Watcher files find new home
- Ben Jacklet
- Portland Tribune - News
City archivist agrees to store controversial surveillance data
Thousands of pages of files documenting the Portland police's surveillance of some of Portland's most well-known political groups and activists between 1965 and 1985 will soon be placed in the city archives in North Portland.
City archivist Diana Banning and her staff have agreed to restore the files and house them at the Stanley Parr Archives building on North Columbia Boulevard.
'We're thrilled to get these files,' Banning said. 'This is a period in the city's history that should not be forgotten.'
A Portland police officer took the files home in the 1980s rather than allow them to be destroyed. The Tribune acquired the files in 2002 and subsequently published articles about the police bureau's historical practice of spying on political activists.
Although the files were supposed to have been destroyed under state law in the 1980s, Banning said the city would maintain them in perpetuity. 'There's enough of a historical significance to these records to indicate that they should be kept intact,' she said.
The archivists plan to transport the files to North Portland in March and spend six months or so restoring them and eliminating mold. The records will not become available to researchers until after the restoration is complete, Banning said.
The city also intends to work out a clear policy for protecting the privacy of people named in the files, Banning said.
The files consist of 36 boxes of photographs, news clippings, intelligence reports and surveillance notes. They cover the period from 1965 to 1985 and are organized alphabetically, by organization.
Some 576 organizations were monitored, ranging from well-known radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, to more obscure Portland institutions such as the Fallen Angel Choir and the Mountain Moving Cafe.
The Tribune's review of the files found that the police built files on organizations that have never been linked to criminal activity, in violation of city policy and later a 1981 state law.
The files also showed that the bureau's intelligence reports were often poorly fact-checked and clearly biased, implicating people as 'militants' or 'terrorists' based on political beliefs, with no supporting evidence.
Among the materials in the 576 file folders are signed initiatives and petitions, letters of support and opposition, bookstore mailing lists, license plate numbers of people who attended rallies and lists of campaign contributors and initiative supporters.
After the Tribune's series ran, more than 800 people contacted the paper to learn whether they or their groups had been tracked in the police files. Tribune researcher Anna Skinner provided thousands of pages of documents to those who were in the files.
With their transfer from the Tribune to the city, the surveillance files will join roughly 50 million documents and a half-million images that are stored at the city archives building.
Ironically, the building where all of this material is cataloged used to be a trash incinerator. The building's distinctive chimney has since been removed.
The archive building's two floors of climate-controlled stacks contain maps, papers and photographs that date to 1851. These documents serve as source materials for historians, writers and students.
Among the materials stored in the archives are the so-called Red Squad files, which document how the police once kept tabs on suspected communists in Portland. The Red Squad files cover activities from the 1930s up to the early 1960s Ñ where the files obtained by the Tribune begin.
To read the Tribune's five-part series about the files, see www.portlandtribune.com/secret.shtml.