Powers to the people

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Last week, many marked the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests. Which reminded me of Joe Powers, and a column I wrote about him back in 1998, when the convention was only 30 years past. Now it's 50 years, but reviving the memories — and the memory of Joe — feels like a worthwhile enterprise as we celebrate Labor Day.

Joe Powers Sr. has a Red Squad file. He also has an FBI file. You'd never suspect this mild-mannered Oak Park resident of 33 years was some sort of threat to the nation — at least not to any nation that makes social justice a high priority.

But back in the 1960s, it didn't take much to get the Red Squad to start a file on you. That was the investigative unit of the Chicago Police Department — formed ostensibly to examine communist involvement in the labor movement — but which investigated any and everyone during those days of heavy paranoia.

Powers admits he was "radicalized" during the Chicago Convention riots in 1968. Which sounds strange coming from a career IRS agent.

But he'd already been involved in Father Dan Cantwell's Catholic Labor Alliance and Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement. He even spent a year on a Catholic Worker farm in Missouri and learned about race relations through Chicago's Friendship House. He worked at a soup kitchen on Madison Street several times a week. 

"I was interested in social change," he says in understated fashion.

When Joe got married and started a family (his four kids still live in the area), he found it harder to continue his activism, but his opposition to the Vietnam War prompted him to write a letter to President Lyndon Johnson. He also headed the peace committee of the Chicago Conference of Laymen.

A Eugene McCarthy supporter, he found himself downtown on the first day of the Democratic Convention in '68. The theatrics seemed innocent enough — someone let loose a greased pig, for instance — all in the interest of "playing with the establishment."

The establishment, however, was far too uptight to take a joke or even get the joke. By the next day the tension level had risen significantly. Police announced that Lincoln Park was being closed for the night, so Powers left. Shortly after that, the police charged the crowd and started bashing heads.

Powers came back on Wednesday as an act of solidarity. In response to some provocation by a small group, the police charged again. Joe took photos, including one of a bleeding Rennie Davis.

Powers felt powerless, of course — as well as furious with the overreaction of the police who were working hard to, as Mayor Daley malapropped, "preserve disorder." Helicopters whirled overhead. Plumes from smoke bombs and tear gas filled the air. The National Guard stood shoulder to shoulder — 18-year-old kids in gas masks.

By this time Joe had been radicalized, as had everyone else in the crowd. They marched to Michigan Avenue, only to endure a second charge by police. At the Conrad Hilton, he remembers seeing tear-gas victims flushing their eyes in the fountain.

In the aftermath, the experience mobilized him to start attending meetings. He handled security for attorney Bill Kunstler's visit to Rosary College (now Dominican U.) in the late '60s, sponsored by the Oak Park-River Forest Citizens Committee for Human Rights. Of course, all this activity was thoroughly infiltrated by government and police informants, so his file began to grow.

His next-door neighbor told him the FBI had come by asking questions. A friend in Washington DC received a visit as well. At work one day he was called in for a 2½-hour interrogation. He received a letter from his district director stating that his activities were a source of embarrassment for the agency, but he wasn't fired.

"As long as I did my job and kept politics out of my work, I was OK," he said. "I became a better revenue officer."

Eventually, a lawsuit by the ACLU and the Alliance to End Repression put an end to the Red Squad's activities, and Freedom of Information legislation made it possible for Joe to obtain his fairly thick FBI file (mostly a chronology of events attended with a lot of stuff blacked out), but he didn't know about his Red Squad file until he was researching Paul Robeson at the Chicago Historical Society for a booklet he wrote for Robeson's centennial.

For some reason, the old Red Squad files are kept there, so he asked to see his. All you need is identification and the staff will actually photocopy your file and send it to you. Oak Park was pretty active in the movement in those days, so he figures other locals have files there as well.

Powers retired from the IRS in 1985. There were times, he admits, when he felt pretty isolated in his pursuit of social justice, but in the end he figured, "I'm going to be frustrated anyway, so why not keep at it?"

Joe Powers Sr., radicalized IRS agent, is still at it. 

Not bad for a government worker.

Joe Powers started a running club in Oak Park in 1977. On Nov. 10, 2001, he died of a heart attack while running with friends. According to the Chicago Tribune obituary, he tutored at Emerson Junior High (now Brooks Middle School), volunteered in a homeless shelter (probably PADS, now Housing Forward), visited inmates on Death Row, and co-authored a booklet on the Haymarket Riot. His other causes included Veterans for Peace, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Human Rights Watch, and Campaign for a Landmine Free World. But as the obituary noted, "When his family tallied the memberships this week, the typewritten list went on for pages." 

Even the Red Squad, and the Internal Revenue Service, must have been impressed.

His son, Joe Jr., told the Trib that his father, "never let a day go by that he wouldn't make the right moral choice. … He was constantly trying to do the right thing."

Joe is worth remembering indeed — and in deed.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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