Bob Smith said that he lived in Oxford, Miss. On Facebook, he "liked" pages for Black Lives Matter, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Memphis Voices For Palestine, Mid-South Peace and Justice, and comedian Rickey Smiley, according to screenshots obtained by the Commercial Appeal. "I'm not a cop," he wrote in a private message to one activist, adding that he would be interested in attending protests, but Memphis was a bit of a drive. His profile picture was an illustration of a Guy Fawkes mask.
But "Bob Smith" wasn't a person of color, as he had claimed online. On Monday, Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, a white detective with the Memphis Police Department's Office of Homeland Security, testified in federal court that he had created the account and friended hundreds of activists, according to the Appeal.
The revelation came out of a civil suit claiming the Memphis Police Department violated a 40-year-old consent decree. The suit will be a test of whether social media monitoring is the equivalent of the kind of intelligence gathering that took place in the past through infiltration and surveillance of civil rights activists.
Documents released by the department in response to the ACLU of Tennessee's lawsuit show that police extensively monitored social media posts between late 2016 and early 2017 to identify potential threats to public safety. But they also kept records of much more innocuous information.
Using Bob Smith's Facebook account, detectives collected the name of all 58 people who "liked" a post encouraging community organizers to read the work of Saul Alinsky. One officer flagged a vegan soul food cookout. Intelligence briefings contained information about a free backpack and school supply giveaway and a festival featuring black-owned food trucks.
Police also put together a PowerPoint presentation with the names and photographs of Black Lives Matter activists who had been arrested at prior protests and distributed it internally. According to the Guardian, the slide shows also contained information about the protesters' associates, some of whom had not been arrested or accused of breaking any laws.
City officials have argued that monitoring social media posts helped them learn that the Ku Klux Klan might be coming to a Black Lives Matter rally, uncover an attempt to hack into the Memphis Zoo's computer systems, and detect a possible threat to law enforcement in Shelby County. They emphasized that they keep tabs on groups on all ends of the political spectrum. Monitoring social media is "simply good police work," Police Director Michael Rallings said.
But it may have been illegal. In 1978, after an ACLU investigation revealed that police had infiltrated civil rights groups, the city of Memphis entered into a consent decree which forbade police from engaging in political intelligence.
Plaintiffs Elaine Blanchard, Keedran Franklin, Paul Garner and Bradley Watkins alleged that their inclusion on the "black list," as they called it, violated the consent decree.
The ACLU of Tennessee claimed the department has "engaged in pervasive and willful violations" of almost every provision of the consent decree and has asked that the Memphis Police Department be held in contempt of court.
On Aug. 10, U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla wrote that the city had "engaged in 'political intelligence' as defined and prohibited by the consent decree." However, he wrote, there is "genuine dispute" about whether the city infringed upon citizens' First Amendment rights or had violated other aspects of the consent decree. That question, he ruled, should go to trial.