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Fast food workers sue City of Memphis over surveillance and intimidation tactics

Stephon Johnson | 3/2/2017, 11:05 a.m.
A local Fight for $15 organization in Memphis fielded a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city Wednesday.
Fast food workers Mark Hill/CNN

A local Fight for $15 organization in Memphis fielded a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city Wednesday. Workers have accused the Memphis Police Department of engaging in a widespread and illegal campaign of surveillance and intimidation attempting to stifle the workers’ fight for a living wage and the right to organize.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District by the Mid-South Organizing Committee, alleges that since December 2014 the MPD violated the constitutional rights of free expression and association by targeting the local Fight for $15 chapter because of their race and message.

The MPD is accused of, according to an email to the AmNews, “selectively enforcing the city’s permit requirements against the Fight for $15; regularly following organizers and activists in squad cars and sometimes parking outside of their homes to intimidate them; spreading disparaging information about the Fight for $15 to schools and community members, sometimes using racially coded and offensive language; threatening and intimidating Fight for $15 activists and organizers with arrests for engaging in free speech; and including Fight for $15 organizers on a black list that prevents them from entering City Hall without an armed police escort.”

“The MPD is engaging in an intentional and illegal campaign to intimidate workers in an effort to prevent them from exercising their constitutional right to speak out,” said Jerry Martin, an attorney for the Mid-South Organizing Committee, in a statement. “We’ve read about such behavior in history books, but unfortunately, in Memphis, intimidation and harassment of protesters is not just a thing of the past.”

This past November, MPD officers stepped behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant to stop workers from signing petitions that called for union rights, higher wages, better working conditions and benefits. Since 2014, officers (according to the lawsuit) enforced local permitting laws on the predominantly Black workers in the Fight for $15 organization, while allowing protests by mostly white crowds to continue.

The lawsuit also accuses the MPD of violating the terms and conditions of a 1978 consent order that prohibits the City of Memphis from engaging in political surveillance.

“They’re trying to stop us from speaking out, but even though it’s riskier, we know we have a right to protest and we’re not going to be intimidated,” said Ashley Cathey, a Church’s Chicken worker and member of the Fight for $15 National Organizing Committee, in a statement. “Our fight for $15 is changing the country and it’s the Memphis Police Department that’s going to have to change along with it.”