For the past several weeks, a Ford F550 truck has been parked near the corner of Liberty Street and Broadway, on the outskirts of Zuccotti Park. As activists across the street worked to build a new society, it sat like an unblinking sentinel. Even after the park was raided, the protesters scattered and the plaza cleared, the large rig remained. In this new, post-encampment era for the Occupy Wall Street protests, it sits there still.
The truck in question is white with no markings. Its windows are blacked out, preventing bystanders from peering in. But there’s little question what the vehicle is there for. A 40-foot pole, with a single helix of heavy-gauge electrical cable coiled around it, topped by a video camera, rises from the back of the truck. All day long, that camera is pointed at Zuccotti Park.
That much is no secret. What is less apparent is who is running the truck – literally – and why.
The New York City Police Department license plate and the fact that TARU (Technical Assistance Response Unit) policemen -- the unit that monitors and videotapes protests – move in and out of the vehicle tell part of the story. But not all of it. Evidence suggests that Brookfield Properties, the commercial real estate firm that also owns Zuccotti Park, is providing the power for the spy wagon and other perks to police. When I tried to investigate, Brookfield’s security personnel enlisted the NYPD to declare my reporting “illegal” and try to run me off the site.
Power Cords and Power Trips
This story begins weeks ago when I noticed a loose extension cord snaking from the side of the big white truck to an outlet at the base of a tree in front of One Liberty Plaza, the massive office tower that looms over Zuccotti Park and is owned, like the park, by Brookfield Properties. The extension cord is still there, but is now taped in place. It has become a more or less permanent fixture on Liberty Street.
Weeks back, when I first noticed the power cord, I walked to the main entrance of One Liberty Plaza in order to inquire about the electrical power situation. I was stopped cold by security. No one gets in without a building ID badge, I was told.
Now, I knew this wasn’t true. Another badge gets you in the door, too. Without proper building credentials, NYPD officers walk in and out of the One Liberty Plaza all day long, assumedly to use the restroom facilities. I had seen it happen again and again, but I kept this observation to myself and explained that I was a reporter and had some questions. The guard said I could ask him, so I did. Were the outlets in front of the building open to use by the public? No. Did they belong to the building? Yes.
When I asked Melissa Coley, Brookfield’s media contact and a vice president with the firm, if the real estate giant had any agreements to share resources with the NYPD or had issued instructions about aiding the police at One Liberty Plaza, she wouldn’t say. “We politely decline to comment,” Coley wrote in an email. The NYPD also refused to respond to repeated questions about its involvement with Brookfield Properties or One Liberty Plaza.
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The evidence, however, suggests that Brookfield is offering the NYPD perks -- power for their surveillance efforts and aid and comfort for their officers -- that it does not extend to the general public, much less the protesters in Zuccotti Park who repeatedly ran into difficulties in regard to access to electrical power and bathroom facilities, which Brookfield Properties, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the NYPD ultimately used as part of the justification for raiding the park and ending the occupation.
But what, if anything, Brookfield Properties or One Liberty Plaza received for its courtesies to the police -- at least prior to the NYPD’s pre-dawn raid to clear their privately owned public park -- was far from clear, until I came face to face with one possible benefit. I learned firsthand that the NYPD would act as Brookfield’s private, armed security force, trying to restrict press freedom on the say-so of staff at One Liberty Plaza.
'Yeah, it’s illegal'
After I found the arrangement between the police department and One Liberty Plaza still seemed to be going strong after many weeks -- police were entering the 54-story building sans credentials, the surveillance truck was plugged in -- I decided to look into things further. The security staff at One Liberty Plaza took exception to this.
As I watched police officers enter the building without IDs and get buzzed through interior security gates that offer access to the building beyond the lobby, the man in charge of those key-card control gates eyed me intently. The more notes I took, while standing in the public plaza, about 25 feet from the building’s windows, the more agitated he seemed to get.
He soon become so upset that he left a female officer waiting to get buzzed in because he was too busy looking at me looking at him. In the midst of his mini-meltdown, the security chief directed a man behind the counter in the lobby to take pictures of me with a digital camera. I waved at him, as if to say hello, and then moved slightly to make certain that I had interpreted the goings on within the building accurately. When the security subordinate aimed the camera at me again, I was sure.
Perhaps it was because I smiled for the picture, or because I didn’t run away or that I was taking notes throughout the whole episode, but whatever the reason, the security chief appeared almost enraged. With a determined stride, he headed for the door, out onto the street and made a beeline for the nearest cop.
I had a pretty good idea of what was coming as I watched him complain to the officer, so I walked closer to meet them as they made their way toward me. “That’s him, right here,” the One Liberty Plaza security commander said. That’s when Officer Cristiano took over. Officer Cristiano isn’t much taller than me, and I’m no giant, but he’s certainly a whole lot beefier and his hard stare and no-nonsense demeanor told me he meant business.
That is, he meant to intimidate me.
“What are ya doin'?” he asked as his eyes locked onto mine. I explained that I was a reporter, that I was taking notes for a story about the surveillance situation at the Occupy Wall Street protests -- part of a series on security cameras, the metal barricades and the Sky Watch observation tower for my employer, AlterNet.org.
“Get outta here. Leave,” he told me.
I’m not allowed to report?
It’s a security issue…especially at a sensitive location, you can’t be walking around looking at cameras and what we’re doing here and writing it down.
You’re saying it’s illegal to do that?
Why are you taking notes on security cameras?
I told you. I’m writing a series.
Alright, you got everything then? Everything you need?
Go somewhere else and do it.
“Is it illegal for me to do this, Officer… Cristiano?” I asked, reading his last name off the identification plate on his shirt. As I started to read out his shield number, 3-7-6-6 , he chimed in to say it in unison with me.
“Yeah, you write it down,” he told me as I scrawled his name down in my notebook. “I will. I want to make sure I spell it right,” I replied, before restarting my questioning about the legality of my reporting.
Cristiano changed the subject again, asking if I was part of the protest across the street. “No,” I said. “I told you. I’m a reporter.” That’s when he started in about credentials, a standard line among New York cops. If I was a member of the media, then where were my press credentials? So I set him straight. The NYPD doesn’t decree who is or isn’t a reporter. The NYPD grants credentials to some journalists allowing them cross police lines to do crime or other spot reporting. I, on the other hand, am a reporter by virtue of having worked as a reporter, in the U.S. and overseas, for years. And I was reporting in a public space, so I didn’t need any identification card, certainly not one from the police.
I could tell he was getting angrier, so I wasn’t surprised when Cristiano shifted back to bully tactics.
Go. Leave. You can’t be here.
Is it illegal for me to be here?
Yeah, it’s illegal.
When I challenged him again, asking if it was really illegal, Cristiano pulled back and tried cajoling again.
He said I’d been reporting long enough and now my time was up: “You’ve been here for while, right?” I replied that it was all relative and asked how long he’d been standing in roughly the same area as me. He wasn’t amused.
Listen, you can leave. Leave. Okay, I’m asking you to leave.
Is there a statute I’m violating? I’m just asking. Will you just tell me the statute that I’m violating?
Officer Cristiano wouldn’t name a law and wanted to know, again, what it was that I was doing. I was getting so exasperated that my response came out as half-laugh and half-whine: “I told you, I’m a reporter.” I then proceeded to explain, again, that I was writing a series on the security response to the protests in the park. Officer Cristiano in turn replied, “It’s none of your business. Leave!”
I half thought about just walking away -- for about a split second -- but I just couldn’t let it drop. “Will you tell me why I’m not allowed to do this?” I inquired again. “Security reasons. For our security reasons,” he responded.
For police security? I’m a threat? Do you think I’m a threat?
I certainly don’t think so… writing isn’t much of a threat. I mean, you’ve got... a sidearm, pepper spray. I’ve got a pen and paper. I don’t know how I can threaten you.
Cristiano shifted gears again.
Alright, you got everything you need?
No, I keep telling you, I don’t.
Go somewhere else.
We were at an impasse, so I eventually I did move along. But when I crossed the street and looked back to see Officer Cristiano talking to the security official from One Liberty Plaza, it got me thinking. Were NYPD officers now taking orders from Brookfield Properties? For some free electricity and use of a toilet, could the NYPD be bought?
Or, I wondered, could it be even simpler than that? Maybe New York’s finest would do the bidding of the representative of a big-money real estate firm without any kickbacks at all.
The fact that I was the only person who was chased away from the area, among many others standing around, smoking, talking and even, in one case, eating on a set of stairs next to the building, made it abundantly clear that I was being singled out. It was equally obvious that my reporting was the point of contention and raised questions in my mind about the NYPD’s respect for the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press.
Days later, the NYPD’s raid on Brookfield’s behalf raised further question marks about its respect for another right enshrined in that same amendment: peaceable assembly.
The NYPD refused multiple requests for information on the legality of reporting from outside Liberty Plaza or any exchange of resources with, special considerations for or relationship with One Liberty Plaza or Brookfield Properties. After the eviction of the occupiers, Brookfield issued a statement avowing support for “all citizens’ rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech,” but has yet to explain why actions from its representatives suggest otherwise.
With the NYPD and Brookfield Properties refusing to comment further, it’s impossible for me to know if quid pro quo is at play or if there is some other explanation for the apparent cooperation between the police and the commercial real estate giant. But the opportunity is always there for the New York City Police Department to explain itself. The same goes for Brookfield Properties. Both have my contact information and know how to get in touch.