History repeats: Cops resume spying on critics

It’s back to the future for the Chicago Police and Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the city once again spies on citizens and organizations whose only crime is exercising their First Amendment rights to oppose city policies and police excesses.

This is a throwback to outrageous practices and civil rights violations used by former Mayor Richard J. Daley, whose police spies compiled dossiers on tens of thousands of Chicago residents and organizations who were not involved in or suspected of criminal activity.

The revival of spying was disclosed over the weekend by the Chicago Sun-Times, which obtained city records documenting the practices that included spying on activist groups, churches, and philanthropic organizations.

“The exercise of one’s protected First Amendment rights should not be a catalyst for police investigation, whether overt or covert,” said Karen Sheley, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Police Practices Project in a Sunday statement.

“Such spying on peaceful protesters chills speech,” she added. “The ACLU strongly opposes police officers attending meetings and collecting information on people organizing to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

The ACLU is urging the City Council to hold hearings into current police spy acivities and to consider “written, formal guidelines…that help assure every person in Chicago that exercising free speech is not a predicate for criminal investigation.”

Currently Washington D.C. has an ordinance that requires “reasonable suspicion of a crime” before beginning the kind of activities currently being used by the Chicago Police.

Under Daley police spy targets included politicians, unions, journalists and the clergy. The spy unit, then known as “the red squad” was disbanded after its long secret activities were disclosed in 1975.

And under Daley the police initially defended their spying—as they do now—as necessary for “traffic control” and that was long before the city had thousands of cameras monitoring city intersections, high crime neighborhoods, red light violations and speeding.

The “Red Squad” was formed during the 1930’s to track Communists radicals but under Daley it morphed into a political operation with police infiltrating of a priest led organization promoting clean air, a community group working to keep neighborhoods integrated, one established to monitor police transgressions, and organizations opposed to the war in Vietnam.

The 1975 disclosures led to lawsuits and was included in a Congressional hearing on law enforcement violations of citizen’s First Amendment rights and the release of dossiers kept by the police department for an estimated 40 years.

To settle a federal suit the city signed a consent decree that limited their ability to spy but the restrictions included in that decree were lifted in 2009.

Included among the documents were files on congressmen, legislators, union activist, civil rights leaders, aldermen, journalists, and clergy.

A Cook County grand jury issued a scathing report critical of the police for widespread, systemic violations of civil rights of peaceful Chicagoans. It did not, however, hand up any indictments.

Senior reporter Larry Green, along with Injustice Watch co-director Rob Warden, exposed the abuses of the Red Squad for the Chicago Daily News.