Black Lives Matter activists in Memphis, Tennessee learned last week that they’d made some new friends on Facebook: Local law enforcement.
The discovery occurred in a very roundabout way. In response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU in Tennessee, which alleges that the Memphis Police Department have violated a 1978 consent decree promising not to spy on local political activists, Memphis city officials released a cache of previously sealed documents. Within that document dump of more than 300 pages of court filings and depositions was an interesting disclosure: An admission that the cops used a fake Facebook profile, deployed in 2016 and 2017, to monitor surreptitiously on Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists.
The materials released by city officials painted a detailed, if reluctant, portrait of how the Memphis police — under the direction of its Office of Homeland Security, a special team created after the September 11, 2001 attacks — used social media platforms to spy on BLM activists. The recent surveillance program started in reaction to large protests against police shootings across the country and, in particular, to BLM-led demonstrations following the 2015 Memphis police shooting of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart.
Among the pages of court filings and depositions in the ACLU case, police officials acknowledged creating an internal PowerPoint slide show — titled “Blue Suede Shoes” — that catalogued the names and faces of BLM activists who participated or were arrested in connection with protests following Stewart’s death.
Memphis police were able to secure public and private social media posts, according to the court documents. In one case, the police obtained a private Facebook post of a BLM activist who had recommended a Saul Alinsky book, prompting the police to gather collected information on that nonpublic post as well as the names of 58 friends who “liked” the post.
In one of the depositions, Officer Timothy Reynolds admitted that police used a fake Facebook profile for “Bob Smith” in order to befriend and monitor activists, whose activities were subsequently reported to police officials. Information gathered by “Bob Smith” was used to track BLM activists, their social media contacts, and, in one case, an activist’s spouse.
City officials strongly defended its activities in a statement, arguing that police have behaved lawfully and protected residents from violence as well as defending protesters’ First Amendment rights. As the city’s Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen argued in a statement, modern technology requires a change in police tactics.
“The ACLU of Tennessee’s lawsuit is based on its allegations of violations of a 1978 consent decree,” McMullen said in his statement, which was accompanied by a fact sheet outlining the city’s rebuttal of the ACLU suit. “Its interpretation of that 40-year old consent decree is out of step with modern police techniques. The consent decree was drafted before the internet – before smartphones, body cameras, or any type of digital cameras. The City is confident MPD’s social media practices do not raise any constitutional issues.”
Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings contributed an additional defense of the police in a statement. “Monitoring these public social media posts is simply good police work, which has allowed us to make operations plans to protect both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, keeping everyone safe without violence,” Rallings said.
But these disclosures in Memphis invite a comparison to the efforts made by the Trump administration to label BLM as a “Black Identity Extremist” group.
Late last year, Foreign Policy magazine obtained a copy of a “Black Identity Extremist” memo issued internally by the FBI counterterrorism division, which “declared that black identity extremists pose a growing threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement.” That document cited numerous instances of violent extremism, pinning them on the current wave of demonstrations that have erupted in the wake of a wave of violent encounters between police and black Americans.
Foreign Policy’s reporting prompted a swift and sharp rebuke from civil libertarians, and notable black activists and lawmakers, who drew comparisons to the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence program, of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which targeted civil rights activists such as leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Speaking at a news conference last November, shortly after the Black Identity Extremist memo was revealed, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond condemned the Trump Justice Department for spying on black Americans and labeling them a threat to the nation.
“It’s a characterization and it’s very inaccurate of the movement that is going on,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to view Black Lives Matter or other organizations that protest as an extremist group or a domestic terrorist group because we think that’s very dangerous.”
This week’s disclosure of the Memphis Police Department’s social media skullduggery — first reported by George Joseph of The Appeal, an online publication that specializes in legal and criminal justice news — comes as a shocking reminder of past misdeeds in Memphis, where city officials agreed 40 years ago to stop the clandestine tracking of civil rights activists. Today, however, city leaders see no contradiction between its history of illegal spying and its contemporary use of social media to collect information on individual or groups that police deem a threat to public safety.
To be sure, the ACLU of Tennessee has a long and acrimonious history with the Memphis police over its spying practices, going back to its 1976 investigation of the city’s domestic intelligence unit, which illegally destroyed documents it had collected on civil rights groups. More recently, the ACLU of Tennessee filed a lawsuit against the city in March 2017, after it was discovered that the city had created a list of names for people requiring a police escort when visiting City Hall based on their participation in Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“If any surveillance was conducted for the purpose of gathering political intelligence, it would flout the consent decree that’s been in place for nearly four decades,” said Thomas H. Castelli, legal director of the ACLU of Tennessee in a press release last year when filing the suit. “Likewise, the creation of a police escort list based on people’s speech, assembly, or associations would clearly chill protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment.”
Officials at the ACLU in Memphis declined to comment directly on the case, citing its involvement in pending litigation. In an email statement provided to ThinkProgress, Lindsay Kee, communications director for the ACLU in Tennessee, offered up a competing fact sheet, laying out its current complaints against the Memphis police.