conducting investigations are done inside the department rather than having to make some kind of case to a body that is outside the department. That is the most significant change.”
The Handschu Authority ostensibly still exists, but John H. Doyle, the body’s last civilian representative, appointed by Rudy Giuliani in the mid 1990s, says it hasn’t met in more than a decade. Before the guidelines were modified the Handschu Authority would meet every couple of months. “We heard the police department present a description of their ongoing intelligence activities, and the Handschu commission had to approve them in advance, and then we would get reports on the status,” Doyle tells the Voice. “After the new guidelines went into effect there were no meetings.”
That means there is no one anywhere outside of the NYPD to question whether there really is enough specific evidence to open an investigation, or to suggest a fruitless hunt should finally be called off. Doyle won’t say how often the Handschu Authority rejected the NYPD’s surveillance requests before the guidelines were modified, but he does offer, “There were situations where what was proposed was rejected.” Today, he says, the authority’s only purpose would be to accept a complaint from someone who believes he or she was improperly surveilled — but he has never received one.
Back in 2002, when the lawyers who argued the original Handschu case were still fighting the city over the proposed changes, one of them, Paul Chevigny, spoke to the Voice about the dangers of changing the guidelines. “If the police win,” Chevigny warned, civil liberties will slide “back to the 1950s. Police will have the power to infiltrate and monitor groups just because they’re curious. They’ll be able to keep dossiers on people and disseminate the information to anyone they want, whether it hurts somebody or not.”
Chevigny’s warning seems particularly prescient now, looking back at what’s happened to the groups that were placed under surveillance. Would an investigation like the one into Thadeaus, Friends of Brad Will, and Time’s Up have been approved under the old guidelines? “That’s the million-dollar question,” he says today. Some of the operation, Chevigny believes, would have been approved, but he thinks it unlikely the investigation would have been so far-reaching had the police been required to secure approval from outside the department.
Time’s Up is best known for organizing Critical Mass, but the group has been doing environmental advocacy work in New York since it was founded in 1987. It’s not an overstatement to say that in those 27 years they’ve changed the landscape of the city, protecting community gardens and lobbying for the installation of bike lanes and acceptance of pedicabs.
The nature of the group’s work makes it a particularly bizarre target for the NYPD, according to the group’s co-founder, Bill di Paolo. “It’s confusing,” he says. “All we do are bike rides, garden cleanups, and workshops that empower people, pretty much every night of the week.”
According to the leaked documents, Time’s Up was the subject of at least two year-long surveillance operations prior to the Times Square bombing, dating at least as far back as 2005, but likely even earlier. Di Paolo suspects the organization has been under surveillance for a very long time. He openly wonders, in fact, whether the documents tying Thadeaus to the Times Square bombing were simply an excuse to justify continued surveillance of the group. “The idea that the police are saying that they think someone who was riding a bike did something wrong, so we’re going to investigate a group that promotes biking — it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law,” he says.
It’s unclear whether inquiries into Time’s Up would have held up under the scrutiny of the Handschu Authority, either. The behavior described in the NYPD’s internal surveillance requests can be characterized as mild civil disobedience, at most: “unlawful conduct in connection with Critical Mass bicycle rides,” “efforts by bicycle riders to divert police personnel during a demonstration or protest for the purpose of facilitating unlawful conduct by other protestors at the event,” and “unlawful activity that involved the use of bicycles, as a form of social or political protest.”
It’s not even the surveillance itself that was the problem, di Paolo says — it is the impact that the suspicion of surveillance had on the whole group. And it is the impact of the suggestion of some criminal association; just being mentioned in an article like this one, di Paolo says, will likely affect Time’s Up’s bottom line. “It does hurt our events, and membership, fundraising ability. It’s very difficult to document the damage. As an environmental group, if we’re getting harassed, we can’t clean your air up.”
Heidi Boghosian is a lawyer who works with Time’s Up and the author of Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance. “The impact of police surveillance — and we’ve got to assume that surveillance also includes infiltration and a certain level of calculated disruption — is especially detrimental to the functioning of grassroots organizations,” Boghosian says. “By nature, these groups challenge government and corporate authority. They rely on volunteers, informal organizational structure, and creative forms of communication to help carry out their mission; because they are less rigid in structure they are vulnerable to outside forces, including agents provocateurs, who may intentionally foment internal dissent as a means of countering their work.”
The attention only intensifies as groups get better at their work, she says. “The more effective these groups are, the more they seem to attract government surveillance. The result of protracted infiltration is that often volunteers will leave, and groups may have difficulty sustaining the level of energy and enthusiasm so critical to their activities.”
Not only does surveillance make it harder to retain members; Robert Jereski, one of the founding members of Friends of Brad Will, says the revelations that their organization was being watched made him reluctant to recruit new supporters. “I am aware of the possibility of police surveillance of people who are caught pursuing lawful, constitutionally protected activities. And as a result it makes me worried to reach out to groups that would be sympathetic with our human rights goals who are in compromised positions, like undocumented immigrants.
“They are our natural allies and I’m wary of exposing them to police surveillance,” Jereski says. “It’s confirmed that we’ve been targeted. That makes me even more hesitant.”
The NYPD did not respond to multiple inquiries for this story, including inquiries about the authenticity of the documents obtained by Apuzzo and Goldman.
|The bicycle the FBI believes was used in the Times Square attack.|
If it’s tough to measure the impact of NYPD surveillance on the work of organizations like Time’s Up and Friends of Brad Will, it’s even harder to try to determine the impact that years under the department’s scrutiny had on Thadeaus’s personal life.
In the years since the NYPD initiated its inquiry into Thadeaus and certain of his associates, he’s been vilified online within the activist community, and, on more than one occasion, accused of cooperating with authorities and snitching on other activists. Thadeaus eventually registered his own website — Thadeaus.com — complete with testimonials from friends and a therapist, to try to combat the online narrative against him. The vitriol on both sides might be written off as activist drama were it not for reports that agents from the FBI printed out copies of those websites and blog posts, using them as reference material while making rounds in the activist community in 2013 inquiring about the bicycle bombing.
Things should have gotten better for Thadeaus when, a few weeks after those visits by the FBI, Enemies Within was released. The document dump that accompanied the book included information that suggested he was not providing information to the police — rather, they were collecting information on him, and using informants already present in the community to do it. But a specific detail that appeared in the criminal history section of one of the NYPD documents only cast further doubt on his character. The dossier says Thadeaus was caught with a handgun during a 2000 May Day protest in Union Square. But no one who knew Thadeaus had ever heard anything about it. People started to wonder what he might have done to make a serious charge like that disappear.
Google the name “Thadeaus” and you’ll find at least one entire blog, and multiple posts on other sites around the Web, dedicated to demonizing him. Most of the sites appear to have originated in 2010, well after the surveillance operation was initiated. The WordPress siteInformation About Thadeaus states in bold type that he has been guilty of verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse in his past, but when you read the details closely, the accusations seem deliberately sensationalized. By verbal abuse, it turns out the author meant specifically “manipulation through guilt-tripping, badgering and lying”; physical abuse actually meant “invading personal space” and “restraining and manipulating others [sic] bodies.” The sexual-abuse accusation refers specifically to “withholding critical information about risk factors and violating safer sex agreements” with his former partners.
On another website, there is an email that was circulated in 2010 by the New York chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross and a few lesser-known anarchist groups calling on activists everywhere to turn their backs on Thadeaus. The communiqué details a series of altercations between Thadeaus and other people squatting in the same house. The email says Thadeaus called the police on several occasions, and ultimately got two of his housemates arrested. “Please forward this widely, and fight against snitches, snitching and individuals who prey on radical social scenes. The strength of our movements depends on it. This statement serves as a notification to all that Thadeaus is a persona non grata in NYC and should not be welcomed elsewhere.”
Another site, Snitch Wire, devoted two long posts (one with no fewer than seven updates) to discussing whether or not Thadeaus was actually a snitch. “A lot has been said about what is and isn’t a snitch. Should Dennis Burke be listed amongst the likes of traitors like Brandon Darby [who infiltrated protests at the 2008 Republican convention on behalf of the FBI] or undercover pigs like ‘Anna’ [a notable FBI informant who infiltrated activist circles in Des Moines, Philadelphia, Miami, Sacramento, and other cities]? Our short answer, without resorting to petty (but likely valid) character assassination, is yes.”
Inquiries to the Anarchist Black Cross, and to the administrators of the websites that hosted negative information about Thadeaus, went unanswered. At least one ex-friend of Thadeaus’s also declined to be interviewed for this story, but warned that he was manipulative. Whatever happened in 2010, it clearly caused a deep rift in the community — and one that the FBI may have attempted to exploit further by using the dueling websites as ammunition.
Cecily McMillan was one activist approached by the FBI. McMillan met Thadeaus at Occupy Wall Street, and the two became friends in the two years leading up to her trial for assaulting a New York City police officer during an Occupy demonstration. She says that a few weeks before the Enemies Within documents became public, four or five agents showed up on her doorstep asking about “Dennis Burke.” She thought they had the wrong address. Thadeaus didn’t live there, but she also didn’t recognize they were looking for him. They showed her pictures of him and asked her about events that happened before she arrived in New York. That’s when she stopped the conversation and gave them her lawyer’s card.
The agents left her with a parting message that made her skin crawl: “When you go back down to your bedroom, and you crawl back into bed with that man, you can let him know that we are looking for him and will find him,” she says they told her. (She adds that she and Thadeaus were never romantically involved.)
Attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen says McMillan was not the only activist whose home the NYPD visited that day. All of the visits, as far as she gathered, were related to a last-ditch effort to track down the bicycle bomber.
“It appeared that the investigators were attempting to exploit rifts extant in the dispersed community of anarchists and their satellites in order to get someone to implicate someone else in that series of pyrotechnical hijinks,” Meltzer-Cohen says via email. “Of course, nobody knew or knows anything about it. But who knows who said what to them, or what other potentially interesting intelligence they managed to glean out of those interactions. We never really know what they are after. They run around gathering information and intelligence about social relations and schisms, in hopes that they will find…something.”
Enemies Within and the NYPD documents surfaced a few weeks after the FBI visits, and that’s when things got even worse for Thadeaus. The documents had listed, among many arrests he doesn’t dispute, one that he says is entirely fabricated: “Criminal Possession of a Weapon 4 (hand gun).” It is dated May 1, 2000 — the same day Thadeaus and a group of activists were arrested for wearing masks at the May Day protest in Union Square.
|A mugshot included in the NYPD’s dossier on Thadeaus.|
The arrest is sealed, but Susan Howard, who is now the president of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, was there when Thadeaus was arrested and said he was most definitely not carrying a weapon. “Of course there was no gun!” she says. The National Lawyers Guild performs legal support at protests, but Howard, who was not involved with the organization at the time, was a participant at the protest. “I remember very well that Thadeaus handed me his bag in Union Square while he was being arrested, but the police took it from me — I know the bag had what the police claimed to be instruments of graffiti, spray paint, but no handgun. I saw the contents myself.
“This info is very disturbing and I think meant to create distrust,” she adds. Ron Kuby, the lawyer who defended Thadeaus and the other activists he was arrested with that day, also confirms there was no gun. (“No, no, no, a thousand times no,” Kuby says.)
But in radical circles like those in which Thadeaus is involved, a serious charge like gun possession can be a red flag for fellow activists. It’s common for police to leverage it to get someone to cooperate, to inform on their friends. Thadeaus admits as much. “It’s a reasonable concern for people to have,” he says.
Jereski, who knew Thadeaus first through Brad Will, and later through Friends of Brad Will, says, “There’s been a long-term festering wound in the community about [Thadeaus] — the person who was mentioned as a suspect who drove surveillance.
“It’s just quite strange,” he adds, that the target of an online campaign like the one executed against Thadeaus also appears to have been the target of an extended surveillance operation. The whole thing, Jereski says, is “quite reminiscent of COINTELPRO” — the notorious FBI program designed to turn activists against each other in the ’60s — “and the strategies of dividing activist communities and efforts.”
Di Paolo says something to the same effect. “I noticed a pattern in the documents, and that was that all the people who they were saying were dangerous were the exact opposite, in my opinion. They were all community organizers working for free 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When I saw the names, every single name were people I work with in the community.
“This was a targeting of successful community activists.”
The Office of the NYPD Inspector General was created by the New York City Council at the end of 2013, over the veto of Mayor Bloomberg. The department, vested with a $5 million budget, is tasked with investigating patterns of misconduct within the NYPD. Inspector General Philip Eure’s first day on the job was May 27, and when the office opened that morning, Jereski and two friends were there to file its very first complaint. The complaint is nine pages long, written on behalf of a coalition of local groups, including Friends of Brad Will and Time’s Up, and catalogs instances of suspected police infiltration dating back to 1997. (Eure declined to meet with them in person that day. Instead, a cheerful secretary accepted the complaint on his behalf.)
Shortly after filing their complaint, a few of the activists involved went out to a café with a retired FBI agent, a man who had gone undercover with right-wing militias during his time with the bureau. They asked him, as someone who had infiltrated and surveilled groups, how they might prevent it from happening to them, or at least identify the informants in their midst.
His advice? Don’t even try.
The NYPD and the FBI, he told them, “have endless resources to create covers for themselves. You should just keep doing the work that you’re doing, and don’t try to get to the bottom of it, because it will waste your time, it will be a distraction, and it will destroy your organizations.”
A month later, Jereski et al. received a form letter back from the inspector general. “Thank you for contacting the Department of Investigation’s Office of the Inspector General for the New York City Police Department,” the letter read. “The OIG-NYPD is currently being established and hiring a core staff in order to carry out its responsibilities under Local Law 70. Once this start-up phase for the Office has been completed and certain procedures have been put in place, we will be in a position to consider your complaint. We will then be able to determine whether any action by our office is warranted.” It’s been four months since, and Jereski has yet to have any additional contact with the inspector general’s office.
Class counsel for the Handschu lawsuit (the group of lawyers who originally argued the suit, who are tasked with making sure the law is enforced) are not planning on addressing the group’s case anytime soon either, both Chevigny and Stolar confirmed. “At the moment, class counsel are concerned with dealing with the Muslim surveillance issue,” Stolar says. “We have not taken up the Friends of Brad Will and Jereski’s complaint as a class counsel yet.”
On October 27, 2014, eight years to the day since Brad Will was killed in Mexico, Jereski and other Friends of Brad Will gathered outside the Third Avenue offices of senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer to hand out flyers asking the officials to do something about Will’s death.
They hadn’t publicized their plans to gather outside of the building, but, somehow, a security guard was waiting for them when they arrived.
The NYPD, the guard told them, had given him a heads-up.