Fast-Food Workers File Federal Civil Rights Suit Against City of Memphis Over Illegal Surveillance, Intimidation, Harassment

For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 

Fast-Food Workers File Federal Civil Rights Suit Against City of Memphis Over Illegal Surveillance, Intimidation, Harassment

‘We Have Authorization from the President of McDonald’s to Make Arrests’

Police Officers Invoked McDonald’s President in Threatening Arrests

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Fight for $15 Organizers Blacklisted from City Hall; Police Officers Staked Out Homes of Activists, Blocked Workers from Signing Minimum Wage Petitions

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Protesters Targeted Because of Their Race

MEMPHIS, TENN. - A local Fight for $15 fast-food worker organization filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Memphis Wednesday, charging its police department with a widespread and illegal campaign of surveillance and intimidation in an attempt to stifle the workers’ fight for $15 an hour and union rights.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District Tennessee by the Mid-South Organizing Committee, alleges the Memphis Police Department [MPD] “engaged in a pattern and practice of various intimidation tactics aimed at discouraging [workers] from engaging in protected free speech activities.”

The police department behavior—which included following organizers home after meetings, ordering workers not to sign petitions, and blacklisting organizers from City Hall—violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution, as well as a consent decree prohibiting the city from engaging in political surveillance, the complaint alleges.

“MPD’s surveillance and intimidation tactics not only violate the constitutional rights of free expression and association guaranteed by both the Tennessee and United States constitutions, but they also violate the terms and conditions of a 1978 Consent Order that remains in full force and effect,” according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges the MPD has, since December 2014, targeted workers and activists in the Mid-South Organizing Committee, the local Fight for $15 chapter, because of their race and political message by:

       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 surveillance, harassment and intimidation began after Memphis workers participated in a nationwide day of protest on September 4, 2014. Since then, police officers have repeatedly threatened workers with arrest during protests, at one point telling them they had “authorization from the president of McDonald’s to make arrests.” In another instance, a McDonald’s franchise manager joined a group of police officers tailing workers after a protest. The officers, in some instances, “seemed to take direction from McDonald’s,” the complaint charges.

Earlier this year, officers in four unmarked cars and a patrol car showed up outside a teach-in on then labor-secretary nominee Andy Puzder and followed an organizer at the meeting’s conclusion. In April 2015, a local catholic school shut down for the day after being warned by the MPD that, “groups representing the $15 minimum wage push” and “Ferguson protestors” would stage a rally near school grounds.

In November 2016, police officers stepped behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant to prevent workers from signing petitions calling for better working conditions, union rights, higher wages, and benefits. And over the course of two years, officers disparately enforced local permitting laws on the predominantly black workers in the Fight for $15, while allowing protests by mostly white crowds to continue unabated.

“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. “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.”

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

In 1978 the City of Memphis entered into a consent decree with the ACLU of West Tennessee that placed limits on domestic surveillance by the local police force. The first of its kind consent decree was designed to protect citizen political activities from police coercion, and prohibits the department from harassing political groups by disseminating damaging or false information, or from photographing or otherwise recording attendees of gatherings protected by the First Amendment. The consent decree was largely seen as a response to state sanctioned terror groups called “red squads” that worked in conjunction with the Memphis Police Department and FBI to infiltrate and dismantle activist groups fighting for social and economic justice.

“The City of Memphis is declaring war on its lowest paid workers, most of whom are black,” said Edie Love, a member of the leadership team at Standing Up For Racial Justice Memphis. “It’s a strategy ripped from the playbook of Bull Connor and J. Edgar Hoover. It appears Memphis and its Police Department are still stuck in the days of Jim Crow.”

The campaign of intimidation by the MPD comes amid a torrent of action nationwide against peaceful protest. Lawmakers in at least 10 states have proposed laws criminalizing peaceful protest.

“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. “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.” 

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Fast food workers are coming together all over the country to fight for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. We work for corporations that are making tremendous profits, but do not pay employees enough to support our families and to cover basic needs like food, health care, rent and transportation.

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