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New year, old tactics: Memphis police spied on Dr. King yesterday and is spying on activists today

By Donna Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Aug 8, 2018 - 11:56:38 AM

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 MEMPHIS—It was supposed to be over.

In the mid-1960s, the Memphis Police Department established a covert domestic intelligence gathering unit, initially, to spy on anti-Vietnam War protestors. But city sanitation workers began to organize in protest of wages and poor, sometimes fatal, working conditions, then-White segregationist Mayor Henry Loeb III, expanded the surveillance.


He sent people in undercover to obtain intelligence on worker activities and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while he was in Memphis.

Throughout the latter part of the 1960s and well into the 1970s, the intelligence unit cast a wider net to include civil rights groups, school teachers, social, civic and religious college organizations, citizen’s councils, White supremacist groups, the Mayor’s Council on Youth Opportunity, Memphis Youth Services, the National Council of Churches and a host of other groups.

Al Lewis, a veteran and grassroots social activist, recalls some of the tactics utilized by the police during that era. Though only a teen at the time, he was being politicized by his mother, Sara Lewis, an activist, school teacher who later became school board president.

After his mother wrote an article critical of the mayor and his views on Black people Mr. Lewis said, “Indeed, there were strange phone calls threatening to burn a cross in front of our house. My question, I was wondering how did they get our phone number? How did they know where we lived?”

“They spied on a lot of the activists back then, in particular, I know, the Invaders and I know some of those guys personally and I’ve had deep conversations with one in particular about how they would go on the telephone and just say bogus things to see if the police would show up. And just the different intimidation tactics that they had formed and they were pulling off back then. You know, that was a very sophisticated thing, tapping your phone back then,” Mr. Lewis stated.

The intelligence gathering was not limited to the Memphis Police Department. They also forged a network of informants in organizations such as the NAACP to aid in their surveillance. Mr. Lewis further shared that Criminal Court Judge H.T. Lockett, who was the first president of the Memphis NAACP at the time, spoke with he and his father in a private conversation and named two NAACP members serving as “snitches.” 

“And if you look at the archives about Ernest Withers, all that is mentioned in there. Even Judge Lockett is mentioned in those released files,” he added. Mr. Withers was a civil rights photographer who was also an FBI informant.

As the spying became more widespread, the ACLU of Tennessee led an investigation and subsequent lawsuit against the mayor, the police chief and others after it was discovered that the Memphis State University Student Council president discovered his former roommate was actually an undercover police agent and had compiled a dossier on him. The ACLU case challenged the very creation of the spy unit in the first place.

In resolution of that 1976 lawsuit, a consent decree was signed in 1978 that prohibited all officials at the time, future officials, employees and any other agents and departments of the city from ever gathering political intelligence “relating to any person’s beliefs, opinions, associations or other exercise of First Amendment rights.” 

The city was further instructed to “not intercept, record, transcribe or otherwise interfere with any communication by means of electronic surveillance for the purpose of political intelligence.” The comprehensive decree covered issues ranging from harassment and intimidation to infiltrating and posing as members of a group or organization to photographing persons in attendance at lawful meetings or demonstrations.

That decree, the first of its kind in the nation, is still in effect and has in it a stipulation requiring all law enforcement personnel are to be “familiarized with its contents in the same manner in which they are instructed about other rules of conduct.” However, Andre Muhammad, a 24-year police veteran and member of Muhammad Mosque No. 55, said he never heard of, nor was made aware of the contents of the consent decree until a recent Final Call interview.

Now, over 40 years since resolution of the lawsuit, the ACLU has filed a new lawsuit against the city of Memphis following the creation of a list in 2017 of individuals the city is requiring to have a police escort any time they visit city hall. The list stemmed from anti-police violence protests, Black Lives Matter and other social justice events and appears to be in violation of the 1976 consent decree.

The ACLU also accused the police department of utilizing software to surveil social media posts and video recording participants at lawful protests, which is a violation of the decree. In answer to a brief submitted by the ACLU, the city admitted police “SkyCams” along with police body cams, have recorded protests throughout the city.

According to an April 2018 ACLU deposition that has recently come to light, a police officer created a fake Facebook account using the profile name “Bob Smith” and possibly an account under the profile “Tim Ryan” to gather intelligence on activists who have private social media accounts. This surveillance of social media posts allowed for police to track activists and their activities in real time, going back to at least 2015.

Keedran “TNT” Franklin, whose name is on the City Hall Escort List and is one of the key organizers of the many social justice protests that erupted in the wake of the shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille in 2016, has experienced overt police surveillance for the past two years, much of which he documents on his Facebook account.

“I tried to have one on ones with Mike Rawlings (Memphis police chief). The funny thing about it is, we took a process to him regarding a program surrounding emotional wellness and all they wanted to do was take pictures of some of my elders and never got back with us. Now it’s a different time, now I’m seeing. It’s a little dangerous. The findings from, like, the ACLU. It’s dangerous. Some of the things I tried to put in place with Mike Rawlings, he didn’t really care about that. He was just worried more about what I was doing next, regardless if it was something to help or not,” said Mr. Franklin.

In a recent informal meeting with Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, Mr. Franklin said, “My whole thing with sitting down with you is to establish a different relationship, I don’t care if it looks like I hate the police or not, that’s not my thing. It’s about just establishing a rapport on how do we move forward, because this has totally eroded the police trust. A lot of people is really going to be like, ‘Oh …F**k them.”

Mr. Williams stated that he often finds himself walking a fine line. “As a police officer, I am definitely in tune with the Black community.” He said he has said to officers, “If, in fact, they are trying to do something for the community and it is not going to be intrusive, let them do it.”

“A lot of times you can’t change everything from the outside, sometimes you have to work from within. But what I am finding, even working from within, there is only so much you can do—and especially now. You have police officers that feel exactly like me, but you also have police officers with a ’70s mind. But I definitely like to use it as a platform to bring issues to light,” he added. However, he is acutely aware that in his position as president of the Police Association, he is always looked upon as that, not just as a concerned citizen, or a vet, but always a representative.

In the same meeting, Mr. Franklin’s attorney, Scott A. Kramer declined to go into specific details regarding police surveillance and the recent release of heavily redacted reports and emails from the police department, due to pending litigation. But he shared how he had seen Mr. William’s Facebook posts and saw officers who happened to be where he was. “We have a lawsuit with the city and the ACLU then joined in. We were dismissed and the ACLU stayed in, the city filed documents under seal and I knew they had done that and then they were unsealed for the filing of the summary judgement, so I found out when everyone else found out, the specifics, anyway,” he said.

The actions of the Memphis Police Department are affecting not only the activists that are being tracked, but members of their families who are expressing concern for their safety.

“I am good with myself, it’s my family I really worry about,” said Mr. Franklin. “I actually caught her crying [referring to his wife] yesterday; it really like upset me, her to be in this paranoid state.

“I come from Memphis, so I’ve always been at this paranoid state. I’ve always felt the pressure of the system, but it’s my family that has to deal with it on account of me. It’s not that I’m doing anything bad they have to worry about,” Mr. Franklin said. “I hate to have someone with me all the time,” he added.

The son of Al Lewis shared his feelings about the continued surveillance, both overtly and covertly, of his father.  “In reaction to the lawsuit, I just can’t believe you don’t have an entourage (speaking to his father) and that’s from my perspective because of how willing they are to intrude in someone’s lives, to the point of entering this home. It’s scary. And I feel safe, but in the grander scheme of all this, I have a feeling that there are players in this that view my wellbeing is something that’s not a heavy consideration and my family’s wellbeing is not heavily considered. They (referring to his family) are disposable parties, I feel of myself and my family. And that’s how I think … how evil power is, which goes back to me having no faith in this political system from the national scale to the local scale.”

The ACLU case is set to go to trial August 20.