In NYPD spying, a Yippie legal battle echoes again

By Chris Hawley

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 6:35 a.m. MST

In this Oct. 21, 2011 photo, Joel Sucher goes through a file of documents related to secret New York Police Department program to monitor ethnic groups, student organizations and mosques, at his office in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Chris Hawley, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Barbara Handschu had tried to remove her name from the agreement that is her legacy.

More than a quarter century ago, after New York's police were caught spying on Americans who were exercising their right to free speech, she and others filed suit to stop it. The outcome was an agreement to place limits on surveillance — the Handschu rules.

But then, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, police said they needed more flexibility to protect the city. When the judge agreed to weaken the rules, Barbara Handschu tried unsuccessfully to strip her name from the guidelines.

Now, she sees the fruit of the weakened Handschu rules: the New York Police Department's secret surveillance program targeting Muslims, detailed in a months-long Associated Press investigation. And she finds echoes of an earlier time in reports of police infiltrating student groups, of detectives inventing excuses to snoop in people's homes.

"It's not that different than what happened back in the '60s, except that somebody's being targeted because of ethnicity and before we were targeted because of political belief," Handschu says. "I mean, this is worse. This is racial profiling."

The AP stories revealed that that over the last decade, the NYPD built a wide-ranging program to map and monitor Muslim communities, recording everything from where they pray to the restaurants they eat in. Without evidence of wrongdoing, officers have infiltrated student groups, eavesdropped on people and documented what they heard in daily reports.

The revelations have brought attention to the 40-year-old lawsuit filed by Handschu, "Steal This Book" author Abbie Hoffman and a motley assortment of Yippies, hippies, anarchists, computer geeks and Black Panthers. In justifying the surveillance, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has repeatedly cited the rules that emerged from the Handschu case as proof that police are acting lawfully; civil rights advocates, in turn, have pointed to the fate of the Handschu rules as a prime example of how privacy rights have crumbled in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Handschu's story begins in the late 1960s, when anti-war protests swept through New York and the NYPD's intelligence arm began compiling detailed reports on activists.

The police file on Joel Sucher, a former film student at New York University, includes a list of the demonstrators at an Oct. 15, 1971 rally and the messages on their placards. "The rich set the bail, the poor go to jail," said one sign. No detail was considered irrelevant.

"Joel Sucher of the Pacific Street Film Collective was operating a 1968 Mustang," one page notes.

"I loved that car," Sucher recalls, 40 years later.

But other surveillance was much more menacing, and after the killing of protesters at Kent State University activists became increasingly worried about their safety.

In May 1971, Handschu — who was then a civil rights lawyer — sued the NYPD along with Hoffman, Sucher and members of the War Resisters League, the Gay Liberation Front, Computer People for Peace, the Black Panther Party, and other groups.

Hoffman, who was already famous as one of the "Chicago Seven" protesters arrested during the 1968 Democratic Convention, joined the lawsuit representing the Youth International Party, or Yippies. He was about to become a bestselling author with a counterculture how-to guide, "Steal this Book."

Together they argued the NYPD had created a landscape of intimidation and fear: groups infiltrated, families harassed, careers threatened.

Steven Tullberg, a law student at Columbia University, said he was baffled when the New York Bar Association's Committee on Character and Fitness questioned him in February 1971 about his membership in the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist Movement — a group he had never heard of. The allegation was leaked from his secret NYPD file, the lawsuit alleged.

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