Did you feel that shiver running up your spine? Then you’ve read about the Chicago Police Department’s use of sophisticated “Stingray” technology to spy on local citizens. Here in Connecticut, we’re no strangers to illegal police surveillance.
A small non-profit outfit called the “Lucy Parsons Labs” has taken on this abuse of power and is making some progress. These digital free speech advocates have challenged the Chicago PD on its practice of using devices that capture the wireless communications between individuals, including #Black Lives Matter activists. A judge has ordered the police to produce documents on their spying practices.
The real Lucy Parsons experienced police surveillance first hand. She was a feminist and labor activist, organizing among Chicago’s working class, who spoke to a New Haven crowd on October 30, 1886. Parsons was on a cross-country tour to build support for her husband Albert Parsons and other activists (known as the Haymarket Martyrs) who were on trial for a bombing they had not committed.
Two New Haven police detectives were in the audience at the Lincoln Rink, monitoring Parsons’ speech. When one of them got up to leave, the crowd booed.
Parsons responded to the police presence: “You may have expected me to belch forth great flames of dynamite and stand before you with bombs in my hands,” she declared. “If you are disappointed, you have only the capitalist press to thank for it.”
Police spying in Connecticut did not stop with Lucy Parsons; it only got more sophisticated. In January, 1977 a New Haven newspaper exposed a massive political wiretap operation. At least 3,000 residents had their telephones tapped. New Haven Police set up the operation but argued the FBI had okayed it. The wiretap targets sued and in June, 1984 a settlement awarded almost $2 million to 1,238 people.
Connecticut’s telephone company SNET paid out an additional $150,000 to the plaintiffs. The phone company had also been regularly handing over individuals’ call records to the FBI, for use in the bureau’s illegal COINTELPRO spying and disruption program.
It wasn’t just the police and FBI that violated our constitutional privacy rights. The U.S. Army’s 108th Military Intelligence group, which operated from 1946 to 1972, kept a secret office in Hartford. Plainclothes Army spies identified as many anti-war and civil rights activists as they could find. Each person was labeled with a number. The data included details on a subject’s sex life or financial status. That information was sent to military computers in Virginia and Maryland. All of it was shared with the FBI and the CIA.
Even as citizen groups continue to uncover and organize against government surveillance, there are still those who find new ways to abuse the public trust. Our job is vigilance, even if police spying isn’t an election year issue.
As Edward Snowden has said: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.