It's April 1968, and hundreds of New Left kids have gathered in the Civic Center plaza. Yippies, hippies, and flower children have come to sneak a toke, catch some rays, and protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1 PM, clouds of marijuana smoke drift past the Picasso dragon lady. Frisbees soar over Dearborn Street.
Around 2:15, the police supervisor on the scene decides he's had enough and signals a battalion of grim-faced patrolmen to break up the crowd. With nightsticks in their hands and mace canisters on their belts, the cops band into 25-man wedge formations to divide and disperse the demonstrators.
But their military precision doesn't last long. Most protestors simply ignore the officers' bullhorned orders. Others sit defiantly on the concrete chanting obscenities.
Soon the first long-haired protestor is picked up, thrown into a paddy wagon, and hauled off to headquarters for booking. Someone at the back of the crowd yell "pig." A punch is thrown. A piece of glass shatters on a policeman's blue riot helmet … and the whole Civic Center goes up for grabs.
At first the cops are too busy getting their licks in to notice the two young "hippies" across the street. Hands in his pockets, the shorter man leans against a shop window, casually watching the riot while his partner photographs the scene. Both men wear longish hair, mustaches, and faded blue jeans. In their pockets, both carry spiral notebooks filled with the license plate numbers of every parked car in the immediate vicinity.
By 2:35, 30 or 40 demonstrators have been arrested on disorderly conduct or assault charges. The photographer is rewinding his third roll of film when a pair of Area One task force officers happen to glance across Dearborn Street.
"Get the camera!" Screaming, they charge through the traffic. Before he can say a word, the "hippie's" Nikon lies in ruins on the sidewalk.
But the shell-socked patrolmen still aren't satisfied. Muttering, "What were you going to do with the pictures, wise guy—send them to Russia?" They shove the two men into a doorway and begin beating them with their clubs.
The camera-owner falls to his knees. Before he joins him, his buddy desperately grabs for one of the cop's wooden sticks.
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute," he gasps. Fumbling in his pocket, he pulls out a black billfold and flips it open to display the silver star inside.
"You assholes," he snarls. "We're on your side. I'm investigator Peter Keer, intelligence division."
Working demonstrations in the 60s was risky. Your fellow officers didn't know who you were so they treated you like an average citizen—like everybody else." Pete Keer shakes his head, remembering his Red Squad adventures of ten years ago.
"At rallies me and my partner would hang back on the edges of the crowd watching who was doing what," he continues. "We were told to look for closet hippies, people who held responsible jobs during the week and ran with longhairs on the weekends.
"If one of us spotted a guy who fit the bill, we'd take his picture, tail him to his car, and copy down his license plate number. Back at the office, the numbers would be fed through he department's central computer to get the owners' names, addresses, arrest records, and more. All that stuff was added to our files."
"Good" information from a "bad" source—the cops call it the fruit of the poison tree. On November 10, 1975, a Cook County grand jury reported that members of the Chicago Police Department's security section had engaged in illegal wiretapping, committed burglary, and spied on and disrupted peaceful community groups "apparently for political reasons."
After hearing from 71 witnesses and studying more than 5,000 pages of subpoenaed documents, the horrified jurors issued a report rather than a string of indictments. They explained that prosecuting a few disjointed criminal cases would shift public attention from the larger implications of the Police Department's intelligence gathering abuses. Besides, the jurors wrote, the CPD's "inexplicable" destruction of security section records had left them with only enough evidence to indict "minor figures" who had clearly followed orders from above.
Pete Keer was one such "minor" police spy figure, and, providing that his identity is protected, he's willing to talk about his experiences in the subversive unit. After almost 15 years on the force without promotion, he figures he doesn't have much to lose. (His name and certain details have been changed.)
Ten years after the Democratic Convention, the thirtyish detective looks more like a shoe salesman than a police spy. Currently assigned as an investigator in a high crime area, he's exchanged his sneakers and ragged blue jeans for black oxfords and polyester suits. These days he wears his hair short. His shoes are spit-shined. His mustache is neatly trimmed.
At our first meeting, the soft-spoken cop minimized his role in the intelligence division, dismissing the Red Squad as a media invention. But as he talked, it became clear that his stint in the division's "subversive unit" had left its scars.
Three years after the grand jury investigation, Pete Keer still doesn't trust his telephone. He agreed to be interviewed only at odd hours in all-night coffee shops where the Muzak muffled the conversation. As he hung up his plaid sport coat, Keer checked out every table, looking for old enemies or unfriendly policemen. Satisfied that none of "them" were present, he'd sit down—but never with his back to the door.
Slowly, over countless cups of tea, the little detective describes his covert exploits to an outsider for the first time.
Keer's Red Squad adventures began in the early 60s, when he was transferred to the Bureau of Inspectional Services, an elite branch of the Police Department that includes the vice control, internal affairs, and intelligence divisions. In those days BIS assignments were considered "soft" as well as prestigious. They were almost impossible to get.
"When I came on the only way into one of those outfits was through the back door," he says. "You had to have clout … . I never did, but for once in my life I got lucky.
"A guy I used to have coffee with was very 'heavy.' One day he asked me if I'd like to work vice. I said sure, not really thinking he could do me any good."
The investigator shakes his head wearily. "The next thing I knew I was down there —no test, no interview … . I never even filled out a PAR [personnel action request] form"
Assigned to a specialized vice control unit, Keer worked "just down the hall" from intelligence headquarters. Whenever a subversive unit supervisor needed extra manpower or unknown faces, he "borrowed" the young detective and his partners.
"Usually we were detailed to attend big radical meetings, tail an out-of-towner, or back up another surveillance team," explains Keer. "At that time subversive was little more than a dumping ground. They had about 50 targets, most of whom knew they were being watched. By slipping in new men, the bosses hoped that the unit would be more effective.
"Actually, most of what we did was bullshit," he says. "Say you were assigned to a guy who supposedly advocated communism, some mope who worked in a factory 40 hours a week. Once you got his routine down, there was no way you'd be outside that factory everyday. Me and my partner would take off, do whatever and pick him up later.
"We had to give headquarters something to show we were on the job so we fabricated things. I might report that my target had lunch with the governor's fourth district manager at such and such a restaurant. Now, maybe both men were there but didn't talk or even sit near each other. I just twisted the facts a little to make it seem as if there was a meeting."
Grinning, Keer cuts a lemon wedge into thirds and squeezes each slice into his tea. "No one ever tried to verify our reports," he continues. How could a boss check on something as intangible as someone eating in a certain restaurant?"
The relaxed mood in the intelligence division changed drastically in the mid-60s, explains Keer. With anti-war sentiment growing and ghetto riots erupting in major cities throughout the country, subversive unit officers began taking their assignments more seriously. Gradually, the unit was beefed up with additional men, cars, and surveillance equipment.
A young, long-haired cop who was relatively unknown to the radical left movement, Keer found himself working with the Red Squad for months at a time. By the late 60s, he claims that Chicago "had its own little Watergate going."
"You have to understand that in those days the higher-ups honestly believed that a mad bomber lurked under every rock." H snorts. "The big bosses at City Hall and 11th and State were paper men who had no contact with the street … . They believed what they saw on television.
"Daley was especially paranoid. The newspaper stories about rioting in Newark and Detroit really spooked him. He was willing to go to any lengths to see that it didn't happen here."
According to the former agent, the prevailing attitude at City Hall was summed up for subversive unit cops in three unofficial words: "Do whatever's necessary."
"Most of our actions were unofficial," he explains. "Nobody ever came out and told us to violate the law. Instead, word would be passed down through the ranks. At a briefing your sergeant might say, 'The best investigative aid is a wiretap. But don't use them because they're illegal … . Of course we can't get anything done without them.'"
Keer scowls. "What he meant was, 'Cover your own ass. Use them but don't get caught.'"
In 1975 the Cook County grand jury reported that some subpoenaed intelligence files contained "accounts of conversations which, because of their nature, could only have been acquired through illegal eavesdropping." In the hopes of pinpointing specific abuses, jurors ordered the intelligence division's security section to produce its equipment log for inspection.
Sorry, Police Department attorneys replies, but the log no longer exists. Up until 1973, all electronics records were "routinely destroyed."
Pete Keer remembers the electronics log. But as a part-time field agent, he had little access to the sophisticated surveillance equipment that was stored in an old projection booth next to the division commander's office. So Keer and his partners used their imaginations. With a little help from their buddies in the security section, they purchased and constructed their own listening devices.
"It's easy to install a simple wiretap," gloats the former Red Squad cop. "All you need is wire, a little rheostate starter [voice activator], and a portable tape recorder. To set up a unit, we traced our target's phone line to a pole down the street, climbed it and plugged into the metal juncture box on top.
"From there you could lead to a nearby car or basement. If climbing up and down the pole to change tapes wasn't a problem, we left the recorder right inside the phone box."
Installing more sophisticated bugs required more ingenuity. According to the little detective, his cohorts commandeered all types of vehicles and disguises to aid in their "investigations." Police officers in firemen's uniforms conducted "safety inspections" to get to telephone boards in apartment building basements. On the Gold Coast, where there are no poles, wire men in Streets and Sanitation trucks climbed down sewers to plug into phone lines under the streets.
How did Bell Telephone officials feel about Chicago policemen tampering with their equipment?
"We wiretapped with the phone company's knowledge, not necessarily their cooperation," the agent replies. "If a line man came across a bug, he'd usually take it off and throw it away. There was a time when some guys would actually return them. I guess they felt that if the police were monitoring someone's phone, they must have a justifiable reason."
Ten years alter, Peter Keer isn't so sure. "I never uncovered any plots to overthrow the world if that's what you mean." He shrugs. "We did find out a lot of interesting things, soap opera stuff about people's sex lives."
"You should have heard the tapes of the organized crime guys had of Sam Giancana and his girlfriend at that motel out near O'Hare airport. [The intelligence division's OC unit had bugged their room.] "They were hilarious," Keer snickers. "The agents kept them around for a long time—like a museum exhibit."
Glancing nervously around the deserted restaurant, he adds, "But I'm sure they've gotten rid of those recordings by now—with all the trouble they've had. Since the early 70s most of the old wire men have been transferred and buried in units throughout the city. Everyone's been told to cool it. The guys who are left down there are very scared people."
In October 1967, Mayor Richard Daley proudly announced that the Democratic National Convention would be held in Chicago. Five months later, before the parade sites and the victory dinner menus were chosen, the radical Youth International Party made some announcements of their own.
During convention week the Yippies intended to stage a "real circus" in Grant Park to satirize the "political circus" that would be going on at the Amphitheatre. From August 25 to 30, 100,000 to 500,00 turned-on kids would "groove" to rock bands, drop LSD, and burn their draft cards, YIP organizers promised.
That spring Chicago policemen were assigned to attend anti-war rallies. Photographing demonstrators and copying their license plates, they added countless new names to intelligence files.
While "overt" agents developed their photographic skills, "covert" young cops infiltrated the underground. Pete Keer worked where he was needed. In mid-April he attended one of the first open Yippie meetings in a third-floor apartment on the 2100 block of Clark Street.
About 20 Yippies were there to discuss strategy for a May Mother's Day march. According to the Daily News, the YIP members planned to march from North Avenue beach to the Chicago (18th district) police station, where they would present bewildered cops with apple pies.
"They all sat around a flashing light, talking, drinking, and blowing pot," Keer remembers. "The place was a real crash pad with weird black light posters and bare mattresses on the floor. No one even questioned me when I wandered in."
Drinking wine and listening closely to the conversation, Keer partied with the Yippies for almost an hour. "Finally it hit me that the best way to make [identify] everyone there was to raid the place. So I slipped out and called my co-workers at the 18th district."
Later that night, uniformed patrolmen knocked on the apartment door with a search warrant and seized $150 worth of marijuana and 15 hits of LSD. The cops arrested 13 men for disorderly conduct. Two were additionally charged with resisting arrest. Seven women at the party were booked for being inmates of a disorderly house. The next morning local newspapers would describe the incident as a simple narcotics raid.
When the last person had been charged, Pete Keer drove back to the subversive unit command post with a big smile on his face. In his notebook were dozen so new names to add to division files. After typing his report, he changed out of his "hippie" clothes, stopped for a beer with his buddies, and then headed for home.
"I never told my wife what I was doing," he murmurs. "Maybe that's because deep down I didn't feel like a spy. I think all policemen believe that they're on the side of the Lone Ranger, even when they're harassing Abbie Hoffman."
Pausing, the ex-agent repeats something he's probably said to himself a thousand times. "Basically, we were working for an honorable reason. It may have become distorted somewhere down the line but the original concept was right."
As the convention date neared, hostilities between City Hall and the anti-war forces flared almost daily. In late August, U.S. District Court Judge William Lynch refused to reverse Mayor Daley's decision forbidding demonstrators to sleep in the parks. The Yippies retaliated with a combination of insults and surrealistic mischief.
On August 17, a YIP spokesman announced the presidential candidacy of "Pigasus," a 150-pound black and white pig. A few days later another flower child casually suggested dumping LSD in the water system and a horrified Mayor Daley dispatched 24-hour police guards to every pumping and filtration station in the city.
Two weeks before and one week after the Democratic Convention, the Red Squad employed operation "nuisance factor." All available officers from surrounding units were detailed to 12-hour shifts following Yippies, priests, and professors—anyone with influence who opposed the Vietnam war, says the ex-Red Squad cop. In addition to the Red Squad's 150 "regular targets," agents watched 60 to 70 out-of-towners on a 24-hour basis.
For almost a month, Peter Keer and his partners took unmarked squad cars home with them to save traveling time. Every morning they radioed their base at Navy Pier, found the team who'd "sat on" their target all night, and relieved them.
Keer's first target was Abe Peck, local liaison for the New York Yippies and editor of the Chicago Seed, an underground weekly. (After a year on the west coast as a Rolling Stone editor, Peck returned to Chicago and currently writes for the Sun-Times.)
"I'm sure Peck didn't like being followed but he made a joke out of it," says Keer. At stoplights, he'd turn around in his seat and wave to us.
"His friend Abbie Hoffman was a different story," Keer says, frowning and shaking his head. "That guy was a psycho, a grubby lowlifer in dirty socks who always tried to bribe us with his girlfriend. She was a lovely Indian-type girl. Whenever he spotted us, he'd drag her over to the car and mutter, 'Why don't you take Running Water to a motel and fuck her instead of fucking with us?'"
On a sunny morning in the middle of convention week, Abe Peck is driving south down Lincoln Avenue with two Red Squad cops behind him. Parking on Wells Street, the Yippie honcho strolls over to the Laugh-Inn to meet Abbie Hoffman for breakfast.
The YIP leaders sat at the counter. The cops take a seat near the door. Studiously avoiding direct eye contact, Keer and his partner stare holes through the menu.
But Hoffman doesn't appreciate the niceties of surveillance work. Instead, he opts for the direct approach. Putting his sandaled feet up on the next stool, he turns around and gives the cops the finger.
By 10 AM breakfast is over and the Yippies begin their busy schedule. With their police tail in tow, they stop at the Seed office, at several friends' apartments, and finally at Lincoln Park.
Hundreds of kids work out on the park grass, practicing judo and karate. Arms linked, chanting, "Wash-oi, wash-oi," a mob of snake dancers marches across a baseball diamond practicing a Japanese martial arts maneuver. Near the lagoon, other longhairs sunbathe and strum guitars.
"Lincoln Park was always crawling with agents: military intelligence, feds, cops, you name it," says Peter Keer. "Whenever Peck, Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and company got together in the park, so did all the guys who were tailing them. It was like a big picnic or a baseball game.
"Everyone would stand around bull-shitting back and forth. The targets taunted us with remarks like 'You must be more important. Your cops are better looking,' or 'Don't they think I'm as dangerous? Home come there's an older car following me?'"
That afternoon the two Yippie leaders didn't stop to talk. Cutting around the Lincoln Park lagoon, they headed toward the beach. Keer and his partner followed about 40 yards behind. "Leaving the car was kind of chancy," he remembers. "In those days coppers didn't use mobile radios. Our only unit was in the squad.
"But we weren't too worried about losing Peck in the park. Where could he go?" The detective's eyes gleam. "Well, when he and Hoffman reached Lake Shore Drive, they broke into a trot. Before we knew it, they ran across eight lanes of traffic and jumped into a van that was waiting in the emergency outlet across the road. Then away they went, northbound on the drive — waving at us."
Keer chuckles. "I knew we'd be reprimanded but at the time I didn't care. I thought they were pretty ingenious."
Keer's next target was Ralph Abernathy, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Abernathy made it easy for us. He was staying at Robert's Motel out south. Every morning his chauffeur strolled over to the car and handed me a written itinerary of the Reverend's day, like he thought we were body guards or something."
Keer sighs. "On August 28, the night of all the trouble outside the Conrad Hilton, that's exactly what we were. My partners and I helped Abernathy get his mule train off Michigan Avenue and out of the mob. You know the media called what happened out there a police riot. That's utter nonsense. Except for a few minor incidents, I think we were very effective."
Evidently, the mayor thought so too. 1968 was the first year Chicago Police officers were paid overtime. "Daley felt we did such a good job keeping the lid on that everyone got checks for 60 extra hours," Keer says. "Working the convention was fun. You spent your day outside in the parks, at the Civic Center, or on Michigan Avenue. Every time the hippies congregated, we'd be there.
"Did any of our targets complain? … They didn't say anything to me. When the cops are on you, who are you going to complain to?"
Four years alter many Red Squad targets did complain—to the federal courts. On November 13, 1974, the Alliance to End Repression/Citizens Alert Coalition filed a $400,000 damage suit on behalf of 15 organizations, 4 churches, and 18 individuals, charging that the Chicago Police Department had violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.
On November 1976, U.S. District Court Judge Alfred Y. Kirkland admitted in effect that he, himself, didn't trust the cops not to put aside their old tricks; he issued an injunction to prevent intelligence agents from infiltrating Alliance lawyers who were preparing the case to halt police spying.
This summer, Kirkland ordered to former Red Squad cops to pay escalating daily fines until they disclosed whether they burglarized political and peace groups. So far, no one is talking.
"Look, Nixon did it [used domestic spies]," Pete Keer grumbles. "I bet every president before him did too … . Fear motivates these guys, plus an extreme sense of responsibility that makes them pull out all the stops.
"No matter what happens with the Alliance suit, the intelligence division will never be the same," he continues. "The political climate has changed. Bilandic doesn't have Daley's gut instincts to stay on top and keep his enemies in line."
Keer stares out the coffee shop window, watching the sun rise. "I still think it's necessary to keep an eye on anyone who can be a violent threat to society above and beyond that of the average criminal," he says. "The Nazis and the FALN should be bugged. But someone has to make that judgment, and more often than not some incompetent makes the wrong decision.
"Looking back, I don't regret what I've done. I joined the Police Department because I wanted a job that would be different every day, something I wouldn't mind waking up to."
The little detective gulps down the last of his tea. Smiling grimly, he mutters, "I guess you could say I got what I asked for."