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THE WATCHDOGS: Chicago police monitored black protesters post-Ferguson

Last fall, as a grand jury investigated the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Chicago Police Department began monitoring African-American groups and activists in Chicago, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

The police tracked protesters’ posts on social media and kept a log of demonstrations around Chicago, some with no connection to Ferguson.

That log included a meeting of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a protest calling for raising the minimum wage and a “Fur Free” march on Michigan Avenue.

The investigation began amid nationwide protests over Ferguson and police tactics. Last Nov. 5, demonstrators in Chicago marched outside police headquarters for justice in the death of Rekia Boyd, killed when an off-duty detective fired five shots during a dispute with a group outside his West Side home in 2012.

On Nov. 6, the police say an informant told them protesters planned another demonstration if the Ferguson grand jury “comes down as favorable to police,” according to an internal police report. The informant reportedly was “extremely worried” that “less peaceful” groups would take over the event.

Police lawyers authorized the investigation the next day. A worksheet laying out the scope of the inquiry named four groups it said had attended violent Ferguson protests: the Black Panther Party; the Black Rebels, a self-described “urban militia”; the Revolution Club, which had protested police tactics; and Anonymous, a collection of anti-surveillance activists who’ve hacked government and corporate websites.

On Nov. 24, the Ferguson grand jury announced it wouldn’t indict police officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, and hundreds of protesters marched downtown, briefly closing Lake Shore Drive.

The police expanded the investigation to include more than three dozen organizations and social media groups, including: We Charge Genocide, which had organized the protest outside police headquarters; Occupy Chicago, which undercover officers infiltrated in 2011 and 2012; and Boyd relatives and supporters.

Authorities compiled a log of more than 40 protests, marches and vigils in the weeks following the grand jury decision in Ferguson — including Jackson’s Nov. 29 weekly meeting at Rainbow PUSH headquarters on the South Side.

“There is no basis for having Rainbow PUSH on such a list,” said Jackson, who said the operation called to mind the department’s infamous Red Squad, which infiltrated civil rights groups in the 1960s and 1970s. “Spying on our organization is insulting and unnecessary.”

The chief spokesman for the police noted that some protests in Ferguson had turned violent and that protests in Chicago often interrupted traffic.

“We have lawyers working side by side with police officers making sure people’s rights are protected,” spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

The post-Ferguson operation lasted two months and was closed last January, according to Guglielmi. Last month, though, the department refused to disclose details of the inquiry, saying it was still “pending.”

Guglielmi wouldn’t say whether the police are currently conducting surveillance on any protesters. “We don’t talk about open investigations,” he said.

The Sun-Times reported last month that in recent years the police department has routinely spied on and infiltrated groups including labor unions, the Occupy movement and anti-NATO Summit demonstrators. In each case, the department’s chief attorney authorized using undercover officers to watch or infiltrate the demonstrators, according to police records.

The worksheet authorizing the intelligence-gathering into African-American groups that began last November doesn’t say anything regarding the use of undercover cops.

“I do not believe that activity was happening in that investigation,” Guglielmi said.

The department collected the information at the city’s Crime Prevention Information Center, where the police gather and analyze intelligence alongside agents from the FBI and the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Department lawyers allowed police at the center to conduct what they call “open-source” intelligence-gathering, scraping online data.

Guglielmi said the police were gathering publicly available information.

“We’re not the NSA,” he said. “We’re not the CIA.”

The police records don’t show whether federal authorities — who’d participated in investigations of protest groups before the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago — were involved in the investigation last November.

“All the documentation I’ve reviewed, the only individuals who participated in this were the CPD,” said Guglielmi.

Special Agent Joan Hyde, an FBI spokeswoman, said: “The FBI works collaboratively with our law enforcement partners at all levels developing intelligence to further our efforts to combat violent crime and protect our communities from threats.”

Adam Schwartz, an American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois lawyer, said the police should investigate protesters only given “a reasonable suspicion of a crime. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be using any of these investigative techniques.”