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. 

A PowerPoint presentation entitled "Blue Suede Shoes" -- like a big-time criminal investigation with a catchy name -- posts mug shots and short bios of citizens who have spoken out against government policies at public events.

ACLU released a timeline, from the original 1976 lawsuit through its recent court filings and documents. 

From a cursory look through the more than 300 pages released by the city, we observed:

1.  MPD is using a “Social Media Collator,” or software, to cull through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts of  local citizens – including about a dozen politically outspoken citizens that police have chosen to intensely target.

2.  Police conflate local activists who organize peaceful political rallies or demonstrations with the threat of violence.

3.  In defense of its intensive and extensive study of social media postings, police officials conjure up a high level of fear and an ongoing, non-specific threat by making general references to terrorists, the Middle East, 9/11, Black Lives Matter, threats against police officers, Charlottesvile, Donald Trump, "Las Vegas style" shootings and more.

4.  Much of the documentation focuses on an authorization of agency (AOA) and the mayor’s “black list," which names 55 persons who were to be escorted when in City Hall. The AOA was presented to Rallings in January, 2017, by Detective Tim Reynolds, Rallings said.  

           The authorization of agency ostensibly targeted about a dozen persons who held a “die-in” on Mayor Jim Strickland’s front lawn on Dec. 16, 2016. However, a list signed by Strickland, who is a lawyer, includes 43 of the 55 persons on the black list. The other 12 were at a protest of the Diamond Oil Pipeline on MLK Day Jan. 16, 2017. So, where did the other 31 or so -- who were not on the mayor's lawn and not at Valero Refinery -- come from? Theryn Bond and Lorrie Garcia, for example, were monitored by an MPD surveillance van on New Year's Eve 2016 when they went to Majestic Theatre and bought movie tickets for teens as part of a "free movie night" event sponsored by Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens. 

(The purpose of an AOA is equivalent to posting a no-trespassing sign – to give a warning that is required by state law before someone may be charged with trespassing. Although the AOA that Strickland signed states that 43 persons had received such a no-trespass warning – and thus could be arrested on the spot and without warning if they set foot on the mayor’s lawn again – only one person, Keedran Franklin, actually received any such notice from police.)

The Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens (C3) is named throughout the documents as responsible for the die-in, a political action at Graceland, and more -- but C3 is more than that. The group also sponsors a monthly free books and breakfast; has conducted as aforementioned a "free movie night" for teens, and through C3 Land Cooperative, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, develops neighborhood gardens in blighted areas. 

5.   Included in the documents are several pages excerpted from Reynold’s April, 24, 2018, deposition in the civil lawsuit. Reynolds is referred to variously as sergeant, detective and lieutenant. Reynolds appears to be the most fervent of all police officials to have been deposed, and he notes that he went to Nashville to observe a Black Panther rally and then prepared a Power Point he entitled “Blue Suede Shoes,” which included mug shots and data on Memphis citizens who had been arrested in the course of political gatherings.

6.  In one example of social media surveillance, Reynolds depicts a Facebook post from “Aktion Kat,” then says it is associated with Paul Garner, who has posted from Saul Alinsky’s book, “Rules for Radicals.”

Reynolds notes the post has 58 “likes,” and his report includes screen shots associated with every individual who “liked” the post and cites a number of “mutual friends.” It is not clear whose Facebook account Reynolds was citing to gather the list of likes and friends, but it is not Garner’s. “Aktion Kat” is Garner’s persona in a band. Elsewhere in documents Garner is referred to as a board member of CLERB and also an aspiring member of CLERB (Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board). Garner is organizing director at the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center and was instrumental in the grassroots effort to revive CLERB in 2015. 

7.  Reynolds is questioned about social media accounts police use to troll activists, including a “Bob Smith,” who is apparently a police operative who posts on Facebook and a “friend” of several activists.

8.  MPD maintains that it does not spy on citizens and that it supports citizens’ First Amendment rights. All actions and police deployments at political events are in the interest of public safety and arise from the general atmosphere of fear and threat in the country, police say. Police indicate, however, that while they do not stop assemblies based on the lack of a permit -- which city ordinance requires for a gathering of 25 persons or more -- they lean more heavily on persons taking part in non-permitted assemblies, which police call "unlawful protests."

9.  The documents include a Facebook screen shot posting from Mary Stewart about an anniversary memorial for her son Darrius Stewart, an unarmed, 19-year-old backseat passenger who was shot and killed by MPD patrolman Conner Schilling on July 17, 2015.  Mary Stewart and her sister also appeared in the black list. Police monitored that vigil, which included planting a tree where Darrius was killed, and one member of MPD command staff notes that he is watching them from across the street but “they don’t see me.”

10.                Among activists targeted were those who have spoken out in defense of the Greensward in Overton Park. Reynolds said their agenda included closing the Memphis Zoo.

11.                Police also indicate they have taken note of KKK activities, Sons of Confederate Veterans celebrations of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s birthday, and the St. Jude Marathon. 

In the midst of the city pleading that it does not spy on citizens, these documents paint a bizarre and frightening picture of official paranoia, over-reaction, and a reflex to attack and arrest. 

In spite of MPD's claims that they are about public safety, the intensity with which they analyze certain individuals and the fervor with which they associate the citizens with violence and "radicals" -- although not one has ever been accused of any violent acts or threats -- is viewed as absurd and hysterical by the activist community. Detective Reynolds, for one,  seems downright enthralled and infatuated with his pursuit of these Memphis citizens. 

Police actions at First Amendment assemblies often defy the party line that they are there to protect people while letting free speech roll. For example, officers from MPD and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences arrested seven persons at the Forrest statue on Aug. 19, 2017. City attorney Bruce McMullen, at a panel discussion about Confederate monuments on Oct. 3, 2017, at the University of Memphis Law School stated, "I don't believe the city has ever arrested anyone for protesting....those were arrested for breaking the law."

However, the criminal court outcome of the arrests was that six of seven were dismissed without costs -- at least two of them were dismissed when officers failed to show up in court -- and one person pleaded out to eight hours community service to avoid a string of court appearances.

On April 3, 2018, during MLK50 week, police arrested nine persons in front of 201 Poplar during and after a protest of ICE prison abuses. However, seven of those arrests came as street theater actors, who were wearing scrubs and portraying female ICE prisoners, were crossing the street within a crosswalk. Two arrests strangely came after the action had been cleared for more than 30 minutes as two women were arrested while crossing the street. From the time the actors stepped off the curb and into the street until police began making arrests was 60 seconds, exactly one minute. As a comparison, the traffic light south of the action, at Poplar Avenue and Danny Thomas Boulevard, stays red for 51 seconds. 

In his deposition, Detective Reynolds says that upon his trip to Nashville to study police response to a Black Panther rally, he wondered why Nashville officers did not move in and quickly make arrests. Reynolds says he was told by Metro Police that they viewed it was better to let citizens "get it out of their system" and wind down on their own -- a point that we repeatedly have attempted to make to local authorities. Often it is the massive deployment of police and the MRAP and surveillance vans and Multi-Agency Gang Unit officers that raise tensions. Activists feel everyone would be more safe without the police than with the police. 

As for the April 3 action and police stating that they do not conduct political surveillance, we must ask why Lt. Dannick was using a small Go-Pro and a female officer was recording with a DSLR camera to scan the crowd of citizens and journalists on the southern sidewalk in front of 201 Poplar on April 3. 

Another good question is: How does the city justify to taxpayers that rounding up activists, who are not injuring any persons or stealing any property, is a "benefit" worth the cost?

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