Photographs of demonstrations around housing, urban development, and inequality are also on view. One image shows activists who ultimately scuttled the planned Columbia University gym in Morningside Park—attacked over its discriminatory, segregated entrances for Harlem residents and Columbia students—straddling police barricades.
Political groups contested every inch of New York during the 1960s and ’70s. They made their voices heard on topics from racism to the very quality of the air. Even the first-ever Earth Day was carefully watched by police video cameras. This and other documentary videos included in the exhibit are particularly interesting. One shows the camera zooming in on random attendees of a Malcolm X speech. If taken out of context, the shots provide a remarkable glimpse at the average people, often overlooked, who took part in political activism—but, of course, the NYPD’s intent was a bit more insidious than simply capturing the spirit of the day.
Ultimately, the widespread culture of NYPD surveillance raised legal flags. Some of the materials on view in “Unlikely Historians” were released following the 1985 settlement of Handschu v. Special Services Division, a class-action lawsuit brought against the NYPD which revealed the extent to which they gathered information on political groups prior to any actual crime. The case resulted in a 1985 consent decree preventing the police from spying on political groups unless they had specific evidence they committed, or were intending to commit, a crime.