Thousands of people protested on May 20, 2012, during the NATO summit in Chicago. [Photo by Brent Lewis]

One thing we learned from the NATO 3 trial: The Chicago Police Department’s Red Squad is back. And, critics say, it’s back to breaking the law.

Not just around the 2012 NATO summit, but on a permanent basis. Not just to prevent terrorism, but to monitor constitutionally protected activity.

It’s precisely the kind of activity that was deemed unconstitutional and banned by a federal consent decree in place from 1982 to 2009, said Michael Deutsch of the People’s Law Office, defense attorney for one of the NATO 3. They were found guilty of possessing incendiary devices but acquitted of terrorism charges on Feb. 7.

Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression calls the role of undercover officers in that case “a police crime,” and likens it to the role of federal agencies in the 1970s COINTELPRO, when “the African-American liberation movement in this country was virtually destroyed through this kind of thing.”

Media coverage of the NATO 3 trial focused on two undercover police officers and a few places where they spied on the general public. But testimony in the trial showed there was a major, ongoing effort to spy on lawful dissent in the run-up to the NATO summit, that it involved numerous police officers, and that the Chicago Police Department’s intelligence unit continues today, Deutsch said.

“They had a whole task force of intelligence officers going around in the months before NATO — they were out there every day in March and April (2012) particularly,” spying on legal protests and open meetings and quizzing people about their political opinions at a variety of countercultural gathering spots, he said.  And officers testified that they were still attached to the intelligence unit, he said.

There’s other evidence that police intelligence activity is ongoing. Truthout has reported that a volunteer with Chicago Action Medical, a group of “street medics” who provide support at protests, confirmed that he was an undercover officer when confronted at his home.

Known as “Danny Edwards,” the officer joined the group in the run-up to NATO, but nearly a year after that event he was still using his CAM connection to seek information on a citywide demonstration against school closings. He showed up at a May 1, 2013, immigrants rights rally, according to Truthout.

Mission creep

From what we know, the Chicago Police Department’s intelligence effort seems to be aimed at the Occupy Chicago movement. But the history of the Chicago Red Squad also shows that, as legal scholars put it, “in the absence of legal restraints” and “meaningful oversight,” police espionage is subject to “mission creep.”

There’s “mission creep” in two respects: an increasingly broad scope of political activity is targeted, and methods, which go beyond surveillance to intimidation and disruption, come into play.

Political mission creep: After the Haymarket bombing in 1886, the labor movement as a whole was targeted; in the witch hunt of the 1950s, because “subversives” supported racial equality, mainstream civil rights groups were investigated. By the late 1960s, surveillance and infiltration were expanded to include hundreds of civic groups like the League of Women Voters and community groups like Organization for a Better Austin.  A 1975 grand jury report concluded the primary motivation for surveillance was opposition to the policies of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Tactical mission creep:  In “Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America,” Frank Donner describes how intelligence gathering conducted openly could be a means of intimidation; how Depression-era strike leaders were arrested, beaten and told to leave town; how the Red Squad planted newspaper stories alleging the 1963 movement against segregated schools in Chicago was subversively inspired.

It extended to targeting groups for destruction. The best-documented case is the Spanish Action Coalition, a Puerto Rican group that campaigned for better social services and park facilities in West Town and against police abuses. Red Squad agents guided the formation of a breakaway group, wrote its press releases and had them planted to smear SAC as a communist front, leading to its collapse.

Agents provocateurs

As seen in the NATO 3 case, tactical mission creep can extend to outright provocation. Donner’s book abounds with examples from the past.  Chapman, himself a veteran of the Free Angela Davis Committee and other groups targeted by COINTELPRO in the 1970s, says “the history of police being agents provocateurs in movements for social justice and peace goes back over 100 years. This is not something new.

“The reality is that 99.9 percent of the movement is about peaceful protest,” he said. “But if you want to make movement work illegal and unsavory, you put police agents in there and have them suggest violent acts, and you can paint [activists] as operating outside the law and justify repression.”

Police spying “ebbs and flows,” Richard Gutman, the Alliance to End Repression attorney who sued the Red Squad in 1973, told Donner.  “When the political establishment feels its power or policies threatened, political surveillance will resume.”

And with opposition growing to the Emanuel administration’s neoliberal policies, attacks on unions and cutbacks in minority neighborhoods, it looks like political surveillance has resumed.

Chapman says the new Red Squad revelations show the need for civilian accountability for police. The Chicago Alliance, which focuses on police killings of civilians, is launching a petition drive for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which took the Red Squad to court in the 1970s, has urged the City Council to enact stricter regulations on police surveillance activities, according to legal director Harvey Grossman.  The group brought this issue to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attention shortly after he was elected in 2011, when the city settled a lawsuit charging unlawful police spying on the American Friends Service Committee 10 years earlier.

For Deutsch, the revelations demonstrate the need to reinstate the 1982 consent decree won by the Alliance to End Racism and the ACLU, which sharply limited police spying.  That court order was lifted in 2009.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.