Surveillance and civil rights in Milwaukee

Ever since I began researching Milwaukee’s tumultuous civil rights era a decade ago, I have been trying to learn more about police surveillance and photographers there. Well, imagine the surprise when I received an email about a preview of CNN’s Bill Weir: States of ChangeThe Milwaukee native’s piece is interesting in of itself, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when Bill Weir paged through his grandfather’s scrapbook and pulled out a pocket-sized mugshot book of Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Council. The pictures depict young people at the vanguard of civil rights movement in the urban north who were determinedly marched in support of open housing for 200 nights in a row. (Click to learn more and view primary documents from the era)

Now to be clear, the fact that such a book existed is far from surprising. The Milwaukee Police Department employed a handful of photographers who took mugshots, documented crime scenes and investigations, and captured scenes for other practical purposes including safety promotions and community relations.

But, police photographers, at times, played a more sinister role by using cameras to document participation, conduct surveillance, and intimidate activists at marches, demonstrations, and even on the way to school or church. Oral histories captured at the time and recorded during the past decade relate countless charges of surveillance and harassment such as tailing in cars, marking down license plates, and routinely photographing activities.

This pocket-sized booklet was likely carried in squad cars so MPD officers could identify and target those marching and demonstrating for equal rights in a hostile northern city. No matter it’s purpose, I am ecstatic the booklet still exists. In some ways I am surprised it was preserved and would love to look through it.

The pictures I have seen in the Milwaukee Police Historical Society and other private collections are but a mere sampling of the tens of thousands that were taken during the era. Most were destroyed or are still protected by the department, unwilling to share the materials five decades later.

In the coming weeks and months I plan to return to the subject of civil rights surveillance photography. Bill Weir’s piece–and the existence of a photo album with possibly more pictures inside–and this recent ACLU blog/article have inspired me to keep after the subject matter. I’ll end with Alfred Loeb’s gorgeous color photograph of an Alabama state trooper at the Selma, Alabama marches in 1965.

So what else might be out there hiding in existing photo collections? I would love to learn about leads you know of and contacts you could suggest. Understanding how police departments and federal agencies used cameras against activists from Milwaukee to Selma and beyond has never been more relevant than now.

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