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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?