Many of the activists who participated in the December 5 march protesting the non-indictment of police officers involved in the Eric Garner homicide in New York believe that there was at least one undercover police officer marching with them that night.
“I thought he was just another protester,” said Melody Lee O'Brien, “until he went into the car to take a call. That’s when I realized he was an officer.”
“We both saw him walking, then he got into an undercover car,” agrees Mariah Burns.
Pictures, posted by activists, have appeared on Facebook of a police officer’s face and the license plate of his vehicle.
When I called Commissioner Paré’s office about the use of undercover police officers during the march, Lindsey Lague, spokesperson for the Commissioner’s office said, “We do not comment on undercover operations,” though she was interested in seeing the pictures taken at the march.
Marches and vigils have been happening across the United States (and around the world) since the homicide of Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of the police in Ferguson. Almost immediately rumors began to fly that the police were infiltrating the marches. Sometimes the undercover officers were suspected to be agent provocateurs, inciting bad behavior to discredit the marchers or to provide a pretext for police action and arrests.
The Providence Police know with certainty whether or not they assigned an undercover officer to infiltrate the march. The protesters are convinced that they did. The greater percentage of Providence citizens have no idea whether or not undercover police are infiltrating nonviolent protests, which means there has been no public discussion or debate on the subject.
The December 5 march was partly in response to the Eric Garner case but also in response to police overreach here in Providence. The City of Providence just this year settled a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of Judith Reilly for $75,000 because they had violated her first amendment right to “distribute flyers on a public sidewalk.” Now the ACLU is bringing another case against the City of Providence on behalf of Shanna Kurland and Gladys Gold who were told to move, in violation of their rights, from a place where they were protesting then candidate Gina Raimondo during a fundraiser at the Casino in Roger Williams Park. Then there’s the internal affairs complaint being brought against Providence police officers by John Prince, who claims that undercover officers assaulted him and erased cellphone video he had captured, from his own front yard. Add to this the dismal record here in Rhode Island on racial profiling by police, the fact that Providence has one of least racially representative police forces in the country, and that Rhode Island is one of the three worst states for Black Americans, and you get a sorry picture of police and race relations here in the Ocean State.
Undercover police officers spying on citizens engaged in lawful and constitutionally protected protest brings up other concerns as well. Edward Snowden revealed, at great personal cost, some of the outrageous ways in which the federal government is spying on US citizens, often with the help of local law enforcement, monitoring our cellphones and Internet use, among other things. At protests I’ve covered here in Rhode Island held in response to such abuses, local and federal law enforcement, including the US Marshall Service, Homeland security and the Providence Police department were conspicuous.
We’re not talking about criminals and terrorists here- just citizens concerned with the erosion of their civil and human rights. Should the police be infiltrating the activities of nonviolent protesters?
For my part, I saw the same man O’Brien and Burns saw. I saw him at Central High School, where the protesters assembled before the start of the march and I later saw him in an unmarked police car, talking on a cellphone or radio.
In light of the events in Oakland, where an outed and panicked undercover police officer drew his weapon on protesters, I feel it's important to examine these issues. The event in Oakland demonstrates that undercover spying can lead to division and distrust between protesters and police, which can have dangerous, even life threatening consequences.
This is something we need to talk about.