The Fifth Estate Newspaper and Police Surveillance on Display at Detroit Historical Museum

How a scrappy newspaper continues to remind readers that government surveillance persists.

Jake Neher/WDET

Fifty years ago, a scrappy newspaper drew the attention of Detroit police, and the FBI also wondered how dangerous the staff, readers and subscribers of The Fifth Estate were.

So files were kept, and an informant was cultivated. The newspaper — as it does today — continued to publish, printing stories about Detroit in the aftermath of the 1960s civil rights movement, protests and violence.

To help close out the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibition, “I Spy: The Fifth Estate Under Surveillance,” Founder Harvey Ovshinky and Current Staffer Peter Werbe will read from their own and the newspaper’s files of surveillance and intelligence reports as collected by law enforcement.

“We’re going to identify the informant, the police informant who was part of the staff though we did not know it at the time,” Ovshinsky says.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m., which gives visitors time to browse the exhibit before the 7 p.m. program.

“So was the Fifth Estate a credible threat?” asked Detroit Today Host Stephen Henderson when Ovshinsky appeared in studio.

“Apparently the government felt there was. We certainly sounded like we were pushing an agenda,” Ovshinsky says, noting the political direction and advocacy was no secret. “All they had to do was read the paper.”

He was joined by Rana Elmir, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan, who says the “Red Squad” mentality of the past has relevance today.

“When it comes to surveillance, we have never learned from that history. We have continued to repeat the same failures of government and government abuse,” she says. “As a public, we haven’t learned these lessons to hold these law enforcement agencies and our government accountable.”

To hear the full conversation, click on the audio link above.


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