“Exorcists” wearing tinfoil hats and burning sage staged a faux purification ritual in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood Saturday outside a building that they said was an outpost used by the U.S. government to surveil everyday Americans’ phone calls, texts and internet usage.
About 50 chanters — and passers-by who joined in — wailed mock prayers in the direction of the 550-foot-tall windowless monolith at 33 Thomas St., an AT&T-owned building that reportedly has space for surveillance operations by the National Security Agency.
The Intercept, one of the main online news sites publishing leaks by government whistleblower Edward Snowden, has reported that the granite and concrete building appears to have long served as a surveillance site for the agency. The NSA has not confirmed the claims.
“This building has eyes, and it is watching you!” performer and activist Joe Therrien, 35, of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, shouted from inside a pen that the NYPD set up on Church Street for protesters.
“The harvested data is then made accessible,” added his girlfriend, Sam Wilson, 37, a puppeteer and bartender, in “a Google-like mass-surveillance system that the NSA employees use to search through huge quantities of data!”
The couple took turns listing the kinds: internet browsing history, chats, passwords, and phone calls.
The NSA could not be reached for comment Saturday, but agency officials have defended bulk surveillance as the only way to thwart terrorist attacks like 9/11.
An AT&T building security guard, speaking through an intercom, told a reporter seeking comment, “today being Saturday, we don’t have anyone.”
An AT&T spokesman didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment Saturday, but told The Intercept in November: “NSA representatives do not have access to any secure room or space within our owned portion of the 33 Thomas St. building.”
Protest organizer Noah Harley, 33, of Ridgewood, Queens, a translator and musician, said the exorcism was designed to be presented “in a playful way,” in contrast with other protests.
“Kill ’em with kindness,” he said.
The spectacle drew tourists, some of TriBeCa’s midday brunch crowd and other passers-by, including Virginia Mott of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and her sister, Tiffiney Biorn, who was visiting from Minneapolis.
When asked about the exorcism event, the sisters began a discussing the surveillance program.
“You don’t care if the NSA listens to your phone calls?” Mott, 29, asked Biorn, 25.
Biorn answered: “If they want — but I don’t do anything.”
Mott said she could see both sides of the debate — “there could be good, there could be bad.”
Regardless, she said, the government should be as transparent as possible about its surveillance practices. “I mean, if they’re listening to everybody, they can say that, and then we don’t know who they’re listening to.”