“Red Squad”: An Investigation of the N.Y.P.D.’s Crackdown on Dissent, Fifty Years Ago

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By Richard BrodyOctober 26, 2020

Two members of the NYPD surveillance team holding video and audio recording equipment
The film is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism, in which the filmmakers themselves and their process become part of the story.Photograph courtesy Pacific Street Films

For those who believe that the New York Police Department’s crackdown on dissent and targeting of protesters exercising their constitutional rights is a newborn response to the Black Lives Matter movement or an anti-Muslim aftereffect of the 9/11 attacks, Metrograph is here with a corrective. On its Web site, through its virtual-cinema program, the New York movie theatre will be showing (on Monday night, to members, and this Tuesday through Thursday, to the general public) the 1972 documentary “Red Squad,” which reveals the extraordinary and brazen surveillance of protests against the Vietnam War—and the aggressive, intrusive targeting of individual protesters by the N.Y.P.D. in the early nineteen-seventies.

The film, made by the Brooklyn-based Pacific Street Film Collective (consisting of Howard Blatt, Steven Fischler, Francis Freedland, and Joel Sucher), is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism, in which the filmmakers themselves and their process become part of the story—in fact, become more of the story than they had intended or hoped. (Full disclosure: in the mid-eighties, I briefly worked for the company, then called Pacific Street Films.) In “Red Squad,” the four filmmakers, sitting at a table in their office, discuss the background to their project—the prevalence of surveillance of protesters at all levels of government and, particularly, by the N.Y.P.D. The surveillance was largely conducted by a special bureau that, in the course of filming, changed its name from one bureaucratic deadener to another (Bureau of Special Services, Special Services Division, Security Investigation Squad) but that was widely known as the Red Squad, because its roots were in the surveillance of suspected Communists.

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Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”

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