Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As an activist, Tami Sawyer was monitored by the Memphis Police Department. She was elected to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on August 3, and can now keep track of the agents who were tracking her.
Democrats flipped Shelby County, Tennessee—where Memphis is located—from red to blue by winning 21 county offices on Election Day last week, many of them from Republican incumbents, including the county’s sheriff and mayor.
Among those elected in the rout was Tami Sawyer, a 36-year-old African-American woman and well-known activist in Memphis who was elected to the county board of commissioners. This blue surge is happening, however, just as another blue party—the police—is aiming to make a power move of its own.
The Memphis police department is currently looking to legitimize its controversial practice of secretly spying on local activists, particularly ones known for protesting the police. Sawyer was unnerved to learn that she is one of the activists police have tracked, both at demonstrations and via her social media accounts, as she discovered in court documents that the city recently made public. In her new role as county commissioner, she hopes to get to the bottom of why this surveillance is happening. Meanwhile, the city of Memphis sees nothing wrong with its tactics.
“Monitoring these public social media posts is simply good police work,” said Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings in a public statement, “which has allowed us to make operations plans to protect both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, keeping everyone safe without violence.”
Before the elections last week, Sawyer was best known for her organizing work around removing Confederate monuments in Memphis, as part of the “Take ‘Em Down 901” movement. The network was instrumental in pressuring Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to remove statues honoring the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis from city parks last year. Sawyer says her life was threatened during those protests; some were open threats from white supremacists who supported Confederate causes, others were anonymous. Memphis police were probably aware of these threats to Sawyer’s life, not just because she spoke out publicly about them, but because they were actively monitoring her social media accounts.
“[Memphis police] have screenshots [of my social media posts] where I’m saying end the war on drugs and end mass incarceration and they say this is a threat, but they don’t have screenshots of when people said they wanted to throw me in the Mississippi River and kill me,” said Sawyer.
Agents in the department regularly attended political demonstrations, both in uniform and undercover, and also combed through the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Memphis activists over the last few years. The police department did this despite a consent decree agreement it signed in 1978 stating it would stop collecting “political intelligence” on protesters after Tennessee’s ACLU chapter found out the police department had been keeping tabs on civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and harassing them.
The ACLU of Tennessee claims that the Memphis Police Department has continued keeping tabs on activists, in violation of the 1978 consent decree, and sued the police in March 2017. After examining hundreds of files, depositions, and email correspondence between Memphis police officers sharing personal information about local activists, ACLU lawyers filed a motion last week asking a judge to declare the city in contempt of the consent decree. A trial is scheduled for late August barring the judge delivering an early ruling on the matter.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Police Department admits in its court filings that it has been gathering information on political demonstrations and on certain known activists in the city—”a handful of what can fairly be called ‘professional protestors’...” as the city describes them in one court document. Doing this does not violate the 1978 consent decree, argues the city, but rather, the intel collected is used to protect the protesters, the city, and the police officers themselves. Reads a court document the city filed on July 25 in response to ACLU’s suit:
The MPD's motivation in conducting undercover or covert surveillance of events or monitoring of social media is critical. There is no evidence that the motivations of those involved had anything to do with the content of the communications between individuals or that it interfered in any manner with the right of the individuals involved to freely associate and express opinions in an unhindered manner. The purpose was public safety, for legitimate and very real reasons.
One of the main things the court will have to decide is whether an “unpermitted” protest—meaning, staged without a city permit—is considered illegal or “unlawful.” If the court rules that unpermitted protest gatherings are against the law, then it must also answer the question of whether that opens the door for police to secretly monitor the activists involved, as it has been doing. The city argues, in its court filings, that activists who are assembling for public protests without a city permit are fair game for surveillance. (The city of Memphis declined to comment on its court filings to CityLab).
“An assembly is lawful until people start breaking laws, not just by nature of the fact that they showed up,” said ACLU of Tennessee Legal Director Thomas H. Castelli, though acknowledging that the law gets “complicated” under certain circumstances. “If you block the streets, that’s illegal, or if you are obstructing a major thoroughfare then that’s a crime. But just gathering in numbers without a permit does not break any laws and, in fact, that’s protected by the Constitution.”
Some of the protests that have happened in Memphis over the past few years did block traffic, though—notably the 2016 protest where activists took over the I-40 bridge to draw attention to police violence against African Americans. The city is arguing that the police needed to track these protests because of growing threats of violence. Police leaders said in depositions that Black Lives Matter protests and threats to police lives were their primary concerns. The Office of Homeland Security—the police branch responsible for the surveillance in question—was repurposed in 2016 specifically to focus on threats to the police, according to court documents. The killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in 2016 are cited in the city’s court documents as justification for scaling up monitoring of Black Lives Matter protests.
“Predictably, and despite efforts by [BLM] leaders to keep the protests peaceful, some of these disruptive demonstrations have turned violent,” reads one court document filed by the city. “For example, in November 2015, five BLM protestors were shot while protesting the officer-involved death of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis.”
What the document leaves out is that those Minneapolis protesters were shot by a white man who espoused racist views.
Still, if the idea is that the Memphis Police Department’s surveillance of activists is done to protect the protesters, that’s undermined by the discovery of a Facebook account the police secretly ran under the alias “Bob Smith.” As George Joseph reported for The Appeal, Memphis agents used the “Bob Smith” account to access the profiles of local activists that were not open to the public, and to communicate with—if not stoke—people who were planning protests. The fact that police were using clandestine phishing tactics to infiltrate certain activist circles is “terrifying,” one activist who was afraid to reveal his or her name told Joseph. Police officials refused to answer questions about the “Bob Smith” account in depositions and court filings, but Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings said in his public statement that his “officers have never interfered with anyone lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Sawyer says she has personally been yelled at and followed to her car and home by police officers during and after protests. However, the court ruling on this matter will affect how Sawyer can reform police surveillance activities as a county commissioner. Memphis police shared some of the intel briefings they produced on activists with several public and private institutions, including the county government, but it’s not clear why [The city declined to answer a question about this]. As a county commissioner, Sawyer will have better insight on who the briefings were shared with and how the information was used.
Besides the police-spying issue, Sawyer also campaigned to address two other oversight agreements involving Memphis’s criminal justice system: A 2012 consent decree for better protection of juveniles in the county’s court system, and an agreement signed in 2017 between the Memphis police department and the U.S. Department of Justice over racial profiling and use of force. Last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stripped out some of the language in the police consent decree after pledging to weaken federal oversight of problematic police departments.
Sawyer is also concerned about the city’s “ridiculous” system for obtaining permits for protests. Those permits must be secured 14 days in advance of the event (though the police director can waive this). Applicants must pay either $25 or $50, depending on what the event requires, and there is also an insurance requirement to cover incidentals such as personal injury up to a million dollars.
“We don’t have 14 days to spare when the cops killed a black man last night, or if we just found out that Sessions will be speaking here this morning,” said Sawyer.
Activists in the city have been reluctant to apply for a permit given what they know now about how police are collecting information on them, she said. Putting your name on a permit makes you the “person on record” for protests, said Sawyer, meaning police can more ably track and snoop on your communications and activities.
During the protests she helped lead against Confederate monuments, she said she sometimes saw Memphis police laughing and shaking hands with the white supremacists who showed up to protest her group. That has broken her fellow activists’ trust that the police want to protect them. Sawyer wonders if police were keeping files on the white supremacist groups like they were for Black Lives Matter.
“I‘m not fighting against individual police officers, I understand we need to have them, and I care about their lives,” said Sawyer, “but their safety shouldn’t be more important than mine. They are manipulating fears so they don’t have to address the root issues—and it’s not just the [police]; it’s the city and county governments altogether. I’ve always said that if you want to shut us up and get us off the streets then bring us to the table.”
Now Sawyer is at the table, which means she can keep tabs on the people who were keeping tabs on her.