by Mitzi Waltz
Like a vampire who has developed a tolerance for garlic, Red Squads are back.
Throughout the Cold War, these guardians of political compliance spied on and
harassed law-abiding activists who veered too far left
of the political center. Dedicated civil rights advocates and others
fought back and won on local, state, and federal fronts. But their
success was often short-lived. New technologies; new laws; and
increased interaction among international, federal, military, state,
and local law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and private
corporations are threatening not only to put Red Squads back in
business nationwide, but to increase the scope of their power to
pry, to harm, and to imprison.
With the "International Communist Conspiracy" gone, Red Squads need
a new raison d'etre. Studies by RAND the Heritage Foundation, and
several private companies in the security industry have provided
proponents of the Surveillance State with both a rationale and a
blueprint for action. First, these groups have presented research to
the law enforcement community documenting that the public can be
frightened by the specter of terrorism into accepting and even
calling for increased spying. Second, after studying anti-
terrorist measures from around the world, they have decided that
multi-jurisdictional taskforces offer the best way to circumvent
civilian oversight. For example, the RAND report Domestic Terrorism:
A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness, explicitly
touts taskforce participation as a way to get around local laws
restricting political intelligence work, and also promotes
taskforces as a mechanism for putting such operations on the local
and state agenda by providing funding, equipment, publicity, and
other inducements. And as we shall see, in cities where it operates
counterterrorism taskforces, the FBI pressures local police to ditch
limits on political spying.
Although community policing has not been as successful in curbing
street crime as its proponents might have hoped, it has been a
public relations success and enjoys the support of many well-
intentioned liberals. But heirs to the Red Squads have found it an
excellent mechanism as well. Savvy law enforcement types realized
that under the community policing rubric, cops, community groups,
local companies, private foundations, citizen informants, and
federal agencies could form alliances without causing public outcry.
Riding on fears from the trumped-up missing children campaign of the
1980s to the anti-drug hysteria of the 1990s community policing has
been the public face of under-the-radar efforts to create an
impenetrable web of surveillance and enforcement.
And not surprisingly in this age of globalization, the taskforce
concept benefits from international support as well. Several anti-
terrorism summits held by the G-7 nations since 1984 have advocated
building strong national and international multi-agency taskforces,
based on the models set up in Germany and the UK.
However, it is their association with fighting communism which provides the basis for the name "Red Squad." They became more commonplace in the 1930s, often conceived of as a countermeasure to Communist organizers who were charged with executing a policy of dual unionism - namely, building a revolutionary movement in parallel with membership in above-ground labor organizations. Similar units were established in Canada in this period, although only the Toronto police used the name.
In the late 1960s, as the protests against Vietnam and the general domestic upheaval intensified, the Red Squads augmented their focus, to include dissidents largely outside the labor movement, including therein not just war resisters, but protest movements of all political stripes, including Neonazis, Native American movements, the women's movement, environmentalists, the civil rights movement, and others. The methods employed ranged from simple surveillance to isolated incidents of assassination. Anti-activist police operations were expanded under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, particularly in concert with, and within the cadre of the FBI's COINTELPRO surveillance program, but also including domestic spying by the CIA.
The arm of Chicago's law enforcement known alternately as the Industrial Unit, the Intelligence Division, the Radical Squad, or the Red Squad, had its roots in the Gilded Age, when class conflict encouraged employers to ally themselves with Chicago's police against the city's increasingly politicized workforce. Following the Haymarket bombing, Captain Michael J. Schaack orchestrated a vicious campaign against anarchism, resulting in 260 arrests, bribed witnesses, attacks on immigrants and labor activists, and convoluted theories of revolutionary conspiracy. Continuing its use of both overt and covert tactics, such as surveillance, infiltration, and intimidation, Chicago's Red Squad in the 1920s under Make Mills shifted its attention from anarchists to individuals and organizations who the Red Squad believed to be Communist. Casting a wide net, the squad by 1960 had collected information on approximately 117,000 Chicagoans, 141,000 out-of-towners, and 14,000 organizations. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Red Squad expanded its targets from radical organizations like the Communist and Socialist Workers Parties to minority and reform organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Lawyers Guild, and Operation PUSH.
After 11 years of litigation, a 1985 court decision ended the Chicago Police Department's Subversive Activities Unit's unlawful surveillance of political dissenters and their organizations. In the fall of 1974, the Red Squad destroyed 105,000 individual and 1,300 organizational files when it learned that the Alliance to End Repression was filing a lawsuit against the unit for violating the U.S. Constitution. The records that remain are housed at the Chicago Historical Society. The public requires special permission to access them until 2012.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Toronto Police under Chief Dennis "Deny" Draper returned to its function as an agency to suppress political dissent. Its notorious "Red Squad" brutally dispersed demonstrations by labor unions and by unemployed and homeless people during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Suspicious of "foreigners", the police lobbied the City of Toronto to pass legislation banning public speeches in languages other than English, curtailing union organization among Toronto vast immigrant populations working in sweat shops.
Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. - book reviews
Monthly Review, Nov, 1991 by Ellen W. Schrecker
Perhaps the central irony in Frank Donner's new book about the political repression practiced by urban police forces revolves around the word "terrorism." Touting their activities as necessary to protect American society against the vaguely defined forces of terrorism, the nation's red squads have routinely practiced that which they supposedly guard us against. They use violence and intimidation against their political enemies with a ruthlessness and flagrant disregard of legality that is all the more terrifying because it is done in the name of the law.
Whether describing Chicago's Subversive Activities Unit, Los Angeles' Public Disorder Intelligence Division, New York's Bureau of Special Services, or their counterparts in other cities, Donner offers a numbing litany of beatings, buggings, and burglaries--all in the name of law and order. The information that Donner has compiled here will force us to grant much more credit to the red squads in escalating the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, it offers little hope, given the ideological fervor and secrecy that characterize these outfits, that the illegal surveillance and harassment of dissenters has come to an end.
Local police have long been involved in political repression. Throughout the late nineteenth century, when the primary threat to the status quo came from organized labor, police officials often worked directly for big business, taking fees for breaking up picket lines or investigating union organizers. The local red squad leaders soon learned to solicit trade by exaggerating the supposed dangers they were facing. In the process, they adopted a countersubversive ideology that viewed all protest activities as the product of outside agitators.
This ideology was to remain a constant, even as local police departments professionalized their operations and, in the wake of the post-First World War red scare, came to rely much more heavily on surveillance than on disruption. They concentrated on collecting information and keeping files. They also updated their targets, replacing the labor organizers and foreign-born anarchists of the previous century with more modern reds. The conspiratorial, Manichean world-view that red squad members held transformed most situations they encountered into "us" versus "them" confrontations in which, as Los Angeles police chief William Parker indefatigably reiterated, they were "the thin blue line" preserving American freedom from the Communist menance. In many cases, the cops' outside affiliations reinforced their political biases. About a hundred Detroit policemen belonged to the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-type organization, in the 1930s and 1940s. Two thousand of Los Angeles' finest were members of the right-wing John Birch Society in the early 1960s.
More importantly, however, the red squads were themselves right-wing organizations that were an important part of the broader national countersubversive network. Intelligence units often worked closely with right-wing extremists. In Bull Conner's Birmingham during the 1960s, the head of the red squad was in charge of coordinating activities with the KKK. In the late 1960s, Chicago police protected the far-right Legion of Justice when it burglarized the offices of left-wing organizations and set off stink bombs at performances of the Soviet ballet and Chinese acrobats. From the 1930s on, selected journalistic and congressional investigating committees like HUAC provided outlets for the public release of information from red squad files.