Traditionally this space in a magazine is used by the publisher to hype the contents of the current issue – not a practice that we have regularly followed here at Downtown Newsmagazine. We figure there are two index pages to guide readers to what interests them so I use precious space to address what I view as critical issues of the day.
That said, I am going to take some space to urge readers to take the time to read the longform piece by Stacy Gittleman in this issue on the use of drones by local police departments. In our part of Oakland County and in neighboring communities, small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) are being utilized as the new tool for local law enforcement, including by Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard's department. With one exception, the local departments have policies governing the use of drones. After you check this out, then take a few minutes to read our editorial opinion (Endnote) on page 70 about drone use and the need for transparency when it comes to the rules of the game that local law enforcement will be following.
It's an important issue, one that will require ongoing consideration as technology in law enforcement continues to evolve, increasing even more the opportunities for loss of privacy if not handled correctly.
This longform topic was suggested by me months ago in line with what we do here – attempt to keep track of local government activities. I often tell people that we are fortunate to have one of the more educated populations in the state, so we know our publication in general, along with our longform storytelling, gets read. But we also know that our local residents are busy, therefore we take on the role of providers of what we think is essential to know.
Although we have a general sense of trust when it comes to locally elected and appointed officials, it's important to periodically double check in on issues such as this. We can never just be bystanders when it comes to protecting the freedoms we just assume will always be there.
I will purposely avoid getting lost in the weeds focusing on how in the current contest for president we have the presumed or likely GOP standard bearer talking about taking revenge against his political foes – weaponizing the justice department and “hunting” down and removing “vermin” that include Communists, those on the left and members of the media. Straight out of the playbooks of autocrats.
Can't happen here? Take a look at what history should teach us about our own state and local governments dating all the way back to the late 1800s.
Right here in Michigan, with misdirected people in office, aided by poor policies/laws or complete lack of the same, government ran amuck when it came to monitoring its citizens. Clearly intended to have a chilling effect on the right of redress.
Surveilling citizens on a broad basis – in the U.S. and Europe – really came into vogue in the late 1800s with the push by the labor movement to organize workers at the start of the Industrial Revolution to combat unsafe and inhumane working conditions. The unionization efforts many times involved physical confrontations, highlighted by what is known as the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, a labor protest event during which someone threw a bomb at police. Anti-organized labor sentiment lead to spy units, if you will, in most major cities in the country.
Then we had the first Red (Communist) scare in the 1920s and the second Red scare period of the 1940-1950s, most notable for the formation in 1933 of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the reign of terror until 1954, marshaled by Senate member Joseph R. McCarthy.
It was during this time period (1940) that the city of Detroit formed what was referred to as the Criminal Intelligence Bureau (Subversive Detail). The state of Michigan carried out its citizen surveillance under a 1931 law that was so onerous that it provided that persons displaying a red flag would be guilty of a felony and have their names automatically added to the files. State lawmakers enacted legislation in 1950 requiring the state police to keep records on persons and groups advocating “subversive” activities. So what was dubbed the Red Squad was off to the races with an initial budget of $750,000 that would later balloon to multiple millions.
State police (Subversive Activities Unit) and local police Red Squads were particularly active during what was known as the Vietnam War Era, with which I am most familiar, having spent a couple of years as a counselor at the East Lansing Draft Information Center. Red Squad units were charged with surveilling “political enemies” of the establishment, which included civil rights leaders, Black Power groups, women's rights activists, ethnic groups and, of course, anti-war activists.
The Michigan State Police unit of 29 members was disbanded in 1974 and reportedly had 30,000-50,000 reports on citizens. Files at the Detroit police Subversive Detail numbered between 50,000-100,000. When a judge in 1984 finally ordered the elimination of Red Squad records, it is estimated that the names of 1.5 million Michigan citizens were in one file or another, often supplemented by a counter intelligence program of the FBI.
The courts in 1976 ruled the surveillance practice, as well as the two laws under which they took place, as unconstitutional.
Can't happen here? Think again.
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Here is the last post of Downtown Newsmagazine on X from a couple of weeks ago:
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