Who is Lucy Parsons? In the 1920’s the Chicago Police Department called her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” She was a writer, orator and activist who came north from Texas under threat of the Klan for her interracial marriage and involvement in the rebellious activity of registering black people to vote. Lucy’s better known as the wife of Albert Parsons, one of seven men executed by the state of Illinois in the infamous Haymarket Affair (see: suppression, surveillance, eight-hour work day). According to historian Studs Terkel, Lucy spent the rest of her life dogged by police, frequently arrested for public speaking, and a live speech from Lucy Parsons was as rare as it was brilliant.
“Governments never lead—they follow progress. When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step—but not until then.”
–Lucy Parsons, pamphlet printed 1890’s, Chicago
In 1942 Lucy tragically perished in a house fire. When her executors arrived for her books, letters and manuscripts, her life’s work had already been seized by the CPD and handed over to the FBI, never to be seen again. Let’s just say she never made the history books.
Fast forward 75 years.
We the people have the tools to collect, analyze, and disseminate information on a scale never seen before. Good news is, the data actually supports the “bad apple” theory that a few cops are committing the vast majority of abuses of power. Bad news is, they’re still on the beat.
From 2004 to 2014 the CPD spent over half a billion on settlements and legal fees related to citizens’ complaints against officers—about the yearly budget of Chicago Public Schools. From March 2011 to September 2015 less than 2% of complaints resulted in any disciplinary action. Meanwhile, the burden of proof lies on the citizen to remember detailed information such as name and badge number—from March 2011 to March 2015 28% of misconduct complaints, totaling 4,000, were immediately dropped because the complainant couldn’t remember the name of the officer.
Freddy Martinez, co-founder and director of Lucy Parsons Labs, hopes to solve this problem. Born and raised in Chicago, Freddy works a full-time job and develops for LPL, a 10-12 member collective nonprofit, in his free time. Founded in 2015, the group is already having an impact on police accountability. Their investigation into civil asset forfeiture funds, and the secret surveillance budget they’re funneled into, is making waves with even the most jaded of civil servants—Chicago city aldermen. They’ve got a secure drop for whistleblowers to upload files. Freddy also successfully sued the CPD to release records on their use of covert cell phone trackers, known as Stingrays.
I sat down with Freddy to ask about OpenOversight, LPL’s new web tool for police identification, which launched yesterday in beta on the world-wide web. OpenOversight is a place for people to file and access complaints, information, and pictures of police officers (all publicly available information); an audacious attempt to bypass institutional barriers to empowering complainants, and one sure to ruffle some feathers.
Listen to me & Freddy talk oversight, origins, the CPD, cyber-security for dummies, the role of beer in the revolution, and the importance of getting sued:
“Oh Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, and I am still a rebel.” –Lucy Parsons