VOL. 132 | NO. 40 | Friday, February 24, 2017
Escort List Lawsuit Revives Old Court Order
By Bill Dries
Nearly 40 years after U.S. District Judge Robert McRae signed a federal consent decree barring the Memphis Police Department from ever gathering and keeping information from “political intelligence” surveillance of Memphis citizens, the court order has come back to life.
The federal court complaint filed this week over the City Hall escort list comes against a backdrop of renewed protests including the July 10 bridge protest, drawing the largest number for such events in Memphis in 40 years.
(Daily News File/Bill Dries)
Four of the 81 citizens on the City Hall escort list are accusing the city in a federal court complaint filed Wednesday, Feb. 22, of violating the order, not only through the list but also through “domestic intelligence” gathering.
This comes at a critical time of renewed protest in the past year, largely by a different generation of Memphians. Some of the protests and marches have drawn the largest crowds for such actions that the city has seen in more than 40 years.
The plaintiffs in the complaint are Elaine Blanchard, Keedran Franklin, Paul Garner and Bradley Watkins.
Blanchard is a Presbyterian minister and freelance writer at Focus Mid-South who also has been an adjunct faculty member at the Memphis College of Art and Memphis Theological Seminary.
View/download federal court complaint.
Blanchard confessed complete surprise at being on the list and posted pictures on Facebook of her with Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.
She also posed for pictures with others on the list at a Tuesday protest in front of City Hall while wearing the “scarlet letter” A that protesters pinned to their clothes at the event.
Franklin has worked in various causes, including being part of the Fight for $15 movement locally.
He also has been involved in Black Lives Matter protests, including the July 10 bridge protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge for several hours, and was among the marshals for the Feb. 1 immigration travel ban protest that drew a thousand marchers from Clayborn Temple to the National Civil Rights Museum. In addition, he participated in a die-in protest at Strickland’s home in December.
Garner is organizing coordinator of Memphis United, a coalition of groups formed four years ago in response to a Ku Klux Klan rally at the Shelby County Courthouse. Memphis United has been involved in a number of causes recently.
Garner has been to City Hall most often in the last year advocating for a reconstitution of the city’s Civil Law Enforcement Review Board. Police arrested him in January as he watched and video recorded a pipeline protest at the Valero refinery entrance – the second time he’s been arrested for recording police. The first arrest prompted then-police director Toney Armstrong to issue a memo to officers telling them that they could not arrest a citizen for recording them.
Watkins is executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the city’s longest-running and best-known social action and social justice group. Like Garner, Watkins has been at City Hall multiple times in the past year seeking a reconstitution of CLERB. He also complained several years ago during the tenure of police director Larry Godwin that police TACT unit officers in department vehicles parked outside the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center to watch and intimidate.
The 1978 lawsuit cited in the new complaint stemmed from a police domestic intelligence unit in Memphis that had existed at least through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and into the Vietnam War era protests of the 1970s.
A University of Memphis student who had been involved in the protests requested his police file at a time when many Americans were seeking access to FBI and other law enforcement files through Watergate-era revelations of such units.
The decree signed by McRae stated the city shall not “intercept, record, transcribe or otherwise interfere with any communication by means of electronic surveillance for the purpose of political intelligence.”
The new complaint filed by attorney Bruce Kramer, who signed the 1978 consent decree on behalf of the ACLU of West Tennessee, seeks to have the city declared in contempt of the decree “preventing domestic surveillance of lawful and peaceful protests and exercise of First Amendment rights.”
“The actions of the city of Memphis and/or the Memphis Police Department in connection with their investigation, stigmatization, recording and isolation of the plaintiffs were undertaken solely and exclusively for the purpose of silencing, harassing, and intimidating the plaintiffs’ First Amendment conduct, and is a clear and intentional violation of this court’s order,” the complaint reads.
The action seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It also calls for an order to dissolve the escort list and create no lists in the future.
The consent decree and federal court order in the 1978 case forbids the Memphis Police Department and city government from maintaining “personal information about any person unless it is collected in the course of a lawful investigation of criminal conduct and is relevant to such investigation.”
The complaint points specifically to the city’s use since 2014 of Geofeedia – software that maps who is making social media posts in an area, which platforms they are using and what they are posting.
Police have acknowledged in the past using such programs to keep tabs on potential protests.
In addition to the use of the software, the lawsuit cites surveillance and video recording of the plaintiffs, including at Tuesday’s protest outside City Hall.
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has refused to say how the police department selected citizens to be on the list of individuals who must be escorted by a uniformed police officer when they come to City Hall.
Many but not all of those on the list, which was made public last week, have been involved in local protests on a wide range of issues in the past year.
The protesters who blocked the entrance to the Valero refinery last month were added to the City Hall list by police the next day. The list includes not only those arrested in the protest but those present who were not arrested.
Rallings denied Tuesday that the list is politically motivated. He cited public safety concerns as the reason for the list and for police efforts to monitor protests – although he also specifically denied that police have engaged in political surveillance.
“That is not a political list,” he said. “As the police director, my number one responsibility is to maintain public safety, not only in City Hall but in the streets of Memphis and in different places.”
Rallings is reviewing the list after Strickland sought the review a day after its public release. Strickland has said he doesn’t know how police came up with the names on the list. He signed a trespass authorization for his home after protesters held the “die-in” protest on his front lawn in December.
The list included more than the dozen or so protesters who took part in that protest.
Strickland said although he signed all four pages of the list, he left who was on it to police. He said he was unaware that police had taken the names on the authorization for his home at some later point and put them on the City Hall list.