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Activists Call Police Spying at Heartland Cafe 'Laughable,' 'Disturbing'

By Benjamin Woodard | January 28, 2014 8:00am
 The Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood Ave.
The Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood Ave.
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ROGERS PARK — Activists who frequent the Heartland Cafe — to dine and to organize — said they were shocked and saddened to learn that undercover Chicago police officers had monitored patrons' conversations as part of an undercover surveillance operation to thwart violent protests during the 2012 NATO summit.

The spying revelations came about as undercover officer Nadia Chikko was cross-examined last week by defense attorney Michael Deutsch during the trial of the NATO 3 — Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Betterly — who are facing terrorism charges.

They were arrested before the NATO summit after authorities said they caught them with four homemade fire bombs.

"I think it’s appalling that a city, with so many murders that year, that they would squander resources on what was quite obviously a political vendetta," said Jim Ginderske, a member of Occupy Rogers Park, a group that holds meetings at the Heartland Cafe.

Since its inception, the cafe has been a political hub for the city's progressive leaders and grass-roots organizers. In 2004, then-Senate hopeful Barack Obama visited the cafe.

But the Heartland, at 7000 N. Glenwood Ave., is also a quiet neighborhood eatery known for its relaxed atmosphere, which left some activists — and the cafe's founders — disturbed that Chicago police may have been eavesdropping on their conversations.

"This is a particularly laughable case. If they got us on tape, they probably got us talking about giant puppets and LED displays," said Kelly Hayes, an Occupy member who planned at the cafe peaceful NATO protests using props and light-up signs.

Heartland co-founder Katy Hogan said all kinds of people over the years have used the Heartland as a town hall for progressive ideas.

"As activists, that’s what we think life is made up of, working to change the world," she said. "Unlike the police force ... we’re not trying to listen in on conversations, we try to make conversations."

Co-founder Michael James, who also hosts a progressive, weekly radio show at the Heartland, said the news was really no news at all.

"I don’t put it past the Police Department ... to spy on people," he said. "I expect that they’re going to do that."

James said it reminded him of the days of Chicago's infamous Red Squad, a collection of intelligence officers who spied on political activists in the 1960s and '70s.

Those political activists included himself and other "leftists, radicals or commies — or whatever," James said.

"I also knew that the police could not only serve and protect, but the police could also be an instrument of coercion and control," he said, adding that police officers mocked him after the death of Harold Washington.

James had worked on Washington's mayoral election campaign.

He said the Police Department's resources could be better spent elsewhere.

"A new version of the Red Squad started up right when we don’t have money to pay for the essentials," he added.

A Chicago Police Department spokesman didn't return requests for comment, but Chikko, the undercover officer, described her motivations in court.

"My reason [for going] was to hear if there was going to be any violence to the city of Chicago," Chikko said. "Violent anarchists go to peaceful places to recruit."

Flint Taylor works at the People's Law Office with defense attorney Deutsch and was in court when Chikko made her statements.

"It harkened me back 40 years ago when Michael James was young, and we were at the People's Law Office, and they had the Red Squad spying on us. ... They spied on everything and anything that moved and was left of center."

Other community activists, who use the Heartland as a meeting place and don't typically prescribe to a political bent, were shocked to learn that they could have been spied on.

Peter Hoy, a member of Rogers Park's Food Not Bombs group and LETS GO Chicago, which promotes backyard gardening, said it was "definitely upsetting."

He said "it was shocking to hear" that meetings he participated in to talk about how to "improve our neighborhood and city" could have been under the eye of the Police Department.

"We live in a society where there is so much surveillance of peaceful organizing — even people who are dong the right thing can get caught [up in it]."

Hoy's partner, Molly Costello, felt the same way.

"It’s kind of laughable because it's my understanding none of us is interested in any type of violent activity," she said. "We’re all just here [to make] our community a better place."

Contributing: Erin Meyer