In the never-ending fight against the man—whoever the man might be—it’s rare to get a victory. So I’m happy to tell you about Bob Quellos’s great achievement: he got the Chicago Police Department to admit it had been spying on him.
OK, that may not sound like a triumph. But around here we’ll take what we can get.
Quellos’s quest goes back to March, when my colleague Mick Dumke and I wrote an article revealing that since 2009 the CPD had spied on citizens during at least six undercover investigations.
Four of the investigations were launched during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term, while the others came under former mayor Richard Daley.
Investigators received permission from the police brass to engage in a range of spying techniques, including tapping phones, sifting through garbage, and infiltrating protest groups with undercover cops posing as activists.
From the records we acquired, it was clear that cops had spied on the Occupy and NATO protest movements. But the reports were heavily redacted, blacking out details about the other targets.
So Mick and I played detective, trying to determine the targets by looking to see what was happening around town at the times the police were spying.
For instance, on March 14, 2009, police launched an “intelligence gathering” operation for one month. That was around the time the International Olympic Committee sent a delegation to Chicago to evaluate Daley’s proposal to host the 2016 games.
Putting two and two together, we guessed the police were spying on opponents of Daley’s bid.
That’s where Quellos, a south-side activist, enters the story. Cofounder of No Games Chicago, he’s long suspected police were spying on his group—and not always discreetly.
“I remember a meeting where two men dropped in,” he recalls. “They were wearing white tennis shoes and blue jeans and had short hair. They just looked like undercover cops.”
That meeting was uneventful. “I introduced myself and asked if they wanted to get involved,” Quellos says. “After that I never saw them again.”
After reading our article, Quellos was even more convinced the police had launched an undercover operation similar to the ones against the Occupy and NATO protesters.
On March 20 he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Police Department, seeking all files for “Bob Quellos” and “No Games Chicago.”
A few weeks later, the police sent him an e-mail informing him they had no files relating to investigations of either party.
Persistent fellow that he is, Quellos filed a second request, asking only for files related to No Games.
Soon after he got a call from a department FOIA officer. “He asked if this was about the Olympics,” Quellos says. “I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘We have those files in a different room.’ He said the police had First Amendment worksheets on us.”
That’s what police call the forms they have to fill out when they’re seeking approval from the department’s top lawyer to open an undercover investigation into a group exercising its First Amendment-protected rights to free speech.
Let’s pause to consider that irony. The police name this type of investigation after the constitutional amendment that’s supposed to protect citizens from the government intruding on their rights.
I swear I didn’t get this out of a George Orwell novel.
Well, you know how it goes with FOIA requests. Days dragged into weeks, then months.
Finally, in July, a different FOIA officer told Quellos that the department would be sending him a packet of information any day.
“She warned me that most of the reports would be redacted,” says Quellos. “I was expecting one of those things where you have page after page of blacked-out paragraphs.”
But then the FOIA officer called back to say the Police Department’s lawyers had decided that too much information had been redacted from the reports she was about to send to Quellos.
So there would be a further delay while the department unredacted the redactions—which may be a first in the annals of FOIA requests.
On August 6 he actually received the files. Sure enough, the cops spied on No Games in 2009 “to ensure that there are no acts of civil disobedience planned during the April visit of the International Olympic Committee,” as the police report reads.
The police department’s lawyer authorized “monitoring of websites, collection of pamphlets, trash covers and the use of undercover officers to attend public meetings.”
The police justified the undercover surveillance on the grounds that “groups and individuals are becoming increasingly hesitant to post detailed information on websites due to the fact that they may be monitored by law enforcement.”
Here’s more irony: Chicago’s Olympic bid was also opposed by a number of police officers outraged that Mayor Daley would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the games while claiming the city was too broke to give them a new contract.
On April 3, 2009—right around the time undercover cops were spying on the No Games activists—about 1,000 police and their supporters marched on City Hall, chanting “No contract, no Olympics!”
I’ve always felt police opposition helped convince the IOC not to give the games to Chicago. If so, thank you, men and women in blue. Drinks are on me!
By the way, if any of the participants in that City Hall protest wonder why he or she never got a deserved promotion to sergeant, feel free to file a FOIA request to see if the department was spying on you.
For his part, Quellos says he’s still not satisfied with the material the police sent him.
“They didn’t include any field reports,” he says. “I have to believe that the undercover investigators wrote some field reports.”
He says he’s going to appeal to the state’s attorney general, demanding that the police turn over the field reports, if they in fact exist.
Stay strong, Mr. Quellos. No one said it was easy to fight the man. v