Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" dominated box offices and garnered impeccable reviews this past weekend, with Rolling Stone even describing the film as a "hellraising masterpiece." Based on the real life story of Ron Stallworth, an undercover black detective who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970's, the controversial film is sparking conversations about the racial politics of the past and present.
One subplot in the film involves Stallworth being reluctantly assigned to investigate a local Black Power movement budding in Colorado. Stallworth is sent to assess whether the group poses a threat to safety and concludes, along with his partners, that whatever inflammatory language was being used was largely rhetorical.
Nowadays, to what extent police can legally monitor protest movements remains a huge question. A recent controversy over the monitoring of Black Lives Matter groups in Tennessee demonstrates the complexities of this conundrum.
The Tennessee ACLU scored a large victory against the city of Memphis on Aug. 10, according to USA Today. A 1978 agreement against spying on political demonstrators was violated by the Memphis Police Department, as ruled by U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla this month.
"The city engaged in 'political intelligence' as defined and prohibited by the consent decree," McCalla wrote in a 35-page order.
The actions that specifically violated the agreement included the creation of a security list, which named participants in symbolic acts of protest, including a die-in at the mayor's house.
"The record shows that the city gathered and disseminated information relating to their associations protected by the First Amendment," McCalla wrote.
Unclear in McCalla's ruling is whether or not the city had intended to stifle freedom of speech in their actions and to what extent police have the right to monitor the social media presence of activists.
"The consent decree does not prohibit the city from monitoring social media altogether, it simply prohibits the city from casting too wide a net," McCalla wrote.
Police have contested the extent to which their actions have violated the agreement and the validity of the agreement itself.
"The Court’s ruling was an interpretation of the definition of 'political intelligence' under the consent decree," wrote City Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen in a statement. "While several issues remain to be considered at trial, the city maintains the 40-year-old consent decree, which was drafted before the existence of the Internet, security cameras, body cameras, sky cameras, traffic light cameras and smart phones, is woefully outdated and impractical to apply in modern law enforcement."
Documents unsealed in July of 2018 show precisely how police were monitoring a plethora of activist organizations. Their actions included the creation of fake social media identities who would interact with members of movements and the creation of PowerPoint presentations that tracked the associations of different members, according to USA Today.
The actions of the police department had been staunchly condemned by Jeffery Robinson, ACLU deputy legal director and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality.
"It hurts all the same to see yet another overstep by law enforcement, one with echoes in the history of the civil rights movement, and, make no mistake, it includes the struggle going on today for civil rights," Robinson wrote on the ACLU website.
"If you think the behavior is justified because it contained some information about people who had been arrested at protests, remember, Dr. King was arrested over 30 times in 12 years. He met with Malcom X. MPD was not justified in spying on Dr. King. MPD is not justified in spying on Black Lives Matter."
"BLM activists are walking in the shoes of Dr. King and others who came before them," Robinson continued. "Memphis police should not be walking in the shoes of the police who came before them. The fact that they have represents another in a series of continuing examples of centuries of failings by law enforcement and the intertwined fear of Black liberation."
Judge McCalla has yet to determine whether sanctions will be issued against the city for its actions.
"That sanction will depend, in part, on how many of the consent decree's provisions the city is determined to have violated and the details of the city's specific violations," McCalla wrote.
[Photo: Screenshot via YouTube]
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