Joel Feingold was in his apartment in Brooklyn when he heard the sound of police beating protesters outside of his building Wednesday night. Having spent much of the week in the streets joining the waves of demonstrations against police brutality currently sweeping the nation, Feingold rushed outside. He was swiftly tossed to the ground by a senior New York City police officer in a white shirt, thrown in a police van, and placed under arrest along with four other individuals for having ostensibly violated a recently imposed curfew on New York City residents.
Feingold and the others were taken to the NYPD’s 78th Precinct, where they were told that they were being cited for violating the city’s 8 p.m. curfew. It was there, Feingold told The Intercept, that they were interrogated by the NYPD and the FBI about their political beliefs and their reasons for participating in the nationwide protests — subjects that should, under the Constitution and local NYPD rules, be off-limits from law enforcement inquiries following an alleged curfew violation.
After being processed and taken to a cell, Feingold said he and the three men he was locked up with were approached by two men in plainclothes. “One of them is from NYPD intelligence and the other is an FBI agent,” he said. Feingold said a third officer confirmed the affiliations of the two men as they were being discharged. The FBI agent’s line of questioning was clearly focused on his political views.
“We want to know who’s hijacking your movement and making it violent,” Feingold recalled the agent saying. “That is what he said verbatim.”
The FBI’s involvement in protest interrogations is part of an emerging pattern, New York City civil rights attorneys say, that seems to have followed Attorney General William Barr’s designation of the leaderless movement against fascism known as antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly alleged that outside agitators affiliated with the movement are stoking violence and unrest across the country.
Feingold’s account follows a story published by Univision on Thursday, which reported that individuals arrested by the NYPD in recent days have been questioned about their views on anti-fascism. On Thursday afternoon, the National Lawyers Guild of New York City urged anyone who had been contacted by the NYPD or FBI to reach out to their office. Gideon Oliver, former president of the New York chapter of the organization, said the NLG was running down multiple reports of politically focused law enforcement interrogations in multiple boroughs. “There are others,” Oliver told The Intercept, adding that the interviews signaled a “very serious and disturbing development.”
“To turn arrests for violations or misdemeanors at a protest into a dragnet for gathering political intelligence about protesters is inherently problematic,” Oliver said. If demonstrators find themselves under arrest, Oliver went on to say, they should not consent to law enforcement searches, remain silent and invoke their right to speak to an attorney.
The NYPD referred questions for this story to the FBI. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
The three men he was detained with described their interviews once they were returned to their cell, Feingold said. The first came back to his cell joking that he was “the king of antifa.” According to Feingold, “They had clearly asked him about outside agitators.” The second arrestee was asked, “What do you think you were protesting?” The third, who had a long conversation with the law enforcement officials, was from Missouri. “They asked him if he had been at Ferguson,” Feingold said, the site of the historic 2014 protests against police brutality and the killing of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was gunned down by a white police officer.
Feingold, who told The Intercept he had been arrested at protests before, was the last to be interviewed. He said he made an effort to keep the conversation as short and detail-free as possible. “The NYPD intelligence officer looked like a normal NYPD cop,” Feingold said. “The FBI guy was very slick.” Following a brief bit of small talk and general questioning, which Feingold interpreted as an effort to “soften him up,” the agent raised the question about the protests being hijacked for violent purposes. “I have nothing more to say,” Feingold told him.
Feingold and the others were released with summonses for violating the city’s curfew.
Marty Stolar, a veteran New York City civil rights attorney, whose legal work around law enforcement surveillance of political activity led to the creation of a set of rules prohibiting the NYPD from engaging in wanton political spying, said Feingold’s interrogation was one of several he has heard of in recent days. “I’ve got a couple of other names that I’m running down,” Stolar told The Intercept.
The rules Stolar and others helped to establish, known as the Handschu agreement, have gone through many iterations over the past several decades, particularly following the September 11 attacks and the expansion of law enforcement surveillance powers that followed. In 2004, after the court-imposed guidelines were watered down in the wake of the attacks, Stolar and the other attorneys responsible for ensuring that the NYPD was in compliance with the agreement learned the department was using so-called demonstration debriefing forms to probe protesters about their political views. “They had been lying to the judge, they’d been lying to us, they had no explanation for it,” he said. “It pissed off the judge, and the guidelines then became part of the court order once again.”
“This whole demonstration debriefing bullshit was theoretically out the window,” he said. “And lo and behold, it’s surfacing again.”
Feingold told The Intercept that this week’s interrogation would not stop him, or the men he was detained with, from attending New York City’s ongoing protests — though the experience did underscore the state of the government’s relationship to those demonstrations.
“That this FBI sweep is going on during a Black Lives Matter protest is very troubling,” he said. “It’s further federal repression of black and brown people in this country. The Trump administration’s orientation towards authoritarian rule is being borne out now in the street, and its targets are black and brown people, and dissenters.”