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What Happened When I Tried to Get Some Answers About the Creepy NYPD Watchtower Monitoring OWS

There’s a metal monster looming over Liberty Square, but don’t ask questions about it or else.
 
 
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LIBERTY SQUARE – The drummers drummed. The guitarists strummed. And the hearty souls building a new society in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park traded in their tarps for tents as the temperature dropped. All the while, Officer Guzman stood watch. 

But there was something special about Officer Guzman. He wasn’t one of the 25 police officers I counted standing on the perimeter of Liberty Square that first wintery day. He wasn’t one of dozens more shooting the breeze with their partners inside a police van or sitting alone in a cruiser texting. Officer Guzman spent the day suspended in the air, two stories up, at the corner of Trinity Place and Liberty Street, inside a little metal box that goes by the name Sky Watch.

For the initiated, Sky Watch is like one of those mechanical forest walkers from the Star Wars movies without the lasers or the walking. Imagine an 7-foot by 6-foot metal box, with blacked out windows on its four sides, bristling with cameras, spotlights, and a small spinning anemometer (to calculate wind speed), atop spindly hydraulic legs that allow it to sit on the ground or rise up two stories. Inside that climate-controlled cube is a control panel with switches to turn on the lights, a joystick to raise and lower the unit, and various other remote controls that Officer Guzman or someone like him can use to direct the cameras and watch their feeds on video screens (while they are recorded on multiple digital video recorders). 

Also used by the U.S. military, from Marines in the tiny African nation of Djibouti to sailors at a Navy base in the United Arab Emirates, as well as police departments all around the U.S., the 8,000-plus pound Panopticon-like structure -- originally used by hunters to shoot quarry from overhead -- has become a favorite of those who are partial to coercive surveillance. As the company that makes them puts it, Sky Watch provides “the vantage point necessary for law enforcement officials to deploy their forces to the greatest effectiveness while simultaneously acting providing [sic] a continuous crime deterrent.”

“We have cameras for everything”

 Officer Guzman seemed like the strong silent type. At least he looked strong. But what I can most vouch for was his silence. He preferred to let other officers speak for him.

When a couple of “special” cops came to gas up Guzman’s Sky Watch tower, I called out a question about how frequently they needed to feed the mechanical beast. “I can’t tell you that information,” was the cold response I got from one of the policemen. As I scrawled down the terse reply and snapped a few photos, another strode over to the metal barricade I was leaning on. “What’s your name?” he asked. 

Nick, what’s yours? 

Anthony. What, are you writing a report?

I’m a reporter.

Do you have some ID that says you’re a reporter?

Nah, you guys like badges, not me.

As I produced a couple pieces of identification, I asked why he needed to see ID from someone asking an innocuous question while standing on a public sidewalk. “What interests me is that you’re taking information about our Sky Watch and asking questions about our Sky Watch so it makes me wonder why you’re doing it. I’d like to know that.” 

Then I asked to see his ID. “You have my ID,” he said. But I didn’t. He was a fancy cop. No badge and nameplate on his chest, so I insisted. “I don’t. I only know your name is Anthony.” To his credit, he produced some. Anthony Torres. Shield #14528. So I told him of my interest in Sky Watch and the mini-surveillance state the police had set up more generally. Why, I asked, did the NYPD need a Sky Watch surveillance unit on-site when they also had a permanent camera stationed across the street from the park, a surveillance truck up the street with a camera on a 20-foot pole, dozens of cops stationed on the park’s perimeter at all times and, no doubt, other less conspicuous methods to spy on a park, already surrounded by metal pens, filled with unarmed, nonviolent protesters?

In the meantime, Officer Guzman had descended and emerged from the Sky Watch box to take a closer look at me face to face. I gave a quizzical look as my ID was, without my permission, handed off to him. I watched him closely as he wrote down all my information  “We’re just gonna take your name down. That you’re a reporter and that you’re asking questions about our Sky Watch. Don’t worry. No summons,” Torres said. Guzman just glowered.

As Guzman stayed mum, Torres and I talked. He insisted that the location of the Sky Watch had nothing to do with the protests. Sort of. His long pauses made me wonder as I questioned him. But he was adamant that while the surveillance truck at the other end of the block was a response to the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the Sky Watch unit was to keep an eye on the nearby World Trade Center site. Now, the fact that Sky Watch’s four cameras never seemed to point toward “Ground Zero,” but instead the streets right around the park suggested otherwise. So did Sky Watch’s location and a high fence around the construction site, so I pressed him about which cameras were for which surveillance task. “We have cameras for everything,” he responded.

With time, Torres mellowed and glad-handed me for a bit, so I hoped it would rub off on the silent Guzman. I asked him how long they kept him cooped up in that little metal box. He gave me a long stare and stayed stony silent. “That’s not a question we like to give out answers to,” Torres responded in his stead, breaking into laughter and noting that while there’s often someone inside the metal cube, it didn’t much matter because there were always cameras running. 

Satisfied with my answers, Torres soon left and Guzman re-entered the Sky Watch. As the metal contraption rose on its hydraulic legs, I  took note of exactly which directions its four cameras were facing. As per usual, none were pointing at the World Trade Center site. Instead, the main roof cam swiveled to focus on me. Maybe Guzman did have a sense of humor. Or maybe that was his way of sticking it to me. Who knows what he was thinking behind those blacked-out windows. So I waved to him a few times, circled around to take notes on all the cameras and moved on.

Over the course of the afternoon, I would loop back to Sky Watch to survey its cameras, noticing that a cruiser, with a cop inside, had now taken up a spot next to its base.

Whenever I stopped to take notes on the cameras, which never did point anywhere but at the environs of the park or the sidewalks around the tower -- at least when I was near -- the cop in the cruiser would take note of me.

“I’m Not Here to Think”

About two hours after Torres and I parted ways, I noticed the main camera on the top swing around to focus on me. That Guzman! Maybe this was his way of cracking a smile? So I moved and watched the camera follow. Then I moved again, as if I would walk past, but instead doubled back to my starting point. The camera swung about, looking for me, I guessed.  

I was hardly shocked when Officer Husain left his cruiser and approached. “Is there any reason why you’re taking pictures of our...” he asked, never even getting the words “Sky Watch” out. Maybe he thought it was classified. I told him there was and asked if Guzman was still inside. “Yeah,” he said. So I said I was a reporter and told him about my earlier conversation with Officer Guzman. 

“What are you so curious about?” he asked. So I told him. Nonviolent protesters. Fixed cameras. Surveillance truck. Scores of cops. Ring of steelThe whole shebang

Like Torres, he wanted my ID and when I handed it over, he had the same issue. Why didn’t I have a reporter’s ID? “You guys have a fetish about badges and stuff like that,” I said, but explained that I didn’t. I assured him he could look me up online to verify. When I asked for his ID, he reminded me he was a beat cop. I read it off his chest: Husain. Badge #12922.

Husain still wanted to know why I was so interested in security around the park, so I tried to explain again. I told him how four top cops had recently complained to the New York Post that the large police presence at Occupy Wall Street was the reason for a spike in shootings across the city. If so, I asked him, wasn’t it overkill to have so much surveillance, so many vehicles, so many barricades, so many cops, for this modest encampment if shootings were surging? Did he think they needed this many cops for a protest in a tiny park? “I’m not here to think,” he responded. 

“Are you called into action a lot,” I asked. “Or am I about as threatening as it gets?”

It’s not that. You’re a reporter. But I don’t know you’re a reporter. You’re not carrying any credentials on you. A tourist taking a picture is okay. But someone recording everything we’re doing is not.

But you’re recording everything I’m doing with Sky Watch and all these cameras.

I know.

And you’ve got weapons.

What difference does that make?

Because, what kind of threat can I possibly be to you? To all of you?

Husain seemed to be getting flustered. Maybe nobody had bothered to explain to him why he needed to sit in a squad car at the base of a metal tower bristling with cameras. Maybe he never questioned why someone actually had his job. But he recovered and then played his trump card. “We’re not here for the protests. We’re here for counter-terrorism,” he said before lapsing into semi-incoherence about having to protect the Sky Watch, presumably from terrorists. “Wait, you’re saying someone is going to attack that?” I said gesturing to the Sky Watch tower. In a city filled with iconic structures, terrorists might target a metal box on stilts with, maybe, one cop inside. Really? 

He seemed confused and ended our conversation abruptly with: “It’s much more than simple words.”                

I doubt I’ll ever know what he meant by that. Chances are, he might not either. But his statement said a lot about the police response to Occupy Wall Street, about surveillance for surveillance’s sake, and about the increasing hollowness of using “terrorism” as a get-out-of-jail-free card in New York City. It also taught me something about how a person -- even packing a pistol, handcuffs, a nightstick, a radio to call countless numbers of similarly armed individuals, and the authority conferred by a badge -- can feel insecure if he doesn’t know what he is doing or why. 

The activists across the street in Liberty Square have frequently been assailed for a lack of concrete demands and clear positions on issues, but they sure know what they’re doing. Surrounded by a ring of metal barricades, a not-so-thin-blue line of armed men and women who watch their every move, plainclothes officers and undercover cops who surreptitiously monitor them, a panoply of police vehicles, fixed cameras, mobile cameras, and all manner of other gear, they are building a new society.

From what I’ve seen, it’s a society in which a somewhat surly, armed man sitting 25 feet up in a little metal box spying on people, protected by a similarly armed, perhaps slightly confused, young man in a car, would be considered odd and unnecessary. The fact that New York City is now a place where you’re not supposed to notice such things, much less question them (and, if you do, you’re questioned for it), says a lot about where the United States is as a society and why, perhaps, there are hardy souls braving the cold in Zuccotti Park to build a new one. 

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook