Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Red Squad Chicago – The Wild Wild Midwest!

Summer ’68, Chicago: My brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, was putting out an underground antiwar paper, Vietnam GI (VGI). He had launched it in January to reach active-duty troops uneasy with, uncertain about, or in some cases opposed outright to the war in Vietnam.

VGI soon found a responsive readership – letters to the editor poured in from young men training stateside awaiting deployment as well as GIs, Marines, and airmen based in South Vietnam and sailors and airmen on station off-shore. Circulation grew exponentially. By mid-summer, the paper had become a worldwide phenomenon – read wherever American troops were based, cautiously, of course, out of sight of the disapproving brass and lifer sergeants.
Jeff and colleagues decided to supplement VGI’s ‘Asian Edition’ with a ‘Stateside Edition’ addressing the particular concerns of the guys in the pipeline. It would be a big undertaking – money was always tight – and the new edition would double the printing and far-flung distribution costs. The two editions would come out simultaneously, the inaugural stateside issue scheduled for August ’68. Jeff and his team wanted the launch to go smoothly.

Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago was probably the next most lively center of protest in the country – both antiwar opposition as well as Black civil rights activism. In the windy city, both movements were up against a formidable political machine led by blunt, hard-nosed, long time Mayor Richard J Daley.

In April ‘68 his cops had waded in and roughly dispersed an antiwar demo. A week later when major rioting broke out in the ghetto following Martin Luther King’s assassination, the mayor called for and received federal troops to help police restore order.

Federal troops in Chicago, May 1968

The Democratic Presidential Convention was scheduled for Chicago that August, and it was expected to be contentious because of divisions over the war. Vice President Humphrey, representing the war policy, and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, standing for peace and withdrawal, were the leading contenders for the nomination.

McCarthy was a long shot, but the huge, diverse national antiwar movement mobilized to go to Chicago to support his antiwar position. They intended to take to the streets in massive acts of civil disobedience and sleep in the parks. The prospect gravely worried the Daley organization. When a Yippie, in the spirit of street theater, spoke of dumping LSD in the city’s water supply, the mayor took the wild rhetoric seriously, redoubling defenses for convention week.

Anyone reading the Chicago press knew that a confrontation was coming – the antiwar legions versus the Chicago police backed up by state and federal law enforcement authorities as well as the military. To finish and get the new double edition of Vietnam GI out in timely fashion, Jeff decided to play it safe and avoid getting caught up in the impending convention turmoil.

Mayor Daley, spooked by scuttlebutt of hundreds of thousands hippies and radicals descending on Chicago, boosted the Red Squad’s roster to 500 men.

He and fellow editor Jim Wallihan gathered the preparatory materials for the August issues and headed for the Bay Area, a more protest-friendly part of the country. In San Francisco, they stayed with a friend, an ex-Vietnam GI combat photographer, Joe Carey†, where they assembled the two editions.

Jeff had moved the VGI editorial operation temporarily out of town because he was aware the Chicago Red Squad, which surveilled all New Left activity, had the VGI collective in its extensive dissident files. Under pretext of protecting the Democratic convention from possible disruption, Jeff reasonably assumed the Red Squad might use the opportunity to preemptively raid local protest outfits.

Given the Red Squad’s modus operandi in the ‘60s, Jeff made a good decision. Originally formed as a special unit of the Chicago police in 1886 to hunt down the men who set off a bomb that killed and injured many policemen during the Haymarket Riot, the unit evolved, targeting the ‘agitators’ du jour – anarchists and leftists in the teens, labor activists in the ‘20s, Communists from the ‘30s on, and civil rights militants and anti-Vietnam War opponents in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The country was then in the grip of Cold War anti-communism. To the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) way of thinking, both Black and white ‘radicals’ were considered ‘fellow travelers’, if not potentially dangerous ‘commie’ subversives.
At the time, the official name for the CPD’s special unit was the ‘Subversive Section of the Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Inspectional Services’, but it came to be known by friend and foe alike as the Red Squad. In the early ‘60s it was a small outfit of several dozen agents seconded from other divisions of the CPD. But as the decade heated up with rioting in Black ghettos across the nation and the escalation of the Vietnam War – both triggers of unrest beginning in ’65 – the squad grew rapidly.

The late James Cunningham, former Red Squad Agent

Its liaisons with other enforcers– the FBI and US Army Military Intelligence (MI) – grew apace. Under its counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO††, mainly aimed at the left, the feds provided the Red Squad with specialized training and significant funding. MI, based in nearby Evanston, transferred military equipment and know-how for specific operations the squad was planning.

Outside the public eye, the three outfits shared intelligence and coordinated major actions, especially against the Black Panthers and the main antiwar groups, civilian and GI. In the case of Vietnam GI, in May ’68 J Edgar Hoover had signaled the FBI’s Chicago Field Office to put VGI’s staff under surveillance for the paper’s seditious content.

Soon FBI agents dropped by the apartment on Halsted that Jeff shared with Jim Wallihan and Bill O’Brien, hoping to be admitted for an interview. They were refused entry. In August when Jeff and Jim were staying at Joe Carey’s in San Francisco (supposedly not known to anyone), MI agents paid Joe a visit inquiring about their whereabouts. Jeff happened to be out, but Jim was in the back bedroom. However, Joe told his visitors he had ‘no idea’ where they were.

Back in Chicago the Red Squad tended to conduct its oversight more covertly. Techniques included watching a target’s residence, tailing the person, and photographing him and anyone with whom he met. The camera was a favored tool. Often covert agents would discreetly snap a picture of a person of interest; sometimes, if he was participating in a demo, the agents would pretend to be press photographers. In other instances, if the Red Squad wanted to scare or intimidate someone, an overt agent would photograph him or her conspicuously.                   

With the blessings of Boss Daley, the Red Squad became bolder and 
more arbitrary, akin to cowboys in a wide-open frontier town.

Overt agents would make their presence known as if to say, we know who you are, we know what you’re up to, and we’ve got our eye on you. Jeff’s friends and supporters of VGI received such attention on occasion. In early ’66, Earl Silbar was at Roosevelt University organizing students against the draft when his son was born. It was too late in the day to make it into the newspapers’ new births columns, yet the next morning in the student lounge a Red Squad regular came up and congratulated him on the happy event.  

Similarly another friend, Joan Lichterman, a staffer on Roosevelt’s student paper, was at a meeting of area student journalists at the University of Chicago. A visiting Berkeley student was briefing the group on the Free Speech Movement then underway at Cal-Berkeley in ’64. Several Red Squad overt agents arrived and wordlessly began snapping pictures of each of them  individually.

Progressively in the late ‘60s, with the blessings of Boss Daley, top police commanders, and major Chicago papers, the Red Squad became bolder and more arbitrary, akin to cowboys just off the trail in a wide-open frontier town. Illegal actions routinely involved undercover invasion of privacy, violation of free speech rights, and eavesdropping.

Rougher tactics included physically intimidating individual targets, assaulting peaceful demonstrations, raiding residences of both Black and white radicals, and ‘black-bag’ jobs – burglarizing offices of targeted organizations. Sometimes covert agents inside a group provocatively encouraged its members to commit acts of violence, even to shoot at cops.

Covert agents were usually young cops who could blend in with the ‘60s scene, dressing hippie-style, smoking pot, and digging the same music as their assigned subjects. Another of Jeff’s friends, Lynn Wilson, was the object of covert surveillance. She was at a political meeting. Most of the New Left gatherings were open in the spirit of participant democracy, making it easy for Red Squad agents to join the gathering undetected.

No doubt one or more covert agents were present that evening. When the discussion abruptly turned to bombing buildings, Lynn promptly got up and left – she hadn’t signed up for that. Outside, Lynn was almost immediately intercepted by uniformed officers. Obviously a covert agent inside had signaled her departure.

She was in her car, a VW Bug, the radical’s car in cop-land – patriots drove Chevys – heading home when a police cruiser cut her off. The two cops jumped out and aimed shotguns at her through the windshield, no doubt thinking she was a would-be bomber. Lynn managed to avoid being detained only after showing her state ID from the Illinois mental hospital where she worked. The guardians of the law backed off – to them that meant they were all on the same side, and they apologized profusely.

In another instance of a covert op, Jeff Segal, then a student reporter, later a national officer of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who knew Jeff earlier when he had headed SDS at Indiana University, tells a story of the Red Squad at work. The student newspaper staff at Roosevelt University believed the office phone was tapped. How did they know for sure – easy? A staffer went out to a pay phone and called Roosevelt’s student newspaper press office to get coverage of a fictitious demo to be held the next day. At the time of the phony demo, a couple of staffers went to the ‘announced’ site and watched the Red Squad arrive. 

At its outset, the Red Squad’s mission statement was relatively specific and focused, but it was revised and its operational criteria changed in the early ‘70s when it became considerably broader in scope, much more ambitious, and somewhat fuzzy in interpretation. Initially the mission was to identify and possibly prosecute individuals, groups, and organizations advocating the disruption of the democratic system through violence and criminal action.

Then the mission was augmented to specify the use of both overt and covert intelligence-gathering techniques against any person or group presenting a threat to national, state, or municipal security. As if this revised statement wasn’t ambiguous enough, the Red Squad was no longer just on the lookout for actual threats, but for any ‘potential for disruption’ as well. In an emendation, the targets for surveillance were not only members of groups representing disruptive potential, but also their financial supporters.

At street level where the Red Squad agents operated, official rhetoric all boiled down to what the cop on the ground considered subversion and sedition. As a retired agent put it more colorfully, the agents’ objectives were terrorist and seditious activities as well as those who aided and abetted perhaps with a nominal donation. Shades of the late ‘30s during the Spanish Civil War when even a small contribution to a fund for orphans on both sides later landed the contributor on a Congressional list of left-wing subversives.

Keer, a Red Squad covert agent, dressed hippie-style in ragged jeans and
banged-up sneakers, wore his hair long, and sported a Zapata moustache.

Armed with such a broad writ, the Red Squad not only went after radical groups from the Old Left and the New Left, especially SDS, but also the Chicago branches of nationwide liberal organizations such as the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, the World Council of Churches, and even the Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) and Reverend Jesse Jackson’s local anti-poverty group PUSH. Area universities and local churches were automatically suspect and fell under Red Squad purview.

Similarly, prominent individuals who supported urban reform, such as the CEO of Sears Roebuck headquartered in Chicago; the head of 1st National Bank of Chicago, and even Father Hesburgh, widely respected President of Notre Dame University, also fell under the baleful eye of Red Squad agents. In effect, anyone challenging or even questioning the status quo in Chicago warranted watching.

A typical rank and file Red Squad covert agent provided a candid account of his exploits during the ‘60s. At the outset, Pete Keer (a pseudonym), worked the streets and parks of Chicago surveilling radical demos. To pass unnoticed among the subjects he surveilled, Keer dressed hippie-style in ragged jeans and banged-up old sneakers, wore his hair long, and sported a Zapata mustache. So effective was his disguise that it occasionally fooled uniformed cops sent to break up rallies. He got clubbed a few times before he could flash his badge.

Working with a partner, Keer’s routine was to unobtrusively photograph the assembled protestors and then tail any unfamiliar face leaving the scene and jot down his license plate. Back at the Red Squad office with the plate number, the team could then check public records for the individual’s name and address, and a file would be opened on him in the squad’s voluminous directory of putative subversives. Occasionally, when the agents got bored on a repetitive surveillance stakeout, they’d duck out and simply fabricate information for the target’s file.

Another standard op was wiretapping phones of subjects of interest. Describing morning briefings when the duty sergeant would explain to the field agents – with a broad wink – that a wiretap without a court order was illegal, Keer chuckled. Simple taps involved an agent climbing a telephone pole; others required installing a tap inside a building. To gain access to the basement without attracting undue attention, Keer would don a fireman’s uniform to carry out a bogus ‘safety inspection’ of the premises.

Keer’s most notable assignment was in summer ’68 during the time of the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago. A power in the national Democratic Party, Mayor Daley was proud to host the convention, but was spooked by scuttlebutt of hundreds of thousands of hippies and radicals descending on the city to support Eugene McCarthy’s peace candidacy. The Chicago machine mobilized for the challenge, including dramatically boosting the Red Squad’s roster to 500 men – temporarily coopting cops from other divisions of the force.

By then Keer was specializing in the Chicago branch of the Yippies, the Youth International Party, and got a choice assignment tailing the national Yippie leader, Abbie Hoffman. A fellow agent got in even closer, serving as bodyguard to the unwitting Jerry Rubin, a Yippie co-founder. Although Keer and partner drove an unmarked car, they followed Hoffman everywhere for a week, were inevitably spotted, and became familiar to Abbie, who’d give them the finger, and on one occasion managed to lose the tail.

Jerry Rubin on the cover of his book, 1971

Talking with a writer about his Red Squad career a decade later, Pete Keer had no regrets. Though he never uncovered any earth-shaking plots, he felt his duties were necessary and honorable.

Red Squad agents, all plainclothes policemen, were supplemented by a corps of civilian spies. Estimates of their numbers ranged from 200+ to over 500. Many of them worked at snooping steadily while part-timers were a sizeable minority. Some were on the payroll, others pro bono. All were motivated by a strong sense of patriotic duty.

A young woman, Sheli Lulkin, was an exemplar of the civilian apparatus, but quite atypical. Intelligent, highly articulate, and an energetic natural leader, she was ideologically-driven, extremely zealous, and an over-achiever when it came to spying. A Chicago school teacher, Sheli began her clandestine career by infiltrating and informing on teachers’ organizations from the local to the national level.

Sheli Lulkin, civilian spy, Chicago Red Squad, 1964

An enterprising informer, Sheli was quite eclectic in the groups she targeted, from the American Nazis on the right to the Communist Party, Progressive Labor, the Socialist Worker’s Party, and SDS on the left. She also zeroed in on groups opposed to the Vietnam War, including the umbrella group Chicago Peace Council, as well as local affiliates of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), Women’s Strike for Peace, and CALCAV (Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam). 

Sheli saw her mission as ferreting out Communinst influence and the ‘terrorist
infrastructure’…all a vast conspiracy to overthrow the American system.

In her zeal Sheli also infiltrated anti-draft activists (CADRE),university reformers, the National University Conference, and street-level outfits agitating for tenants’ and welfare rights. She even got down to the grittiest level of ‘Rising Up Angry’, a tough group of young white migrants from Appalachia committed to working with Black and Latino street people trying to ameliorate neighborhood conditions.

Finally, she penetrated unions as well as local branches of widely respected liberal organizations – for a grand total of over 80 groups, undoubtedly the record for a Chicago civilian spy.

Sheli not only joined a wide array of groups for nefarious purposes, but given her talents, often gained influential or leadership positions in the organizations targeted. She saw her mission as ferreting out Communist influence and the ‘terrorist infrastructure’. Accordingly, in her reports to the Red Squad, she tarred everyone – liberals and radicals alike – with the same brush. As she later testified before Congress after being exposed in Chicago, all her targets were part of a vast Communist conspiracy dedicated to the violent overthrow of the American system.

One last shadowy adjunct to the Red Squad bears mentioning – the Legion of Justice, essentially an outfit of right-wing local thugs several hundred strong. Beginning in ’69, Red Squad agents used the Legion for the dirtiest jobs – all illegal, but carried out with impunity.

Equipped with crow bars, bats, tire irons, and mace, the Legionnaires pulled off burglaries of designated organizations, theft of office equipment and files, physical intimidation of targeted individuals, and outright assaults while invading premises of radical gatherings. On one occasion their outlaw activity included firebombing a car, another time shooting through the windows of an office.

During its heyday the Chicago Red Squad was largely unaccountable. Much of what the agents and their civilian minions did – until brought up short in the mid-‘70s by law suits and court orders – fell under the heading of suppressing lawful dissent – not law enforcement. As a grand jury concluded in 1975, the Red Squad “had assaulted the fundamental freedoms of speech, association, press, and religion as well as the constitutional right to privacy of hundreds of individuals….”*

However, the Red Squad’s most egregious involvement was complicity in the late ’69 police assassination of the Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, asleep in his bed. An undercover police agent serving as Hampton’s bodyguard provided the layout of his apartment and slipped him a Mickey Finn the night of the police hit.

Under the cloak of official terminology of ‘subversion and sedition’, the Red Squad and its adjuncts were actually in the business of protecting the autocratic Daley organization from liberals as well as radicals. Radicals with their ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric – largely utopian talk – were feared for their potential to embarrass the mayor and damage the city’s image with their free-style demos and rallies. Hence, they were considered off the charts – out there in the political wilderness – justifying the Red Squad’s often extralegal cowboy tactics against them.

The more sedate liberals were regarded as potential challengers to Daley’s grip on Chicago. With their advocacy of political reform and criticism of police excesses, they were viewed as natural enemies of machine politics. Thus, liberals were fair game for Red Squad infiltration, spying, and surreptitious efforts to neutralize their organizational effectiveness.

In Richard Daley’s Chicago of 1965-75, as one of his aides succinctly put it,
sanctioning the extralegal behavior of the Pete Keers, the Sheli Lulkins, and the Legionnaires of Justice was ‘Do whatever is necessary’, and,  as the head of the Red Squad later added, do it to ‘any organization that could create problems for the city or the country’.
 * R J Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America (1978), 505.


  1. Karen, is there a way to contact you? Email? Not finding one here, and I have some fascinating info about this blog.


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