Surveillance City: In Search of the New Big Brother
FBI agent blocks our way
FBI agent blocks our way, 1971

Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler's RED SQUAD could be considered their 1971 "thesis" project at NYU Film School. The documentary, produced while the two were in Martin Scorsese’s production class, began when the filmmakers pointed their cameras at the cameras wielded by the many cops and undercover agents who always seemed to show up at anti-Vietnam War protests. During the course of filming the filmmakers managed to get themselves harassed, followed, photographed ... even arrested. FBI and NYPD agents paid visits to the parents and friends of the filmmakers, journeyed to the NYU Film School to interview their instructor, Martin Scorsese -- all with the intention of "discouraging" the two from completing the film. While the investigators were busy, so were the subjects of their investigation. Dogging the snoopers, Sucher and Fischler filmed the filmers, interviewed undercover agents and recorded phone calls with various members of the so-called Red Squad. Nat Hentoff documented their experiences in a series of articles in the Village Voice, even managing to elicit a response from doddering FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (who, of course, denied everything). Sucher and Fischler, while managing to finish the film, also managed to amass a hefty FBI and RED SQUAD file (which found its way into their hands via the Freedom of Information Act). The documentary proved a hit when it opened at the Whitney Museum's New American Filmmaker series in October of 1972. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby called RED SQUAD, "funny, in the way that two spies are funny when they suddenly discover they're spying on each other. Yet it's dead serious, the record when four young filmmakers decide to run their own surveillance on the surveillants, those keepers of secret files who monitor protest groups, minority groups, demonstrations..."

Howie being blocked by agents
FBI agents block camera, 1971
The film also provided more than entertainment. It led Fischler and Sucher to join with others (including Abbie Hoffman and several NY-based Black Panthers) in a class action lawsuit designed to stop the rampant abuse by the NYPD's Red Squad. In 1985, after 14 years of negotiation, HANDSCHU vs. SPECIAL SERVICES DIVISION reached a resolution: the Federal Court ordered restrictions on police surveillance and created a three-person "authority" to oversee police intelligence.
Agent with camera
Chicago Red Squad agent among crowd, 1971

Flash Forward to March of 2006. Federal Court, Foley Square, Manhattan. The same attorneys are back in court arguing the same case, HANDSCHU vs. SPECIAL SERVICES. Why? In the wake of 9/11, the NYPD, with the backing of the Justice Department, convinced the Federal Court to “modify” the guidelines, citing the increased threat of terrorism. Judge Charles Haight – the same judge who decided on this case in 1985 – agreed to relax the restrictions. No sooner had the ink dried on the new judicial order then the NYPD was back to their old tricks – with cameras and undercover agents flooding the streets during the tumultuous Republican National Convention in the Summer of 2004. Again, back to court. Confronting a legal challenge to these relaxed restrictions, Judge Haight, was overheard to comment: “For me this case has become a career and will remain so.”

SURVEILLANCE CITY: In Search of the New Big Brother will be a personal meditation on more than three decades of involvement with snoops and spies and a look at the profound changes that have shifted the character and nature of the Big Apple.

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Red Squad surveillance “file card”

Document on Joel Sucher

Washington Police 1976

Washington Police

Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU)
PSF interviews member of NYPD TARU
PSF interviews member of NYPD TARU