NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The protests of last summer have often been compared to the civil rights movements of decades earlier. We now know that just as those leaders of the past were tracked, so were the activists of today.
Justin Jones is a local civil rights activist who earlier this year contacted NewsChannel5 about a public record request he filed with the Tennessee Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security. He hoped to find any documents relating to the difference in treatment between protests by the People’s Plaza and those of the Stop The Steal rallies.
It took several months before he was called to examine three folders filled with documents, emails, and text messages relating to Tennessee Highway Patrol. One document stood out the most, titled “People’s Plaza TN Significant Personnel (more than 2 arrests).”
“I start seeing these pictures and I was like, this is kind of weird. So I start going through it and reading it,” Jones said.
There were names, social security numbers, addresses, summaries on criminal history and photos ripped from social media. We counted profiles on more than 50 activists, photographers, and everyone in between. Much of this information you may expect state officials to have if you were arrested, but that wasn’t the case for Anjannette Edwards.
Edwards was never arrested, but her dossier contains arguably more personal information than most in the dossier. Not only did they pull photos of her from social media, but the summary notes that “she is the daughter of a Metro firefighter.”
“Makes me wonder what exactly they consider an infringement of my rights,” Edwards said.
Other profiles detailed who THP believed would take over if Jones was removed from the plaza outside the Capitol steps. Some profiles went as far as to say who certain activists were dating.
There were six profiles we could find that listed no arrests from any of the 2020 summer protests. That includes Vicki Hambrick, the mother of Daniel Hambrick who was shot dead at the hands of a Metro Nashville police officer in 2018. She attended one of these People’s Plaza protests, but she too was listed as a person of interest. We found her profile in a dossier for the August 2020 incident involving activists blocking Sen. Joey Hensley’s vehicle. Hambrick attended the rally outside the Capitol and approached Hensley’s vehicle to question him about a controversial anti-protest bill that was moments from passing.
Ray Di Pietro is often there for these very moments and captures these images as a freelance photojournalist. What he didn’t realize is that this time, the cameras were fixed on him. Di Pietro was also listed as a person of interest on the first page of the initial dossier.
“I didn’t know I was being watched so to speak. I was just documenting and I was aware that there were cameras. It’s surprising to find myself a person of interest,” Di Pietro said.
As we sat at War Memorial Plaza, Di Pietro says he still feels as if eyes are on him every time he walks by. It’s more than a little unsettling for activists who for months said this is what they feared the most.
The Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security declined an interview, but sent a statement that reads:
“The requested public records related to a protest that lasted more than 60 days. When THP and other members of law enforcement repeatedly encounter the same individuals in situations that resulted in unlawful activity, it is common to have notes that assist engagement with those individuals. Notes are limited to publicly available information such as name and date of birth and are used for events that take place over an extended period of time. The Tennessee Highway Patrol’s role at the Capitol is to maintain public safety and protect public property. THP’s work during that time was in furtherance of those goals.”
We responded with a series of questions but began by asking if this type of surveillance was used any other time and for any other protests. State officials declined to answer the question, instead of saying they believe their statement speaks for itself.
Thomas Castelli is the legal director for ACLU Tennessee where he and his team were involved in revising a consent decree in Memphis for this type of surveillance. Police were told they could use social media and body cameras, with stipulations.
“We had an order from the court saying you can’t even keep these files because there’s potential for abuse,” Castelli said.
The original decree dates back to the late 1970s where before that Castelli says the FBI and state profiled civil rights leaders of the ’60s. Castelli says while it's common for these types of files to exist, departments around the country typically need a good reason for why they suddenly choose to gather these files. In his years as an attorney, Castelli has yet to find one reason that makes sense to him.
“We knew that civil rights activists were monitored. That they were seen as people to be targeted and surveilled. We thought we were past that,” Jones said.
Jones says a decree of this kind should apply to the entire state and not just Memphis. He's calling on local legislators who feel the same to speak up and find a way to protect the privacy of the people.
“I think everyone who has seen this is unsettled by it, because like I mentioned this is not just about our protest. This is about every right to protest in Tennessee,” Jones said.