The cops can’t find white terrorists in plain sight, but they have turned technology to the task of criminalizing Black and Left dissent.
‘The black identity extremism category was a product of the FBI’s imagination.”
“Memphis also offers the most detailed picture we have of what domestic political surveillance looks like in practice.”
It’s been 10 months since someone set an office building on fire at Highlander Research and Education Center, a storied civil rights institution perched in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, but the investigation into the fire seems to have gone nowhere. The charred remains of the collapsed structure are still untouched, and the yellow tape blocking access to them has only recently come off. In the parking lot next to the destroyed building, a symbol someone spray-painted in black on the concrete the night of the fire is also untouched: It looks like a hashtag, but with three intersecting lines instead of two.
That symbol is one used by racist extremists in the U.S. and abroad. It was painted on one of the firearms used by an Australian white supremacist who massacred 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, just two weeks before the fire at Highlander. The Anti-Defamation League traced the symbol’s origins to a Romanian fascist movement dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. But while the symbol is obscure to most, it has resurfaced in connection with the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi group that was active in the U.S. until recently. A year before it was sprayed in the parking lot at Highlander, the symbol was also painted on “the Rock,” a boulder at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, not far from Highlander, used by students as a message board. Yet if the symbol was a clue about who might have attacked Highlander, investigators — with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office; the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the FBI — have not yet said so publicly.
“In 1966, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed Highlander.”
Nobody was hurt in the March 29 fire in New Market, where Highlander sits on a hilly 200-acre campus with stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains. But it’s not the first time the center has come under attack. For nearly nine decades, Highlander has offered sanctuary to an array of racial, social, and economic justice movements, hosting the likes of Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the activists who wrote the Movement for Black Lives policy platform and immigrant rights and Palestinian solidarity groups. But the center also has a long history of being targeted for harassment and violence by government officials and racist groups. In 1961, as anti-communist fear-mongering gripped the country, the state of Tennessee seized Highlander’s land and buildings and revoked its charter; in 1966, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed its Knoxville location. After this most recent attack, Highlander staff had few expectations that law enforcement officials investigating the fire would give them answers about who caused it — but they were taken aback by their questions.
When local police arrived on the day of the fire, the first thing they asked Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, one of Highlander’s two co-directors, was “Are you beefing?”
“It was very clear to us that that there was some feeling that we might have done something to instigate this, versus white supremacy instigated this,” said Henderson, the first black woman to lead the center. “At that point, I didn’t even know what the symbol was or meant, but even when we did realize that it was a symbol of the white power movement, it’s not like we’re out there doing a tit for tat with them. I’m literally in a position where my very existence as a human is the antithesis of what they believe in.”
“Highlander staff had few expectations that law enforcement would give them answers.”
André Canty, who works in development and communications at Highlander, compared the line of questioning from police after the fire to that following the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012 — or that often applied to black victims of police violence. “What did he do to cause his own death?” said Canty. “You’re asking me, why did your abuser abuse you? Why are racists doing racist things?”
But as federal investigators joined local police in the months following the fire, the questions posed to Highlander staff grew only more pointed and bizarre, as if they, and not their presumed attackers, were under investigation. “Who do you train?” they were asked. “Who funds you? Are you training protesters? Do you know antifa?”
“It was totally an interrogation,” said Henderson. “Instead of an investigation that’s going to produce information that tells us how we can make ourselves more safe from white supremacist violence, what tends to be true, historically, is that these are opportunities for the state to gather more information about who’s coming to Highlander, what they’re talking about, what you train them on.”
Asked about those questions, Jason Pack, a special agent with the FBI’s field office in Knoxville, wrote to The Intercept that he was not “personally aware of those issues,” but declined to comment further because the investigation is “ongoing.” A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told The Intercept that it is the office’s policy “to neither confirm or deny the existence of or status of investigations.” Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey did not respond to a request for comment. The Fire Marshal’s Office referred questions to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which has since taken over fire investigations. A spokesperson for the bureau wrote in a statement to The Intercept that “the cause of the fire remains under investigation.” The ATF did not respond to a request for comment.
Policing Violence vs. Policing Dissent
As white supremacists have carried out a growing number of deadly attacks in recent years, the FBI has come under mounting criticism for its failure to address the threat posed by far-right extremist ideologies, whose adherents account for most of the politically motivated violence in the U.S. At the same time, the bureau has also been heavily criticized for devoting large resources to surveilling political dissent by groups and individuals, often of color, who pose no threat but are critical of the government because they oppose official immigration policies or demand police accountability.
The FBI’s preoccupation with policing nonviolent critical ideologies while neglecting to investigate ideologies tied to real, and increasing, violence was perhaps best captured in an infamous 2017 threat assessment report warning law enforcement agencies of the supposed rise of a “black identity extremist” movement targeting police, which the FBI said had emerged on the heels of the Ferguson protests and in response to “perceived racism and injustice in American society.” Yet as The Intercept has reported, and as a number of legislators, activists, and even law enforcement officials have repeatedly pointed out, the black identity extremism category was a product of the FBI’s imagination, assembled by cobbling together disparate, isolated incidents with no connection between them other than the race of their perpetrators.
“Far-right extremist ideologies, whose adherents account for most of the politically motivated violence in the U.S.”
For more than a year after the assessment was leaked, the FBI refused to disavow the categorization, even while failing to point to any evidence suggesting that such an ideology existed in reality. Then last year, as the backlash around the label persisted, and as ongoing white supremacist attacks underscored the FBI’s seeming double standards, bureau officials told legislators that they were doing away with a set of earlier domestic terrorism categories in favor of four larger ones. The FBI’s fictional black identity extremists would now be lumped together with white supremacists under a new “racially motivated violent extremism” category. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment for this story, referring The Intercept to two congressional hearings in which bureau officials testified on the issue. “The term I’m using is racially motivated violent extremist for the very fact that we’re focused on the violence; we’re not focused on the skin of anyone,” Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, said in response to a legislator’s question about the FBI’s focus on supposed black identity extremists as opposed to white supremacist extremists. “‘Black identity extremist,’ since I’ve been here, we have not used that term,” added McGarrity, who was appointed to his position in February 2018. “But also, you’re not hearing me use ‘white supremacists’ as a group. I’m focused on the violence. … Ideology itself is a First Amendment right.”
As The Intercept noted at the time, that false equivalence made it virtually impossible for the public to know whether the FBI was devoting resources to investigating real threats of racist violence or social and racial justice groups critical of government. And while the FBI’s reclassification has already been replicated at the local level — for example, by the New York City Police Department, which recently announced a “Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism” unit — civil rights advocates warn that collapsing real and imaginary extremist ideologies risks providing cover for the ongoing targeting of nonviolent activists and activists of color.
“It’s egregious to compare black dissent to what white nationalists are doing in this country and to what white supremacy is doing in this country,” said Henderson. “Let’s just be real: If there’s a fear about domestic terror, white men are killing lots of people. And we’ve got to figure out how to deal with that.”
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, told me that using the “racially motivated” umbrella term without distinction “is a way to both hide the fact that there isn’t really black motivated violent extremism and at the same time, to justify the continued investigation.”
“White men are killing lots of people.”
In fact, civil rights advocates have argued against using recent white supremacist attacks to call for more domestic terror laws and mass policing of any ideology, cautioning that trampling on constitutionally protected speech in the absence of criminality or national security threats risks strengthening authoritarian systems that will inevitably blow back on government critics and minorities. But there is a fundamental difference between policing ideas and policing crime and criminal intent. The fire at Highlander, where the investigation of a criminal, violent act appears to have morphed into a broad inquiry into the political work of the victims, offers a troubling example of the obfuscation enabled by the “racially motivated extremism” label.
“There was a criminal act and there was presumably criminal planning that led up to it, which is different from surveiling simply on the basis of speech and ideology,” said Levinson-Waldman. “The focus on the victims of that act and their political work and organizing is incredibly distressing. It’s so backwards, and it’s so counterproductive.”
The Memphis Blacklist
While the fire at Highlander remains unsolved almost a year after it occurred, 400 miles away, on the opposite side of the state, a recent lawsuit against the city of Memphis has exposed the lengths to which police will go to surveil the free speech activities of Black Lives Matter and other activists who have committed no crimes.
In 2018, a federal judge in Memphis ruled that the city’s police department was in violation of a decades-old federal consent decree prohibiting local law enforcement from gathering “political intelligence.” The ruling followed litigation that revealed that Memphis police’s Office of Homeland Security, a unit set up following the 9/11 attacks, had engaged in widespread and systemic surveillance of the constitutionally protected activities of individuals protesting, among other things, the killings of black men at the hands of police. The litigation strikingly revealed how the domestic political surveillance efforts ramped up after 9/11 evolved in the post-Ferguson era. It exposed a fake Facebook profile police had created to “friend” activists and monitor their discussions and plans. It showed that police had used software designed to comb social media chatter and map connections between individuals based on their digital interactions. It revealed that police had been compiling a series of “joint intelligence briefs” on local activists, including pictures, comments, and details about events they planned to attend, which they then distributed as often as three times a day to other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the military, and a number of large local businesses, such as FedEx. And the litigation revealed that police had also monitored church services, candlelight vigils, even a black-owned food truck festival and a school supplies giveaway.
The lawsuit itself followed the discovery by local activists of a “blacklist” of 84 individuals whom the city had secretly barred from entering City Hall without police escort. The list included some of the city’s most vocal organizers, but also some whom police had found to be merely “associates” of known protesters, as well as the mother and aunt of Darrius Stewart, a 19-year-old black man killed by Memphis police during a 2015 traffic stop.
“Police monitored church services, candlelight vigils, even a black-owned food truck festival.”
Keedran Franklin, a 33-year-old activist and organizer, and one of four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he’s always suspected that police were keeping tabs on him, but first had those fears confirmed in early 2017, when a friend who was working as a security contractor for the city told him that officials “have a book on y’all,” Franklin recalled. “They have pictures, known associations, your picture is on the wall.”
Franklin had first become active in his community by working on violence interruption programs and collaborating with the former mayor’s “guns down” initiative, but he had become suspicious of the information the city kept on the youth he worked with and grew increasingly skeptical of what he now believes was a surveillance effort masked as community outreach. “I felt like I was helping them prey on us,” he told me. Franklin soon started organizing protests and direct actions, first with the Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage and then, after the Ferguson protests and the killing of Stewart in Memphis, against police violence.
But Franklin never threatened police or anyone else, he stressed, and Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings even gave him his personal cellphone number after Franklin helped negotiate with police during a protest, offering to help disperse protesters if police promised not to arrest anyone. “Why would he allow me to have his number if I’m this much of a threat?” said Franklin. “It was all political, flat out political. They had no criminal investigations around any of us.”
When the lawsuit yielded dozens of joint intelligence briefs and other internal police documents, Franklin’s name, photo, and activities were all over them. “Keedran Franklin has participated in several demonstrations/protests and is associated with a group called Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens,” reads one of several police documents about Franklin, which also lists other individuals he is “closely associated with” and notes that they espouse several causes, such as “Free Palestine,” “Fight for $15,” and “Standing Rock.”
“I felt like I was helping them prey on us.”
Franklin already knew he was being monitored; he had been followed by unmarked cars for years, and he often confronted police and livestreamed the exchanges with his phone when he saw them watching him. But the extent of the surveillance revealed in the documents surprised even him: Some memos listed people’s height and weight, Social Security numbers, and in one case details of an individual’s mental health history. And Franklin realized when he learned of the joint intelligence briefs that a new neighbor who had told him that he looked familiar had been receiving the memos police had written on him and distributed widely. “I’m not this terrorist they are painting me to be,” he said. “I got flaws, I’m not perfect, but I’m no damn terrorist.”
Police surveillance efforts seem to have picked up after Stewart’s killing in July 2015. A year earlier, the protests over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, had kicked off nationwide rallies against police violence. And a couple of months before Stewart was killed, protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore had reignited anger at police, while also putting local and federal law enforcement on high alert. In Memphis, a majority black city where distrust of police runs deep — “and for good cause,” as a local lawyer put it — tensions came to a peak on July 10, 2016, after the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, when hundreds of peaceful protesters shut down the Hernando de Soto Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River to connect Tennessee to Arkansas.
That protest — the largest in Memphis’s recent history — kicked off a series of others in the following months, and the police department’s Homeland Security office, which had previously focused on domestic and international terrorism threats, “shifted almost entirely to obtaining intelligence about planned large events with the potential for violence against large scale disruption of traffic or commerce,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in court filings. In an internal slide made public through the litigation, police even called 2016 “A Year of Social Unrest Reminiscent of the late 1960s and early 1970s,” just as they resorted to the surveillance tactics of those years.
Through 2016, officers monitored activists as they protested racist coverage by the local paper, rallied outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, and staged a peaceful “die-in” outside the home of Mayor Jim Strickland in December 2016. It’s that die-in in particular that prompted officials to add activists and protesters to the blacklist — or “escort list,” as they called it — which up to that point had mostly included former employees or individuals accused of threats or disorderly conduct. The mayor personally authorized the addition to the list of many of the protesters who had lain down in his front yard.
“The die-in prompted officials to add activists and protesters to the blacklist.”
Ursula Madden, the chief communications officer for the city of Memphis, challenged the description of the protest as “peaceful,” saying that protesters “showed up at the mayor’s home with their faces covered, climbed in the trees on his private property, tried to open the doors to his house and peeked into the windows while his family was inside sleeping—all while recording it on Facebook live and making threatening comments.”
But both the blacklist and the police intelligence operation directed at protesters violated a 1978 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department that Memphis had entered after it was found to have illegally compiled dossiers on anti-war and student activists through the 1960s and 1970s. While the Justice Department has entered into dozens of such agreements with police departments across the country in an effort to bring them in line with federal civil rights standards, most decrees have focused on excessive force or discriminatory policing. The Memphis consent decree is the only one nationwide that focuses on the issue of political surveillance. And because of the thousands of pages of documents and the public testimony produced by the recent lawsuit, Memphis also offers the most detailed picture we have of what domestic political surveillance looks like in practice.
“Memphis is a microcosm of what we assume is happening across the country,” said Levinson-Waldman, who serves on a federal monitoring team a judge put in place after he found the city to be in violation of the decree. “It’s the clearest window that we have into what kind of surveillance is going on.”
One Big Plantation
In Memphis, no one can possibly forget that the police are watching. If across the country security cameras have become a ubiquitous reality of modern life, whose presence is easy to forget as they blend into the urban landscape, Memphis’s cameras light up the city with piercing blue flashes that flicker endlessly from utility poles like thousands of blinking eyes.
Memphis’s distinctive “SkyCop” cameras — more than 2,000 in 500 locations across the city — feed millions of hours of footage a year into the city’s Real Time Crime Center. The cameras are another legacy of the war on terror, as officials in Memphis, a major commercial hub, first looked to boost video surveillance capabilities to protect critical infrastructure. In fact, the cameras have largely been used to deter crime, but the lawsuit revealed that they were also used to surveil protesters in violation of the decree. “It’s a police state, for real,” said Franklin, of the cameras. “They started taking that equipment and technology and turned it inward, onto us.”
But there are other reminders of police surveillance. Antonio Cathey, another well-known Memphis activist and organizer with Fight for $15, told me that at a turkey giveaway some friends and family had organized before Thanksgiving, police stood at a distance watching people with binoculars. And that’s nothing compared to what happened to Cathey in August 2018, on the very first day of the consent decree trial. Cathey was in court watching the proceedings when his grandmother called to tell him that police had pushed their way into her house and, across the street, that of his uncle.
When Cathey raced there, he found dozens of officers from various agencies, many in riot gear and face masks. The officers had raided the homes and issued his uncle a citation after they found a trace of marijuana in his car’s ashtray — not enough to justify an arrest. “They tore the house completely up,” said Cathey, adding that he had been terrified for his grandmother. “I told her, Don’t open the door for them. Every guy with a badge and a gun is not a good cop.”
Cathey, who recognized one of the officers from protests he had attended, repeatedly asked police why they were there, but all they told him was, “We know all about you” and “We know exactly who you are.” A neighbor pointed to a light pole on the street that he said municipal workers had come to fix in the early hours of the morning, even though it didn’t appear to be broken. There was a box on the pole with black and yellow tape, and a sign warning, ‘Danger, don’t touch.’ But Cathey could see a camera lens behind the tape.
“Memphis’s distinctive ‘SkyCop’ cameras feed millions of hours of footage a year into the city’s Real Time Crime Center.”
That’s when it clicked for him that the raid was no coincidence. “We just had court downtown,” he said. “I see what’s going on. If they can’t get to you, they’ll get to your family.”
Madden, the city spokesperson, said in a statement that the incident was “unrelated” to the lawsuit.
Since then, relatives have told Cathey that they support him but wish he would stop going to protests. “I’m not going to stop doing this,” he said. “I have the right to do this, and [police] are not going to stop me. If they’re looking for something, I’m open, it’s right on my Facebook page.”
But it’s not just activists who are learning to live with a surveillance apparatus they assume to be ubiquitous. Journalists and lawyers in Memphis whisper when they speak in public places. They get suspicious when a car remains behind them after a couple of turns. When I met in a cafe with Wendi C. Thomas, who for years wrote a column for Memphis’s largest newspaper before recently starting the independent news organization, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, she kept watching her back before asking if we could speak in a more private place. “I know when I talk to people who aren’t from Memphis that I sound crazy,” she told me. Then, citing a phrase others have used to describe Memphis, she added, “This place is one big plantation.”
Thomas, who as the Commercial Appeal’s first black female columnist endured years of threats of violence from readers, including death and rape threats, said she discovered the Memphis police had been tracking her social media pages in the middle of the consent decree trial, which she was covering. Thomas was looking down at her notebook when she heard an officer who was testifying about the fake identity he created to friend activists on Facebook read her name out loud, twice, from an exhibit page. “I looked up and was like, Did he just say my name? Why would they be monitoring me?” she said. Thomas immediately filed a public records request for her name and that of three other female journalists, including the photographer for this story, whose name had come up in testimony. It took the city 433 days to respond.
Thomas believes that she and the other journalists came under surveillance because they were in contact with activists. “I think it speaks to the trust that we have built, intentionally, with activists and organizers,” she said. “The fact that you have sources is proof that you’re a good journalist. For some of us who have a broad variety of sources, including those in communities that are marginalized, it’s proof that we are doing our jobs. But that also makes us a target. If more journalists here in Memphis saw that as part of their job, maybe it would be harder for the city to target all of us.”
“Journalists and lawyers in Memphis whisper when they speak in public places.”
There is little question that the targeting is real. As The Intercept has reported, Memphis police in 2018 arrested undocumented journalist Manuel Duran, who ran a local Spanish-language news site, while he covered a protest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in the city. When the charges against Duran were quickly dismissed, instead of releasing him, police turned him over to officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who detained him for over a year. While a number of activists were also arrested at the protest, several other reporters who were there were not. And Duran, who was wearing a press badge, appeared to have been singled out. He was well known to local police, which he had covered critically, and in his own video of the incident, an officer can be heard saying, “Get him, guys” and pointing in Duran’s direction. Then officers grab him even as two activists try to shield him and scream, “He’s a reporter.”
In a statement, the city’s spokesperson wrote that “officers did not know Mr. Duran, or know that he was a member of the media,” and that he was “one of many people arrested for blocking traffic.”
“History doesn’t rhyme, but it echoes,” Thomas said about the episode. “It’s disturbing: The day before the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, they’re out there arresting journalists and organizers.”
Police surveillance continued even in church. Rev. Earle Fisher, a pastor at the city’s Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church and an outspoken community leader, said a meeting he hosted at the church after the 2016 bridge protest had also been monitored by police. Fisher said people there had joked about the church being bugged, but he was nonetheless shocked to learn from a local news outlet that his church was one of the spaces that law enforcement was watching after the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security had warned Memphis police that “gangs, home grown extremists and criminals” could use legal protests as cover to incite violence. Fisher said that if there was a real threat of violence at the church, police should have told him — but they never did.
Fisher first realized how far the city would go to monitor critics when he noticed “Tennessee Department of Homeland Security” pop up on his listed Wi-Fi networks at home. Once, after he wrote a public letter to the city’s district attorney about the killing of Darrius Stewart, a friend in law enforcement warned him to “keep his nose clean” because the DA “ran his profile to see if anything came up.” “If you know anything about history, these types of things are always going to happen,” said Fisher. Now every time a phone call drops, he just thinks, It must be them.
But Fisher added that he and most activists he knows have simply taken note of the surveillance and continued to do the work.
“When you are somebody who has been clearly committed to advocating against an unjust status quo, then you are going to find yourself at odds with any entity that’s been constructed to protect the status quo,” he said. “I know I’m on the right side of history, I know I’m doing this for the right reasons, and I know, based on my constitutional rights, that I’m doing this the right way. At some point, you just hope it breaks through.”
A City of Spies
Memphis has a long history of both activism and government surveillance. The city was a focal point for the labor and anti-war movements, and it’s there that King marched for the last time in a rally in support of a sanitation workers’ strike in 1968. At the height of the civil rights movement, around 1965, the Memphis Police Department established a Domestic Intelligence Unit that began to infiltrate and keep secret dossiers about citizens engaging in constitutionally protected political activities, from vigils against the Vietnam War to union efforts. Much like the FBI was doing at the same time under the now-infamous COINTELPRO program, the Memphis Police Department targeted the ACLU, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and various workers groups. Without warrants, it monitored their mail and phones and kept files on their activities, relationships, and sexual preferences, relying on a network of undercover agents and informants to gather intelligence on unsuspecting individuals.
The extent of the DIU’s surveillance was finally exposed in the mid-1970s, when Memphis State student Eric Carter discovered his roommate had been an undercover officer. When Carter demanded to see the files police had kept on him, the city incinerated them. As it became clear that officials planned to destroy all evidence of the DIU’s work, the ACLU intervened, represented by Memphis civil rights attorney Bruce Kramer, and requested a federal court to stop the city from destroying more evidence. But before the order could be served, Mayor Wyeth Chandler ordered the DIU terminated and “ten filing cabinets of photographs, reports and documents compiled over a nine-year period … stuffed into garbage bags by DIU staff, taken to city’s Scott Street incinerator, doused with fuel and burned,” according to the ACLU’s retelling of the incident. That’s when the ACLU filed Kendrick v. Chandler, a class-action lawsuit that in 1978 led to a federal consent decree banning the city of Memphis from “engaging in law enforcement activities which interfere with any person’s rights protected by the First Amendment.” Even in connection to a criminal investigation, the order continued, “the City of Memphis must appropriately limit all law enforcement activities so as not to infringe on any person’s First Amendment rights.”
Since then, Kramer has periodically checked to make sure that police were abiding by the ban, but it was in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests and the killing of Darrius Stewart that it became evident police were brazenly violating the decree. When activists learned of the blacklist — after one of them showed up at City Hall and was told that he couldn’t enter without a police escort — Kramer filed a new lawsuit on behalf of Franklin and three others, accusing the city of violating the Kendrick decree. The ACLU joined the suit after the judge in the case indicated that the four were not part of the original 1976 lawsuit and therefore couldn’t bring the claim, an interpretation Kramer vehemently contests.
“It became evident police were brazenly violating the decree.”
For Kramer, there is little difference between today’s surveillance and what the city of Memphis engaged in half a century ago. “The basic principles are the same: People have a First Amendment right to protest and a Fourth Amendment right not to have these dossiers kept on them,” he told me. “In the ’70s, and even before then, in the ’60s and ’50s and ’40s, they were worried about communists, and then they were worried about the Black Panthers, and then they were worried about the Weathermen, and then they were worried about the civil rights people. There is no doubt they fear the activist community — black and white.”
Despite being under federal court orders, the Memphis Police Department never put in place guidelines or training to make sure that officers wouldn’t conduct political surveillance. And when attorneys started deposing police as part of the recent litigation, they realized that “there was a complete ignorance amongst the entire department about the existence of the decree,” said Thomas Castelli, legal director of the ACLU of Tennessee.
The week before the trial started, the city also filed a motion to modify the terms of the decree, which it argued was written before the internet and surveillance technology and was inapplicable to today’s policing methods. After Judge Jon McCalla of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee found the city in contempt of the decree, he brought in a federal monitoring team that’s currently in the process of negotiating guidelines, trainings, and an auditing mechanism the police department must follow going forward. But the city has also continued to argue that the decree is obsolete and makes it harder for police to do their job — an argument that McCalla refuted in clear terms last November, when he denied a new request by the city’s lawyers to modify the terms of the decree. The decree, McCalla wrote, “acts as a bulwark, ensuring that the City’s surveillance practices do not cross the line from being a powerful weapon in the fight against crime to becoming an intrusive tool that improperly interferes with its residents’ First Amendment-protected activities.”
The drawn-out process and the city’s apparent backpedaling have frustrated activists, and two recent community meetings held by the monitor have been heated. “This is not like we’re two parties and we have to mediate a fight,” said Franklin. “The city administration and police force violated our constitutional rights. They’re in the wrong and need to be treated as such. … They still never apologized.”
“There is no doubt they fear the activist community.”
Franklin, who became a father in November, said he fears that the judge’s ruling and the monitoring team won’t be enough to stop police from harassing him. “I don’t want my son to be under the scope of Big Brother like a Fred Hampton Jr.,” he said, referring to the son of Fred Hampton, the young leader of the Black Panthers killed by Chicago police in 1969. “I should not have to live in fear of me and my son being surveilled. My son should not have to live in fear of that.”
According to Madden, “the City is complying with the consent decree. However the City has the right to seek modification of the consent decree, which is 40 years old, and is not consistent with best police practices to provide safety in the 21st century.”
In a recent interview about the decree with a local media outlet, Rallings, the police director, also argued that the decree is outdated. “In 1978, nobody wore seatbelts,” said Rallings. “Well, we learned that seatbelts save lives, so everybody knows it’s click it or ticket. So we found that something that was done in the ’70s we probably need to go revisit and modify and make it apply to modern police work, and that’s all we’re asking.”
But Rallings also connected Memphis’s surveillance efforts to the warnings local police have been getting from federal law enforcement, particularly following the killings of eight police officers during protests in Dallas and Baton Rouge in 2016. “That was a peaceful protest, until a gunman opened fire,” said Rallings. “If we think about the number of threats that we are receiving, information from the FBI that individuals were infiltrating peaceful protests and had nefarious intents. … We had an obligation to protect our citizens.”
In fact, documents obtained in discovery show that police were regularly distributing intelligence briefings that compiled news coverage of incidents of violence against police officers in other cities with information gleaned from social media about rallies and actions planned in Memphis — even though there was no connection between them. Other documents show that round-the-clock social media monitoring of Memphis-based activists yielded no evidence that they posed any threat.
“There’s this kind of connotation here, whether they intended that connotation or not, and it’s going out to pretty much every cop in the city,” Castelli said. “I think it’s just indicative of what’s going on all over the country with this: law enforcement that is concerning itself more and more with what people are saying, and particularly with what they are saying about law enforcement. … There seems to be a theme, and it fits with the larger antagonism between activists for police reform and the police that are supposed to make sure they can say what they want to say.”
“Law enforcement that is concerning itself more and more with what people are saying.”
Some activists noted that police surveillance of police critics and protests against police violence was particularly frustrating when compared to police’s hands-off treatment of far-right groups that have also rallied in Memphis and across Tennessee.
“One of these is not like the other,” said Fisher, the pastor. “But here’s a basic thought: Treat us the same way you treat the white supremacists when they come to town. … This is a concrete choice, them saying, ‘No, we’re not going to provide you with the same constitutional rights and privileges as we would provide the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.’”
As it happens, Tennessee has long been a hotbed for the white nationalist movement. “It seems to be viewed as a friendly place for white supremacists,” said Castelli. Halfway between Highlander and Memphis is the town of Pulaski, the birthplace of the Klan, and in recent years the state hosted 20 percent of the country’s white supremacist gatherings and events, according to the Anti-Defamation League. And while Memphis and the Appalachian mountains where Highlander is located are very different demographically and politically, activists from both communities recognize their experiences as being part of the same criminalization of black dissent in a state that has a long history of both civil rights struggles and white supremacist backlash.
“What’s absurd is that they are spending so many resources on that sort of thing across the state in Memphis, a black city, when literally white supremacists are firebombing buildings over here,” said Highlander’s Henderson. “Why are you surveilling Keedran? Why are you surveilling me? What did I do? If the only answer you have is that we are black and we disagree with the power structures that are harming our communities, then how is this any different than McCarthyism? How is it different than COINTELPRO?”
A History of Harassment
Last summer, Henderson and Franklin joined activists from Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and across the country in a delegation to Capitol Hill organized by the racial justice group MediaJustice, which together with the ACLU has been lobbying lawmakers to demand more transparency from the FBI about its surveillance of activists of color. Myaisha Hayes, an organizer with MediaJustice who runs the group’s “protect Black dissent” campaign, told me that what was happening on opposite sides of Tennessee was exactly what she feared would continue to happen as the FBI collapsed real and imaginary extremist categories into the generic “racially motivated extremism.”
“On one side of the state, you’ve got people dealing with the police department clearly violating an agreement not to surveil activists, and then a few hours away, you have activists calling for help to investigate an act of hatred, an act of violence, and yet there’s no follow-up,” she said. “While the government and the police have such a long history of surveilling and criminalizing black folks, they’ve really left those same communities vulnerable to white supremacist violence and police violence.”
At Highlander, being targeted for state surveillance and harassment while also coming under threat of violence by white supremacist groups has a long history. At Highlander’s workshop center — a red two-story structure where visiting activists and organizers gather for meals and meetings — a series of panels line the walls, describing Highlander’s achievements over the decades along with the attacks on the center in those same years.
The Highlander Folk School was founded by Myles Horton at Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1932 as a space to organize poor and working people in the South, and from its early days, the school served as a radical space for education, movement building, and desegregation. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Highlander was accused of being “thoroughly communistic” and a “free love” community. The center lost some of its union partners to the red-baiting and faced a series of bomb threats. The harassment continued through the 1950s as the school was infiltrated and accused of “fomenting racial strife and disrupting values and institutions of the South.” Highlander had always promoted interracial solidarity, but through the ’50s and ’60s, the center was pivotal to the black freedom movement: Highlander organized voter registration workshops and adult literacy programs to fight disenfranchisement. Parks trained at the school months before the Montgomery bus boycott. And it’s there that Pete Seeger taught King the reworked lyrics to “We Shall Overcome.”
In 1961, following an FBI investigation, Tennessee officials closed the school, took its land, and revoked its charter. The padlocked buildings were burned down shortly after. Highlander relocated to a house in Knoxville and changed its name to the current Highlander Research and Education Center. “They literally just changed the name and kept doing what they were doing,” said Henderson. In Knoxville, the harassment continued. In 1963, an interracial training camp for activists organized by Highlander was raided by police, who arrested 29 people. Days later, someone burned the camp down. In 1966, after the Klan marched against the center’s Knoxville location, someone threw a Molotov cocktail through its window. Highlander moved to its current location in 1972.
“Highlander was attacked a lot,” said Susan Williams, a coordinator at the center’s library who has been with the organization for more than 30 years. “How it still exists is kind of a miracle.”
“The government and the police have left black communities vulnerable to white supremacist violence.”
The latest fire dealt a blow to the staff. While most of Highlander’s historical archives were safe offsite at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere, the office building that was destroyed contained documentation of the center’s more recent work on immigrant rights, anti-globalization, and economic and environmental justice, which Williams is now setting out to re-create. The fire also brought heightened security to a community whose hospitality and inclusivity are core to its mission. On a recent visit, guests were welcomed warmly, but only after the center’s security team — or “community safety,” as staff prefer to call it — was notified. “It’s hard for people to have security,” said Williams, “that’s the biggest change in terms of our mentality.”
But the fire has also brought messages of support and solidarity from groups and individuals across the region, the country, and the world who were touched by the center’s work. “We forget that we’re just stewards of this place that really matters to people,” said Williams. “And most importantly to people who come here who are very isolated, who are getting attacked, and here they meet people like them and develop relationships.”
If Highlander has come under attack throughout its history, Henderson noted, many of the vulnerable and marginalized communities with which it works undergo attacks every day. “All the folks that we work with are people that are consistently under attack,” she said. But Henderson is adamant that just as nine decades of threats and obstruction failed to stop the work of Highlander, neither will the latest attack.
On the day of the fire, a delegation of Central Appalachian activists had been due to arrive at the center to talk about efforts to fight mass incarceration in the region. With their destroyed office building still smoldering, Henderson and the rest of the staff debated whether to cancel the workshop. “And then we were like, ‘That’s exactly what they want us to do, they want to stop our work,’” she said.
The workshop that day proceeded as planned. A new library, already in the works before the fire, is opening soon. “In short, we’re here,” Henderson and her co-director wrote in a recent email to supporters. And while the investigation remains open, the work at Highlander continues.
“One of the biggest victories,” Henderson said, “other than all the incredible, lifesaving work that was possible because this place continued to be walking in its mission, is that white nationalists didn’t win.”
Alice Speri writes about justice, immigration, and civil rights. She has reported from Palestine, Haiti, El Salvador, Colombia, and across the United States. She is originally from Italy and lives in the Bronx.
This story was supported by a fellowship from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
This article previously appeared in The Intercept.
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