Memphis lawmen say high-profile visit to protest was to keep peace center peaceful
By Marc Perrusquia
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
When a police SWAT team and an FBI anti-terrorism squad showed up Tuesday at a Memphis church where peace activists were staging an event, a scene reminiscent of the turbulent 1960s ensued.
The activists, members of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center who oppose the war in Afghanistan, characterized the encounter as police intimidation and a case of illegal surveillance.
FBI and Memphis Police Department representatives countered it was all a misunderstanding. They said they were there to protect the activists from potential harm by extremists who might oppose their views.
"We don't buy that at all,'' said Jacob Flowers, executive director of the nonprofit center.
"Never (before) have we encountered the situation where we've had eight to 10 marked and unmarked police cars, including tactical units, sitting there monitoring us. We find it too coincidental.''
About 15 to 20 activists gathered Tuesday afternoon at First Congregational Church, where the Peace and Justice Center rents office space, to fill out Freedom of Information requests aimed at discovering if the FBI or MPD is keeping surveillance files on the activists. Flowers said 16 individuals filled out FOIA forms at the event.
Activists grew alarmed when three members of the FBI's local Joint Terrorism Task Force stopped by the church, followed by MPD patrol cars and unmarked, black SUVs manned by TACT unit officers. The police units surrounded the church on South Cooper, and the black SUVs slowly crept through the church parking lot.
"Can you tell me why you're here?'' demanded Flowers, who led a group of activists who approached an SUV driven by Lt. Ernest Greenleaf.
"We're just here to make sure nobody bothers y'all,'' Greenleaf responded.
Speaking later by phone, Police Director Larry Godwin said his officers responded to help protect the activists and keep peace as part of routine law enforcement procedure.
"Any time we get word of a protest or any kind of demonstration ... we just ask our officers to drive through the area,'' Godwin said.
Godwin said MPD had received no specific threats of violence against the activists.
He said, however, that officers were mistakenly under the impression the event would be outdoors, where participants might be vulnerable. A press release promoting the event read, "Demand end to FBI harassment of peace, anti-war, solidarity activists. ... Who else is being watched by 'the thought police?' "
The officers were supposed to only pass by the church to check security, then move on, Godwin said.
"The next thing we know we've got four or five officers sitting down there. They weren't supposed to do that,'' he said.
Godwin said MPD's response wasn't coordinated with the FBI.
FBI spokesman Joel Siskovic said he, too, doesn't believe the two agencies coordinated their response. Siskovic said he wasn't aware of any specific threats, but confirmed that three anti-terrorism agents arrived at the church shortly before the event in an effort to promote security, citing a general concern about rising violence "against people expressing their opinions.''
"The last thing we wanted to do was to create some sort of misimpression that they're under investigation,'' he said.
Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545