Lawsuit: Memphis police threatened, followed labor activists

AP News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2017 5:47 PM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis police have followed labor organizers home after meetings, ordered fast-food workers not to sign petitions, threatened them with arrest and put some on a list requiring them to have a police escort when they visit City Hall, activists charge in a federal lawsuit.

The activists, who are pushing for higher wages and union rights at fast-food restaurants like McDonald's, sued the City of Memphis on Wednesday.

Lawyers with the Fight for $15 campaign's Mid-South Organizing Committee filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city, Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Director Michael Rallings.

Memphis' Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen said the city does not believe the lawsuit has merit.

The Fight for $15 campaign has been protesting in cities around the country since late 2012. It is seeking a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Protesters have been joined at rallies by other low-wage workers, such as home and child-care workers.

"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, in a statement.

Since Memphis workers joined a nationwide day of protest on Sept. 4, 2014, officers have repeatedly threatened workers with arrest during protests, at one point telling them they had authorization from McDonald's to make arrests, the complaint alleges.

McDonald's did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It's the second lawsuit filed against the city over a list compiled by the police department that includes about 80 people who require a police escort when they enter City Hall. The list, released by the city last month, includes the mother of a 19-year-old black man shot by a white police officer, Black Lives Matter activists, former employees and people accused of disorderly conduct, intimidation, harassment and making threats.

Physical characteristics such as race, height and weight accompany some of the names. The city has said the police department considers the listed people a potential security risk but they are not banned from City Hall.

Both lawsuits accuse the city of violating a federal consent decree barring the city from engaging in political surveillance. The 1978 order followed disclosures that police spied on civil rights activists.

Rallings told reporters Wednesday that a so-called "security book" created by the police department has been in place at City Hall since 2010. The escort list is contained in the book.

"The security book is not politically motivated," Rallings said. "The purpose of the book is to maintain peace and safety."

Rallings said officials are reviewing the material contained in the book and the practices used to put people on the escort list.

The city released a new list Wednesday afternoon with more than 40 protesters removed from the book.

The Fight for $15 lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order concerning the list, plus a jury trial and monetary damages.

The city also is being sued by protesters who claimed their rights were violated at a protest at Elvis Presley's Graceland in August.