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.

There was collaboration with more mainstream groups as well. The Detroit red squad and the Chrysler Corporation shared information on individual activists, as did the New York Police Department and the New York Bar Association. And of course, local politicians often used their red squads to control political enemies, that is, when they didn't, like Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, set up their own covert action teams.

Ties with other police forces and federal agencies were also close. The FBI shared its informers and technology with local police, who in turn conducted wiretaps for the bureau. The CIA also aided the red squads, offering, among other types of assistance, a ten-day course in surreptitious entry to local personnel, apparently in return for cooperating with, or at least overlooking, the CIA's own illegal activities. The establishment in 1965 of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU) institutionalized the informal networking between police departments. Ostensibly a private organization (and therefore exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests), the LEIU, which received all its funding from public sources, served as a conduit for information and technology and may also have helped local departments evade restrictions on their intelligence gathering. The LEIU's worldview, as Donner has reconstructed it from the speeches and panels at its annual conferences, was very much that of the garden-variety right.