Red Squad

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The manuscript is finished, and out for consideration…

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There is, one might say, a 50-year horizon for cultural memory, corresponding roughly to the life span of an adult. Once a period of history gets to be 50 years old, the sun of memory sets over that horizon and is replaced by the moonlight of myth. Moonlight is more romantic and produces shadows and glints that are invisible by day. But it is also not very good to see by; and myth never displays the past as accurately as history does, or tries to.

— Adam Kirsch[i]

 

While history happens at the level of great events, these micro-events get washed out. Yet, for the individuals, the latter are history: the past as looked at across a distance of 50, 60, 70 years. Who’s to say that their past, however individual and anecdotal, is any less history than the Big Story line we know in conventional narratives?

— Robert Darnton[ii]

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RED SQUAD

by Terry Murray

Chapter 1: Introduction

Before the National Security Agency in the U.S. and the Communications Security Establishment in Canada, there was the Red Squad in Chicago. From the 1880s through the 1970s, this arm of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) kept tabs on anarchists, labour activists, Communists and people thought to be Communist, civil rights groups and people who opposed the Vietnam War — political dissenters militant or mild. The Red Squad’s techniques of overt and covert surveillance and infiltration were cruder than those used in the digital age — even ham-handed — but they were no less effective.

Even before the Red Squad was shut down after 11 years of litigation by a 1985 court decision and its files released to a Chicago archive, my parents knew, from comments made by employers and by the squad’s less than subtle techniques, that they were in its records. What earned them that distinction? In the late 1960s, they had worked to support the desegregation of the public school in our conservative, white South Side neighbourhood, and independently produced an innovative programme for preparing underemployed young black adults for lucrative jobs in the nascent computer industry.

All of us – my parents, my sisters and I – also opposed the Vietnam War, although it was principally I who demonstrated, organized study sessions and arranged speaking engagements for more radical activists.

Although entirely lawful, all those activities had negative repercussions: We were ostracized by our neighbours, our house was bombed and my father was forced out of his job with IBM.

Our Red Squad files (I later learned that I had a file too, although I was only 16 at the time), don’t contain documentation of all of those activities. But the threat of surveillance, not to mention the actual reports sent to my father’s employer, made the Red Squad emblematic of those years and coloured the rest of our lives. The events of that time led to the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and to one of my sisters and me leaving the U.S. for Canada, where we continue to live. My other sister, quite young (aged eight to 10 years old) at the time, remained in the U.S. but of course was also affected by the aftermath of those days.

Perhaps the most unexpected outcome of all was that my once-progressive father turned his back on his pioneering efforts and the principles he had espoused, and became increasingly racist and politically and socially conservative. My mother clung to her beliefs, and the resulting rift between my parents was a major contributor to their divorce nearly 10 years later.

After I decided to write my family’s story, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, was published. The publication was met with widespread outrage that Atticus Finch, the near-saintly paragon of racial justice of Mockingbird, was revealed to be a racist in Watchman. It didn’t seem impossible to me, given my father’s about-face, which mystified me for many years, until I began to examine his life more closely in reviewing the events of the late 1960s.

This book, however, is not an exercise in therapy, to try to come to terms with his puzzling behaviour.  Instead, I want to pay tribute to my parents’ courage and forward thinking, my father’s reversal notwithstanding, which shaped my sisters and me.

My family’s story also illuminates an under-reported event from that time: the desegregation, in early 1968, of Mount Greenwood Elementary School, that South Side Chicago public school, which produced neighbourhood protests reminiscent of those accompanying the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 10 years earlier. That may be an overstatement of the incident’s significance, but several chroniclers of that tumultuous decade agree that it was an important and overlooked chapter in Chicago’s civil rights history, and one that continues to reverberate.

Chicago itself was important because it was the first Northern city chosen by Martin Luther King, Jr., as a testing ground for his non-violent civil rights efforts that had been successful in the South. His focus shifted from voting and other Constitutionally-guaranteed rights that had largely been secured, at least in legislation, in 1964 and 1965, and he changed the priority of the Chicago movement from schools to housing. The transplantation of those efforts in the North has been judged as largely unsuccessful, and Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.

The major events in my family’s story occurred between 1967 and 1970, a period during which the civil rights movement is often said to have ended, even before King’s assassination in 1968. If that was the case, no one told the people of Chicago, or my neighbours, and recent events – racially-motivated killings and the rise of Donald Trump as a political force in the U.S. – show the need for it is far from over.

And, as the revelations by Edward Snowden and others have shown, the age of government surveillance in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere isn’t over either, and may have simply taken a new form.

 

[i] “My Jewish Mother Was a Communist, and Other Tales of Lost Leftists,” by Adam Kirsch, Tablet magazine, 3 September 2013 – review of Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem; http://tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/142934/kirsch-lethem-dissident-gardens (accessed 30 May 2015)

[ii] Robert Darnton, quoted in Almost a Family, by John Darnton; Anchor, 2012, p. 235.

Copyright © Terry Murray 2016

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