‘Fight for $15’ Group Says Memphis Harassed Protesters

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (CN) – A group demanding a $15 minimum wage claims in court that Memphis police engaged in illegal surveillance of peaceful protests and said they had permission to arrest protesters from the president of McDonald’s.

Mid-South Organizing Committee and 24-year-old organizer Antonio Blair Cathey say in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Memphis federal court that the city violated protesters’ First Amendment rights. MSOC is a labor group that organized the “Fight for $15” initiative in Memphis seeking to raise the minimum wage to $15.

The Fight for $15 movement held a nationwide strike on April 14, 2016. In Memphis, Cathey and other protesters gathered at a McDonald’s on Poplar Avenue for a peaceful protest that had been approved by a permit, the complaint states.

“Plaintiff Cathey and approximately 15 fast food workers were met by approximately 30 police officers who wore gloves and had twist restraints in hand. Several of these officers subsequently followed plaintiff Cathey and some of the workers as they drove from the rally to various other points in Memphis,” according to the lawsuit.

MSOC claims MPD officers used iPads to record video of protesters even though they were not doing anything illegal, which it says “was done for no purpose other than to harass and intimidate the protestors.”

The group also alleges police “seemed to take direction from McDonald’s.”

“Plaintiff Cathey was told on multiple occasions by MPD officers that they had ‘authorization from the president of McDonald’s to make arrest[s],’” the complaint states. McDonald’s is not a party to the lawsuit.

In addition, the federal lawsuit claims police have ignored permitting requirements for protests held by other groups and the city has “blacklisted” MSOC organizers at city hall.

“Security guards at Memphis City Hall had been instructed by defendants to prohibit the entry of anyone on the blacklist unless escorted by an armed security guard,” the complaint states. “The blacklist contains the names of 84 individuals. Three of these individuals are MSOC organizers.”

Cathey and MSOC sued the city of Memphis, Mayor James Strickland and Police Director Michael Rallings for allegedly violating their free-speech rights and breaching a decades-old court order prohibiting domestic surveillance of lawful and peaceful protests.

“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,” the lawsuit states.

MSOC and Cathey seek injunctive and declaratory relief, and are represented by Jerry Martin with Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison in Nashville.

Bruce McMullen, chief legal officer for Memphis, said the city is aware of the lawsuit but has not yet been served.

“However, based on what we know about the allegations made in the complaint, we do not believe the lawsuit has any merit,” McMullen said in a statement.

McDonald’s did not immediately respond Thursday to an emailed request for comment on the claim that it authorized arrests of protesters.

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