‘Fight for 15’ organizers file lawsuit against City of Memphis over police surveillance

More than 80 were added to a City Hall blacklist.

Fight for 15 protest outside a South Memphis McDonalds. CREDIT: Show-Me $15 Facebook
Fight for 15 protest outside a South Memphis McDonalds. CREDIT: Show-Me $15 Facebook

Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers repeatedly photographed, filmed, trailed, and intimidated Fight for 15 organizers, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday. The plaintiffs argue they were also smeared by government officials who added their names to a blacklist that was published by local news outlets.

Members of the Mid-South Organizing Committee (MSOC), which is involved in the Fight for 15 fair wage movement, claim that they have been victims of harassment and surveillance for many years. Police not only appear at lawful protests that involve fast food employees and homecare workers, they say, but also bully them by taking pictures and videos of their activities, threatening to arrest them, stalking them around the city in police vehicles, and following them to their homes.

The lawsuit points to multiple interactions between officers and demonstrators. One of the plaintiffs, Antonio Blair Cathey, claims he was repeatedly informed by an officer that McDonald’s granted the MPD permission to arrest protesters on different occasions. During two permitted events in 2015, the MPD is said to have photographed participants and their license plates. After a national day of striking last April, “multiple MPD squad cars” allegedly followed a van of participants as they were being dropped off in various parts of the city, while other officers used iPads to film protests.

MSOC plaintiffs say city officials also slandered their names in February by placing them on a “blacklist” of people who cannot enter City Hall without an armed security guard escorting them, even though they do not have criminal histories. The list included 84 names and was shared by “various media outlets,” according to the lawsuit. Protesters were removed from the list after the lawsuit was filed.

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Each method of intimidation is “aimed at discouraging MSOC and its members and volunteers from engaging in protected free speech activities,” the lawsuit filed in the district court for Western Tennessee states.

The plaintiffs also argue that the illegal activity is a direct violation of a consent decree that went into effect in 1978, which proclaimed “the City of Memphis shall not, at any lawful meeting or demonstration, for the purpose of chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights or for the purpose of maintaining a record, record the name of or photography any person in attendance, or record the automobile license plate numbers of any person in attendance.”

Four days after the blacklist went public, MPD Director Michael Rallings declared that the list was “about safety.”

Bruce McCullen, the city’s chief legal officer, reiterated that the list was safety-related. “It was for security reasons — what MPD felt they needed to do for security, safety — for the people employed at City Hall,” he said.

But activists are concerned for their own safety.

Ashley Cathey, a Church’s Chicken employee, Fight for 15 organizer, and sister of plaintiff Antonio Cathey, told ThinkProgress that she’s afraid of the officers.

“They have squad cars follow us from the time we get up to the time we end our action,” she said. “[It] gets to the point where the workers don’t even want to come out and participate ‘cause they’re afraid of what the police gonna do to us.”

Although she isn’t named in the lawsuit, she said recent police intimidation during and after a team meeting was the catalyst for taking legal action. She said squad cars were stationed outside of the organizers’ office and along the street. Once the meeting ended, participants were followed all the way home and officers slammed some of them to the ground.

Karen Rudolph, a representative for the MPD said she is unaware of complaints made by Fight for 15 protesters regarding physical violence used by specific officers. She declined to comment on allegations related to the pending lawsuit.

Public slander is another problem, Cathey said. “They always try to portray us to the community that we are gangbangers. I’ve never seen us have a violent movement. Not one time have we had a violent protest.”

Multiple arrests of Fight for 15 protesters, who seek a $15 minimum wage for fast food, healthcare, and other low-wage employees, have occurred in major U.S. cities in the past year, including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.