FBI Reports Document Spying on Chicago Protests

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The FBI worked with Chicago police to collect intelligence on Occupy Chicago and the protests during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit there in May 2012, according to bureau documents recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The reports, known as “Suspicious Activity Reports,” were made available in December 2014, following a FOIA request made more than two years earlier. They are the bureau’s compilations of data about an area of interest from multiple sources, including state and local officials. The documents highlight two key issues: the FBI’s concern about possible anarchist-related violence around the NATO summit, and the blurring of the line protecting First Amendment activity from law-enforcement surveillance.

“The concern is that local officials are not really trained to discern between real threats and people who are simply engaged in legitimate First Amendment activity,” says Ed Yohnka, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

The first document, from March 2012, details an interview conducted with an individual who was arrested in the suburb of Naperville after “causing a disturbance” on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska.  According to the document, the unnamed individual said he would be returning to Chicago to “participate in Occupy Chicago and for the NATO summit.” The individual said he was going to meet “other like minded anarchists” to protest an eviction, but “refused to elaborate about who he was meeting in Lincoln and if he was planning to be involved in criminal activity.” According to the document, he then said he had no plans to return to Chicago for the NATO summit. The “accomplishment information” at the bottom of the document is classified as “positive terrorism,” which likely means the interview confirmed previous allegations, though it is unclear what these allegations were. (Twenty-seven of the document’s 30 pages were redacted.) The agent who wrote it informed the FBI’s Omaha office that the subject intended to travel to Lincoln.

The second document is a report of an agent’s interview with a prisoner at the Cook County jail in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2011, for the purposes of “contact and espionage” and “liaison with other agency.” The individual in question was a homeless drifter who had been arrested, according to the report, for “violently assaulting” a police officer during an Occupy Chicago protest. This report mentions “anarchism” several times: It notes that the individual was not a member of any anarchist groups, and was not invited “to participate in any illegal activity related to anarchist extremism” during his time with Occupy Chicago. (In fact, he told his interrogator he thought anarchism was “a sin” and that he regretted attacking the officer, saying his psychiatric problems had caused the outburst.)

It evokes civil-liberties advocates’ key concerns about how the FBI dealt with the Occupy movement. It cautioned that the individual being questioned was taking part in protected First Amendment activity. However, it added, “it is possible that protected activity could invite a violent or otherwise incendiary reaction.” That was the justification for questioning the prisoner about his political beliefs and activities, including whether he had been invited to any meetings related to the forthcoming G-8 and NATO summits.

Concerns about possible property destruction by Black Bloc protesters were a significant part of media reports leading up to the NATO summit. These concerns fueled tension before the conference and were used to justify Chicago’s purchase of expensive crowd-control equipment, including a sound cannon and $1 million in riot gear. The third document is titled “Anarchist advocates adopting the St. Paul principles for Occupy Chicago.” The St. Paul Principles were a set of four principles developed in advance of the protests at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2008. The key concept is a “diversity of tactics,” meaning that different protesters are free to engage in different tactics, which could include anything from sit-ins to damaging commercial property. From the FBI’s Chicago Division in 2011, it states that “an individual involved in anarchist activity in Chicago” had proposed adopting the four principles “as a guide for the conduct of Occupy Chicago participants.” The tracking of individuals who may come into contact with local police or the FBI because of concerns related to their political activity could mean they get a permanent FBI file and are continually viewed with suspicion, says Yohnka. Cases of First Amendment activity, he says, “are not treated differently in terms of storage, and so there is a ‘file’ created for those who’ve done nothing wrong.”



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