The Chicago Sun-Times has obtained records showing that local police conducted widespread surveillance of civil rights groups, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH organization. The surveillance program, set up in the wake of the Ferguson protests, is reminiscent of government surveillance programs in the 1960s, when records show the FBI monitored calls of civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. Federal agents, under the orders of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, also carried out a massive counterintelligence program against the Black Panthers, who Hoover branded the “greatest threat to the internal security of our country.”
The Sun-Times reported that Chicago police monitored activists on social media and also kept a log of local demonstrations. They additionally kept tabs on a group lobbying for a higher minimum wage and a “Fur Free” march.
Apart from tracking local activists, the police department also had informants within the organizations reporting back to them. Information gathered by the Chicago Police Department’s spying program was compiled at the city’s Crime Prevention Information Center, and analyzed alongside FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents, according to The Sun-Times.
Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said local law enforcement decided to launch the monitoring program because they were concerned Ferguson-related protests might turn violent. He insisted that everything was done by-the-book.
“We have lawyers working side by side with police officers making sure people’s rights are protected,” Guglielmi said.
He also said the post-Ferguson operation lasted two months and was shut down in January. However, Guglielmi declined to say if Chicago police was still conducting a spying operation. Jesse Jackson said the spying program was unwarranted, and reminiscent of the Chicago police’s infamous Red Squad, which penetrated civil rights groups in the 60s and 70s.
“There is no basis for having Rainbow PUSH on such a list,” Jackson said. “Spying on our organization is insulting and unnecessary.”
Chicago activists are not the only people to complain about being tracked by the government. Black Lives Matters activist DeRay Mckesson said he, and other members of the movement, have been monitored by the authorities. According to The Huffington Post, Mckeeson recently discussed this in a Twitter conversation with fugitive computer specialist Edward Snowden. Last year, Snowden leaked information about the NSA’s massive domestic surveillance program.
Snowden and Mckeeson agreed to have a longer Twitter debate about state violence and police surveillance. Snowden tweeted, “Police violence, like surveillance, is unevenly distributed. Arbitrary violence is a threat to civil society.”
Snowden also offered some advice to Black Lives Matter activists. He told them to encrypt everything, including texts and calls. He also recommended they learn how to operate as a “leaderless organization” because those were the hardest to shut down.