Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Court docs show how city of Memphis criminalizes citizens who assemble against government policies

Memphis police have been earnestly monitoring Facebook and Twitter accounts of social justice activists and publishing a daily “Joint Intelligence Bulletin” since March 2016, according to court pleadings released July 24 by the City of Memphis.
MPD's PowerPoint on local activists

The document dump, including excerpts from depositions of police officials and MPD Director Michael Rallings, was attached to the city’s motion for summary judgment in response to the ACLU’s motion to hold the city in contempt of an 1978 federal court order which forbade the city from gathering political intelligence on citizens. The city’s motion was filed last month in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

The plaintiff ACLU on March 2, 2017, joined a lawsuit against the city by four individuals who discovered they were on a “black list” of citizens who were to be escorted while in City Hall. 

In a chilling disclosure, police culture is revealed to demonize "protesters" and regard them as presenting a threat of criminal activity -- although none of those persons targeted has committed any violent acts. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Police Oversight Board Demands Respect -- even if Mayor has to Replace the Police Chief

Dismissed by the police director and diminished by the mayor, the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board sought to find its footing in a meeting of firsts today.

CLERB members voted 10-0 to appeal to Mayor Jim Strickland to support the relevance of the board, calling for the replacement of Police Director Michael Rallings if necessary, and they voted unanimously to subpoena four officers who allegedly beat and maced Marcus Walker and his nephew in 2011 in an “initiation” type assault.
 Marcus Walker explains what police did to him seven years ago

Rallings has rejected every single CLERB finding that disagreed with police internal affairs and every recommendation about certain training or discipline of officers. The board has no independent authority to discipline officers and may do no more than make recommendations to the police director.

“Director Rallings is all but ignoring the board’s recommendations,” the board wrote in a letter which will go out to Mayor Strickland. “Unfortunately, Director Rallings has chosen…to render the board ineffective by rejecting all of our recommendations. Some of these cases involved unquestionable video footage, and it is beyond absurd that none of our recommendations have been accepted.”
CLERB member John Marek, Marcus Walker listen to discussion

“The members of CLERB volunteer our time, and currently, it is being wasted,” the letter to Strickland continues. “CLERB needs one of four things to take place before our board can be effective:

“1) Director Rallings to be reasonable and at least meet us in the middle on our decisions (compromise); 2) A new police director who will work with us; 3) A new ordinance that gives CLERB binding decision-making power, or 4) an amendment to the current ordinance, which gives appellate power to the mayor over the police director’s decisions.”

The request to subpoena officers is the first under the latest ordinances, since CLERB was revived in 2015 and its ordinance amended in 2016. CLERB was secretly disbanded in 2011 by Mayor A.C. Wharton’s administration and was only brought back after a strong grassroots campaign led by Memphis United and Paul Garner, organizing director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. The letter to Strickland was the first formal notice to the mayor about CLERB being disrespected -- although board members had been discussing it for a year.  

Sunday, April 8, 2018

'I came to Memphis, and all I got was this big bruise'

Elizabeth Vega waits outside Memphis courtroom 
And arrested.

It was astonishing that Elizabeth Vega of St. Louis could joke about it.

A veteran of four years in the Navy, a former journalist and an activist, Vega came to Memphis during MLK50 week. Unlike many wide-eyed, Beale Street-trekking, rib-munching tourists that the City of Memphis had spent millions to woo to town, Vega had a different idea.

Street theater actors call attention to abuses in ICE detention centers; Elizabeth Vega in light blue top
Vega took part in a street theater performance in front of the Shelby County Justice Center. Wearing scrubs to simulate prison garb and chained together with about 10 other women -- and led by an ICE agent male “actor” -- they were bringing attention to forced labor and other abuses in ICE detention centers. 

Vega displays her Memphis 'souvenir' 
“We have nothing to lose but our chains,” they chanted, highlighting the irony of MLK 50, that although society has progressed in some ways, in many ways things are the same or worse – such as poverty in Memphis and such as police spying on and suppressing organized protest.

“No change, 50 years. All these police,” Yuleiny Escobar shouted into a megaphone amid a massive presence of police tactical officers and equipment, including a surveillance van and officers filming the crowd with a DSLR camera.

Police pulled Vega down by her hair
Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50: Justice in Journalism
This was how “the people” honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. What would MLK do? Would he show up in the streets with these brave women, or would he be sitting at a luncheon or banquet among elected officials and “dignitaries?”

“Memphis police violated civil rights and lost their damn minds,” Vega said, awaiting her fate in court inside the very building where she had stood less than 24 hours earlier and only a handful of hours after she had been released from jail after getting bonded out.

Police try to wave away our camera as they handcuff Yuleiny Escobar
Vega and eight others were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway, which are charges police put on prostitutes who are not caught in the act but whom police want to sweep off the streets – and charges put on protesters who are not breaking any actual laws but whom police also want to sweep clean from the view of tourists.

“They grabbed Manuel (Duran), and he was a journalist,” Vega said. “As a former journalist, I take that very serious. I pointed out he was a journalist. I was like, Let him go.
Manuel Duran broadcasts live, moments before arrest

“Next thing I know they grabbed me by my hair. And then the rest is just sort of a blur. It was so brutal that I kind of checked out a little bit.  I didn’t really pass out; I think I just went into myself.  I’ve been arrested a lot of times for civil disobedience, and this is one of the most brutal encounters I have had with police. It was on another level.  And we hadn’t done anything.

“Part of it was they were targeting folks. There had been an incident the day before. They didn’t arrest me then. They came to the sidewalk and they threatened to arrest me for refusing to show my ID.”

At that encounter, citizens in a North Memphis neighborhood were handing out flyers urging others to boycott a small, corner store after a store clerk allegedly shot a 17-year-old for stealing an 89-cent watermelon wine cooler. The young man, Dorian Harris, died, but his body was not found until two days later.

“I don’t have to show you my ID,” Vega told police, who somehow decided to hassle her and local government watchdog Hunter Demster out of 30 or so persons standing on a sidewalk across the street from the store.

“And then they said that they were going to arrest me, and I sat down on the sidewalk and began to sing. Then they said that were going to get me, and I guess they kept their promise (the next day).

“I’m still not afraid, more resolved,” Vega said. “They are the ones who showed their inhumanity and disregard for everything that our country is supposed to represent."

“They do whatever the hell they want to do here in Memphis.  I’m surprised people are not rising up.

“I am a veteran, a grandmother, a former journalist. I do believe some of those patriotic things that we talk about. That’s why I fight so hard. I believe in that ideal.

“That’s how Memphis treats its women and veterans, and on the eve of the anniversary of MLK’s assassination. All the pomp and circumstance, and where have we gone; what have we accomplished 50 years later?

Officer yanks Zyanya Cruz by the arm
“How dare they put a Jumbotron in front of the Civil Rights Museum while they are violating peoples’ civil rights a few blocks away? The city should be ashamed of itself.”

Of the nine persons arrested, one pleaded no contest for “time served” – his one night in jail – and paid costs. Seven others saw their next court date set for later in April or May.

While local police seemed to be going after well-known and often spied-upon activists, the Multi-Agency Gang Unit and Organized Crime Unit detectives and officers seemed to have one more target: the Latino journalist. Although Duran was shooting video of the action and reporting – you know, doing his job and not stealing a bicycle or punching anyone’s nose -- he was grabbed off the sidewalk as Vega and other female “ICE prisoners” shouted to police, “He’s a reporter!”

Duran’s family paid his $100 cash bond at 9 that night, but he was not released like the others who had made bond and gotten out in the wee hours of April 4. A native of El Salvador, Duran allegedly was not a citizen or resident alien. Duran’s case was reset until the following day, April 5, and it was dismissed – nolle prosequi – with no costs.

Good news, right? Not so fast. It’s the Trump era.

Later, courthouse sources told us that Duran’s capture came from “the top” – meaning high up in the Trump administration. Sure enough, not only had Duran been targeted, two ICE agents were in the courtroom waiting for him. They did not grab him in front of media or supporters as some have reported. But after he was seized by ICE during jail release-processing out of the public eye, they skipped over two stages of detention – one temporary center in Memphis and one 30 miles away in Mason, Tennessee – and sent him directly to LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, about 350 miles away and the last stop before deportation.

The difficulty for Duran and other First Amendment practitioners was they were marching into a three-part, perfect storm of a police trap:

1—This was supposed to be Tourism Week, and like homeless people, demonstrators were not what City Hall wanted visitors to see. What a great idea if we just rounded up activists to get them off the streets?

Further, outside law enforcement, including the FBI, was in town. It is likely that the extra law enforcement presence, surveillance and tension heightened the likelihood of a confrontation. 

2—Activists had promoted on Facebook a “Rolling Block Party” to occur April 3, the day before the 50th anniversary of MLK’s murder in Memphis. The only time and location widely publicized on social media was 2:01 p.m. at 201 Poplar, the address of the county courthouse and jail. Since police and fusion centers now monitor social media of known activists, law enforcement was waiting for them en masse.

There were also limited posts on social media about the "Rolling Block Party" taking the fun to Graceland at 4:44 p.m. and the Hernando-DeSoto Bridge at 6:30 on April 3. 

Activists turn out at FedEx -- with purple airplane tails in the background

3—Earlier in the day, the “rolling block party” rolled into a four-lane street just outside the FedEx terminal and stopped their cars.  Partiers jumped out, danced to music coordinated on every car radio and held signs with messages like, “Things are not OK,” “Poorest City in the Nation,” and “Economic Apartheid: Profits to the Top, Misery to the Bottom.” 

The police showed up, but they stood back. They had never seen anything quite like this and were unsure what to do. In fact, they told organizers that they were waiting on command staff to show up.  Eventually, after they threatened to arrest the drivers, the block party rolled away.

Standing down was a wise move as there were no arrests, and no one got hurt. Motorists were inconvenienced – some were perturbed and some were amused -- for about 25 minutes.

Nonetheless, no doubt there was some sentiment among MPD command staff and maybe at City Hall that these people had made us look bad – at the edge of the city’s corporate crown jewel, with purple FedEx airplane tails in the background, and smack dab in the middle of MLK50 week. These activists, who were more aligned with MLK values than the politicians who waxed and waned over the civil rights martyr at banquets, had telegraphed their next blow, and it was at the epi-center of criminal justice, or injustice, in this city.

Vega (light blue top) watches police arrest an action marshal

Officers were waiting for them, and they were not going to get fooled again. In fact, it was not uniformed officers waiting in the street at 201 Poplar – it was officers in TACT gear, some or all part of a Multi-Agency Gang Unit which operates to disrupt concerted efforts in the community – which apparently includes First Amendment practitioners as well as Vice Lords, Ghost Mob and Gangster Disciples.

“What they did was absolutely egregious,” said Vega, who was able to press out a laugh amid the injustice and outrage over the seizing of a journalist. As she pushed up her sleeve to demonstrate:

“I came to Memphis, and all I got was this big bruise.”

Filmmaker Gary Moore operates the educational non-profit Citizens Media Resource and Moore Media Strategies consultancy.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Free Screening March 30 at U of M Law School

Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will launch their “As a Matter of Law” series and commemorate MLK50 by screening the Memphis-made documentary Who Will Watch the Watchers? March 30.

“As a Matter of Law: Who Will Watch the Watchers? Screening and Discussion with Filmmaker Gary Moore” will begin at 6 p.m. at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, 1 North Front Street, in the Wade Auditorium.

Who Will Watch the Watchers? tracks the struggles of citizens who were arrested for filming police, then sought justice at City Hall in an election year. The film covers 21st Century hot topics such as citizen videos of police shootings, Black Lives Matter, the police-community divide and the condition of the First Amendment in the Trump era.  The feature-length documentary presents something of a case study in grass roots organizing as citizens sought to bring back the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB).

The screening is free of charge and open to the public. It is sponsored by Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Project Mass Incarceration and the Black Law Students Association.

“TACDL is starting a series of presentations called ‘As a Matter of Law,’ which will focus on specifics of defending criminal matters, examining issues that might arise in that process, and we want this film to serve as the subject of the first presentation,” said David “Hawk” Allen, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Memphis Law Chapter.

Who Will Watch the Watchers? world-premiered in Los Angeles last fall at the Justice on Trial Film Festival.

The film follows the Memphis United coalition, which fought for police accountability and the revival of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board in 2015 and which rode a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs in their campaign. A Memphis police officer shot and killed unarmed back-seat passenger Darrius Stewart in the middle of the movement, and organizers and others were targeted in 2017 in a “black list” of persons who were required to be escorted at City Hall.

Paul Garner, organizing director at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, led the movement after being arrested for attempting to film police outside Manna House homeless refuge Oct. 21, 2013. Four days later citizens filmed police arresting two persons and breaking up a Trolley Night hip-hop cypher on South Main Street.

In addition to dealing with First Amendment issues, the film relates the Fourth Amendment and the landmark Supreme Court case out of Memphis, Tennessee vs. Garner, in how law enforcement officers may or may not use force to stop fleeing suspects.

Freedom Rider Rip Patton narrates the film trailer and the opening and closing sequences of the film.

Moore Media & Entertainment also produced the comedy short, “The Suburban Itch,” and is producing a documentary on the removal of Confederate statues in Memphis and other cities.

Link to film trailer:

Link to film poster sized for Internet:

Link to Memphis Flyer story:

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Judge Says Valero Defendants 'Low Priority' Next to Murderers, Rapists and Robbers

Katherine Hanson, Olivia Ramirez and Erick Barnett wait for the wheels of justice to turn in Memphis

Judge Bobby Carter signaled that he would like to see prosecutors settle Class C misdemeanor cases against four environmental activists, calling the cases a “low priority…next to my whole jail full of murderers, rapists, and robbers.”

Nonetheless, the remaining defendants from a dramatic action opposing the Diamond Oil Pipeline on MLK Day in 2017 did not get heard today -- even though it was the seventh court appearance for four of seven persons who had chained themselves together through concrete-filled barrels to defend water over oil.

The Shelby County Criminal Court Division III judge also decided not to entertain various motions from defense attorneys as that could influence any possible negotiations about a settlement, he said.  

The four were scheduled to go on trial beginning Jan. 22; however, after spending two days waiting around 201 Poplar, on Jan. 23 Carter bumped the trial date to April 30, citing an “in-custody aggravated rape” case that he deemed more important to be heard.

At that time Carter also set Feb. 28 as a motion hearing date and required the four defendants – one from Missouri, two from Oklahoma and one from Memphis – to return to court. Carter today indicated he had thought better of hearing any motions, particularly about jury instructions, until the time of the trial and after he had heard the proof and arguments put on by prosecutors and defense counsel.

“Here’s the thing,” Carter told the four defense attorneys. “It’s clear your clients have an absolute right to a jury trial. As far as they are concerned it’s a very serious, very weighty matter. But in proper perspective, next to my whole jail full of murderers, rapists, robberies and things that I have to get gone, it’s going to be a lower priority in scheduling.

“I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of it as to each of them,” Carter continued. “These are matters that they are entitled to full and fair consideration, and we will do that -- if we have to.”

Calling themselves water protectors and representing Arkansas Rising, the defendants were objecting to the Diamond Oil Pipeline, which is to carry light sweet crude 440 miles from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Valero Refinery on the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis.
Olivia Ramirez: Defending Earth and water
Photo by Hive Swarm Media

The defendants were initially charged with obstructing a highway or other passageway; disorderly conduct, and criminal trespass. Disorderly and trespass charges were dropped last year.  

The “obstructing a highway or passageway” charge is often used by police along with “disorderly conduct” against political protesters or persons who film police. 

Prosecutors in October proposed a settlement “offer” that each of them would pay $6,000, calling it restitution or repayment of the city’s decision to massively deploy police and fire equipment and personnel. Last month, that amount dropped to $650 each, but defendants have maintained they are not guilty and do not want to pay money simply to make the charges go away. Three other defendants last year had paid costs and pleaded out to stop the court appearances and uncertainty over the outcome.  

Five other persons were arrested while walking or standing on the sidewalks outside Valero, and those cases were dismissed last year. The five included Missouri resident Rachel Gay, an independent journalist who was filming the events of the day, and Paul Garner, a Memphis resident who is organizing director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and who was recording police on his cell phone that day as an observer. 

Counting their initial appearance after they were arrested on Jan. 16, 2017, yesterday’s appearance was the seventh trek to Shelby County courts in connection with the Class C misdemeanor, which is the lowest possible criminal charge and which rarely goes to trial. The other court dates in 2017 were Feb. 15; May 2; October 5, and November 2.

Should there be a jury trial, however, defense attorneys believe it could take three days. That’s not only time from the lives of the defendants and the attorneys, who are all working pro bono, but of court personnel and Shelby County citizens to serve as jurors. Further, it clogs the pipeline with cases that Judge Carter clearly does not believe he has time to hear.

Defense attorneys expect prosecutors will argue that defendants did not have a right to be there because they did not have a permit.

The defense argument is essentially the First Amendment.

“Because this is such a low level offense, it never goes to trial,” said defense attorney Josie Holland. “It usually settles out. Either the state gets tired of trying to prosecute it, or the person who is facing the charge decides to pay a fine and go on with their lives.  There’s not a lot of case law or precedent about obstruction of a highway or passageway.

“No one has challenged the constitutionality of it on its face.”

That is, until now, in Memphis.

Links to our previous stories on these cases:

"DA Pushes Misdemeanor Defendant-Protesters toward Jury Trial in Memphis"

“Valero Cases Dwindle as Judges Cite First Amendment”
“Cops Bust a Journalist, Chase One into the Bushes on MLK Day 2017”