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Q&A: Paul Garner Mid-South Peace & Justice Center

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It's been nearly a year since a federal judge ruled that Memphis violated a 1978 consent decree meant to deter police surveillance on activists.

U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla ruled that the Memphis Police Department (MPD) violated several areas of the decree, including intercepting electronic communications, using a fake Facebook profile of "Bob Smith" to learn of activists' activities, and failing to properly inform officers of the parameters of the 1978 ruling.

MEMPHIS UNITED/ FACEBOOK
  • Memphis United/ Facebook

McCalla's ruling also mandated the creation of a court-appointed monitoring team to track MPD's progress and adherence to the decree. Last week, that team testified before McCalla at a 90-day update hearing.

Paul Garner, organizing director for Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, is one of the activists who was surveilled by MPD. He said some of MPD's activities are still "questionable." — Maya Smith

Memphis Flyer: What are your takeaways from the hearing?

Paul Garner: The hearing was a bit of a mixed bag. I'm glad that there was an acknowledgement of some of the shortcomings that we saw at that community meeting. Having had the opportunity to meet with the monitoring team, I was glad that they have taken a lot of our input into consideration. Hopefully, we will be able to see that tangibly moving forward.

MF: What are your concerns about the monitoring team's work?

PG: One of my concerns and of the community is that just because MPD isn't using very specific tools that they were using to conduct online surveillance, there are still some activities that are questionable as to whether they are continuing to practice covert-like monitoring that isn't easily detected by the monitoring team. There are some offline practices we hope the team will take a look at as well.

MF: What policy changes are you hoping for?

PG: I'm looking for satisfactory policies that reassure the chilling effect will stop. It's hard on a lot of us. We look over our shoulders when we head to a meeting or a protest, and it shouldn't be that way. Ultimately, we'd like to see some strong policies and checks and balances. And I'd like to see some form of monitoring continuing to be active for many years.

MF: What do you hope the outcome of this entire process will be?

PG: It would be nice to know that MPD isn't engaging in retaliatory and deceptive practices. It's hard to believe that when we've seen repeated incidents of harassment. This stuff is super important in these increasingly tense political times when we need our First and Fourth Amendment rights more than ever. People have to be able to speak up without fear of being spied on or their families and friends being put under a microscope simply because they are practicing their First Amendment rights.

We will continue to do this work anyway because it's important to us, but I think I'll always have a little piece of concern in the back of my head for as long as I do this work in Memphis.

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