It was one year ago that the machinery of oppression – including the mayor of Memphis, the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security and all Memphis-connected law enforcement -- clamped down on freedom of speech one day ahead of MLK50.
BULLETIN: Lawyers representing Duran, one day before the statute of limitations ran out, filed a federal lawsuit claiming his constitutional rights were violated by Memphis, Shelby County and Memphis Organized Crime Unit officers. Link to court filing.
From our Freedom of Information Act request (partial) fulfillment by Homeland Security last year, we learned that law enforcement wanted to shut down dissent one day before Today, Good Morning America, and other national and international media would broadcast live from Memphis, Tennessee. Last April 4 was 50 years from the day James Earl Ray or somebody assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
We need funding – a common problem, right? -- before we can produce our pending documentary about the condition of civil disobedience in the Trump era, What Would Martin Do? But at 51 years later, as Memphis conducts a city-wide election and engages in a massive PR campaign for the second year in a row-- this one as it touts its third century as a city – what is the condition of civil disobedience in Memphis and America?
Lt. Jonathan Gross (in video) slams Yuleiny Escobar onto the hood of a car while handcuffing her; Gross is one of 3 MPD/OCU officers specifically named in a federal lawsuit. At Escobar’s preliminary hearing last year, Gross testified that the street scene was “chaotic.” The thing is, all was orderly and people were crossing the street within the crosswalk...until Memphis police brought the chaos.
2:01 AT 201
On Facebook, activists touted a Rolling Block Party highlighted by an action at 2:01 p.m. in front of 201 Poplar, location of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center.
A dozen women street theater actors portraying ICE prisoners in chains stepped into the crosswalk at 201 Poplar, and in less than 60 seconds, Multi-Agency Gang Unit (MGU) and Organized Crime Unit (OCU) operatives swept free speech off the street by making arrests. Just like they had swept up homeless persons in days before MLK50 – it’s about the city’s optics, you know, when “the world comes to our doorstep” as city leaders were fond of saying.
Law enforcement had stalked social media leading up to the big day. They feared another effort to shut down the Hernando De Soto Bridge, the span of Interstate-40 that bisects America at the Mississippi River. In the wake of police murders of Philando Castille in St. Anthony, MN, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rogue, LA, citizens shut down the bridge on July 10, 2016. Since then, say “bridge” to any part of Memphis and Tennessee law enforcement and they freak out.
From bogus arrests of nine persons, several cases are still pending in the Shelby County criminal (in)justice system, ironically inside courtrooms at the 201 Poplar complex.
Most egregious was the pre-ordained arrest of Spanish-speaking journalist Manual Duran, who was targeted by the Trump administration for deportation. Duran was live-streaming from the scene, wearing press credentials and doing his job as a journalist.
MPD Lt. Andre Pruitt, who was the “straw boss” in the street that day for OCU, frantically pointed to Duran as chaos erupted in the street.
“Get him, guys,” one of the OCU operatives is heard in Duran’s video as they swooped in and nabbed Duran while Yuleiny Escobar – chained together with other women who were protesting ICE prison abuses – repeated to police, “He’s a reporter. He’s a reporter.”
Escobar and Zyanya Cruz held tightly to Duran, trying to protect him from government harm. Cruz was tearful, while the cop unit that is more geared toward throwing flash-bang grenades into homes and busting in on drug warrants ripped Duran from her and Escobar’s arms.
In the middle of the street and while recording video in the chaos, I was ignored amid my exhortations to police to “think this over,” and “call a lieutenant” and “call a major” and, most importantly, “You’re hurting her.” While two cops jumped on Escobar, one waved me away, before needlessly squeezing her breast. Everyone who has seen the full video has immediately noticed that and reacted. It may be a footnote to the larger cop crimes, but it matters. Sorry if that embarrasses mi amiga presciosa, but it happened, and it matters.
Duran previously had reported how Memphis police erred in allowing an Hispanic man to die inside a van at the police impound lot. Recently, nine officers were disciplined in connection with the incident in which a man who had been shot was discovered Feb. 5, 2018, 49 days after police had seized the van. Was this a motive for police to retaliate against Duran? Or, did orders to seize him come from the Trump administration?
WHAT WOULD MARTIN DO?
We call our doc What Would Martin Do? because that is the question we think activists answered April 3, 2018, as they shut down Tchulahoma Road next to FedEx for 25 minutes and later chained themselves together as ICE prisoners. The theme was that 50 years since MLK’s murder, many things have not changed in Memphis, and government officials spy on activists, just as they had Dr. King in the 1960s.
Bold initiatives by activists were contrasted by “official” MLK50 activities, which were sponsored by the likes of FedEx and Wal-Mart in the poorest city in America. Memphis had spent millions promoting MLK50 as a tourist destination, even painting “I Am Memphis” art on the side of garbage trucks, harking back to the sanitation workers’ strike which led to King’s involvement.
Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys, who are seeking Duran’s release, claimed that the Latino journalist was targeted. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and MPD brass had their pictures taken with Duran as they sought cooperation from the Latino community in solving crimes. However, when Duran was snatched on April 3 then two days later scooped up by ICE for deportation to El Salvador, which he had fled under death threats for his reporting, Strickland and others were complicit by their silence.
That Duran was targeted was obvious from the fact that he was arrested while operating as a journalist and not doing anything to stand out among 50 or so people milling about in the street. In fact, Duran was backing up toward the sidewalk when cops snatched him. Lt. Pruitt frantically pointed to Duran, to single him out, before he was grabbed by OCU.
Two days later, charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing a passageway against Duran were dropped by Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, who Pilate-like washed her hands. However, two ICE agents were in General Sessions Judge Bill Anderson’s courtroom that day, April 5, and seized Duran within two hours of charges being dismissed.
TRUMP TARGETED DURAN
Duran’s bond of $100 from the charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway was paid at 9 p.m. on the night of his arrest. However, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office did not release him, citing a clerical issue. Duran’s supporters state this was intentional and illegal cooperation with immigration authorities to hold undocumented persons after there was no probable cause to keep them in custody.
Duran appeared in court the next morning, April 4. Duran’s partner of seven years, Melisa Valdez, called out the Shelby County Sheriff for illegally holding him after bond had been paid. Former SCSO public information officer Earle Farrell threatened to have Valdez arrested, she said.
The prosecutor was not willing to drop charges right away, and Duran’s attorney, Ann Schiller, asked for his case to be continued — which kept him in custody one more day. Schiller told us her thinking was this: if ICE picked him up while he had a criminal charge pending, it would negatively impact his ability to plead his immigration case. Later on April 4 Schiller met with prosecutors from the DA’s office and made a case that there was never probable cause to arrest him. On April 5, Duran was brought back to court, and charges were dismissed per the DA’s hand-washing gesture.
ICE agents wanted to seize Duran from the courtroom, but Shelby County continued to hold him in order to process him out of their jail system.
As ICE agents pressed Shelby County jail officials to turn Duran over, the jail clerk called Judge Anderson’s clerk.
“Is he OK to be released?”
“Yes,” Anderson’s clerk said.
“Can you go ahead and fix it in the computer? It’s not in our system yet.”
“Yeah. Give me a minute.”
While it usually takes eight to nine hours to get a person processed out of the jail – even after charges have officially been dismissed or bond has been posted – Duran’s release was turning quickly.
Upon learning that Duran’s release had been processed, Ivan Flores, Melisa Valdez and other supporters ran from the courtroom lobby down to the jail release area on Poplar. We tensely waited outside for news and hoping Shelby County would give Duran a “running start” ahead of ICE. A car and driver pulled up, ready to whisk him away if he momentarily slipped into freedom.
But, it never happened. A jail clerk emerged for her lunch break.
“Any word on Manual Duran?” somebody asked.
“Immigration picked him up,” she said.
We were in a state of quiet shock amid the after-glow of false hope. It was a mountain to process.
A windowless van had pulled away with Manuel moments earlier. He remains in ICE custody in Etowah, Alabama, as Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers work for his release. These efforts are separate from the recently filed suit against Memphis, Shelby County and various MPD officers.
ORDERS FROM ‘THE TOP’
Stories had been coming out about the Trump administration compiling dossiers on Latino journalists and on immigration supporters. Was Duran part of this dragnet?
Judge Anderson confirmed to us that orders for Homeland Security to collect Duran came from “the top.”
“What does that mean?” we asked. “What top?”
“The top top,” Anderson gestured by elevating his hand, which we surmised meant the top levels of the Trump administration in Washington, DC.
This is what the two ICE agents had conveyed to Anderson’s courtroom deputy.
One year later, Manuel is still in custody. Cases of several activists, who were crossing the street inside a crosswalk to make a point, are still pending. Their lives have been on hold and under the dull ache of anxiety and the hurt and fear of being targeted by institutional powers. To step back and “think this over,” as we had unsuccessfully implored the Organized Crime Unit, it is incredible that law enforcement would consider Duran and young activists as such a threat.
What is the threat? Are they going to overthrow Trump and Strickland and police director Mike Rallings in one afternoon?
Is the City of Memphis, whose problems are no secret, going to be so irreparably embarrassed on national TV that these brave citizens are fodder for sacrifice?
Why the institutional paranoia? The extreme level of institutional paranoia only serves to underscore how awful are their actions – and how awful the perpetrators understand their actions to be. We don’t need to know any more.
Nunca olvidar. Never forget.
Never forget Manual Duran. Never forget MLK.
Never quit asking, What would Martin do? Then go do it.
We see part of “going and doing it” as making these People’s Histories, which otherwise are not told in mainstream media. We will include our footage from earlier docs Who Will Watch the Watchers? and #TakeEmDown as well as from the August, 2018, shutdown of CoreCivic (Corrections Corporation of America), prison profiteers in Nashville, and the criminal injustice grind of Water Protectors who shut down Valero Refinery on MLK Day 2017, and more. There will be interviews with Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson as well as local change agents.
That’s how we see honoring MLK and democracy. That’s how we “never forget/ nunca olvidar.”
From our earlier stories in Daily Kos:
ICE Moving Latino Journalist to Jena, Louisiana, to Dodge Scrutiny, Outrage
Southern Poverty Law Center says law enforcement targeted Latino journalist
“I came to Memphis and all I got was this big bruise”
No Change! Citizens Chant, Boo and Shout Down Politicians at MLK50 Event
In the Worst Way, Latino Journalist Gets Inside Scoop on GEO Abuses in ICE Prisons
SPLC criticizes judge’s denial of bond for journalist whose whose work challenged ICE
Gary Moore operates Moore Media Strategies, founded Citizens Media Resource nonprofit, makes films about social justice issues and writes about First and Fourth Amendment issues as FreeSpeechZone for Daily Kos.