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How Memphis Police Spied on Black Lives Matter Activists

Cynthia Bailey pumps her fist outside the National Civil Rights Museum following the annual Martin Luther King Day march on January 16, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photo: Mike Brown (Getty Images)

A federal judge has ruled that the Memphis Police Department’s 2-year undercover operation violated a 1978 agreement against spying on protesters.

The City of Memphis entered a consent decree in 1978 when it was revealed that cops had secretly created an entire division dedicated surveilling anti-war protesters and other citizens who hadn’t committed any crimes.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Joe McCalla issued a 35-page order that basically said “same shit, different day.” The court documents details how the Memphis police department spied on Black activists using a number of methods including creating a McCarthy-style blacklist and creating fake social media accounts to find the friends and associates of Black Lives Matter protesters.

The ACLU of Tennessee filed a complaint against the City of Memphis accusing law enforcement officers of violating the First Amendment rights of activists in the city. According to the Commercial Appeal, Friday’s order allows the lawsuit to move forward for the non-jury trial, scheduled to begin on August 20.

One of the allegations against the MPD accuses the department of setting up a fake Facebook page under the name of Bob Smith with the purpose of gathering information on people who “liked” posts” shared from the page, the ACLU reports.

One of the posts recommended a book by 60’s community organizer Saul Alinsky, who Barack Obama was formerly accused of being a disciple of. The MPD collected the names of 58 people who “liked” the post and added them to a secret list that the judge says was a “political intelligence” gathering operation.

The order describes a December 2016 “die-in” held on the lawn of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s personal residence. MPD Sergeant Timothy Reynolds created a list that included people who visited the Bob Smith page, their associates and others who had been photographed at protests. Strickland instructed cops to arrest anyone named on the “Authorization of Agency” list at the die-in.

McCalla’s order says that the agency began conducting the surveillance after cops witnessed protests in other states and when Black Lives Matter began staging demonstrations in Memphis, the department “would always have somebody there, be it a uniform presence or somebody that was in a plain clothes presence.”

The police department held Joint intelligence Briefings, or “JIBs,” with Powerpoint presentations listing the names and associates of individuals they should watch, including names, addresses and social media accounts.

Screenshot pf powerpoint presentations from the Memphis Police Department’s Joint Intelligence Briefings
Photo: ACLU (Federal Court Records)

The surveillance wasn’t limited to protests or social media. They also monitored events such as “Black-Owned Food Truck Sunday” and a Black Lives Matter meeting at a Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Memphis.

The judge’s ruling simply finds that the city violated at least part of the 1978 consent decree, specifically the part that barred the gathering of political intelligence. The August 20th trial will determine how many provisions of the decree were violated by the city and the appropriate punishment for doing so.


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