In a lawsuit filed last month by the Minneapolis NAACP, the organization alleges that the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) used social media to spy on local members as part of an orchestrated, decade-long campaign of harassment to undermine local activists.
The University of Minnesota Law School’s Racial Justice Law Clinic (RJLC) and the Law Office of Tim Phillips jointly filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Minneapolis NAACP, accusing the MPD of using covert social media accounts to surveil the NAACP and its members.
The RJLC released a statement on April 27, noting that “this racially discriminatory surveillance … was unconstitutional, violating the plaintiff’s First Amendment right to free expression and Fourteenth Amendment to be free from racially discriminatory policing.” It also alleges federal and state legal claims under Title VI and the Minnesota Human Rights Law.
The lawsuit, which is seeking both monetary and punitive damages from both the MPD and the City of Minneapolis is the result of findings from a 2022 Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) report that showed MPD misconduct for at least 10 years, which included officers posing as Black community members and went on social media to interact, criticize, and harass the NAACP and its members.
The nearly 150-page report later led to a consent decree with MDHR and the City of Minneapolis. However, the consent decree does not provide relief to the Minneapolis NAACP for the alleged surveillance of the organization and its members.
“We’re looking for accountability. We felt like a lawsuit would hold somebody accountable,” Minneapolis NAACP President Cynthia Wilson told the MSR.
“The secret spying was damaging on many levels, including creating fear among community members,” Wilson said. Along with the police department, she believes other city officials should be held accountable as well, including current Mayor Jacob Frey.
“People have to be held accountable,” said the Minneapolis branch president. “I know sometimes people want to dance around the truth, but I am not dancing.”
According to RJLC Associate Professor Liliana Zaragoza, “We don’t know the date range of the surveillance because the Minnesota Department of Human Rights looked at 10 years of data. So, we don’t know if it started 10 years ago or if it went on and off.”
MPD’s alleged spying on NAACP members and other Black leaders is similar to tactics employed by the FBI against leaders of Black organizations during the Civil Rights era and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 70s.
But Zaragoza pointed out, “I think what is different is it was federal investigations. So here, it might be local to the extent we know [but] we don’t know if MPD collaborated with anybody else.”
The lawsuit alleges that MPD also used a covert account to “pose as a community member and RSVP to attend the birthday party of a prominent Black civil rights lawyer and activist.” The lawsuit states that the activist was Nekima Levy Armstrong.
“At the time of the birthday party in June 2017, Ms. Armstrong was a mayoral candidate in the City of Minneapolis openly running on a police accountability platform. She recalled several MPD officers showing up in uniform to the event and ultimately shutting down the party early as a result of the officers’ presence.”
“What they [MPD] were trying to do was create a level of fear, trying to create division within the organization and to stop the moment,” Zaragoza reiterated. “There must be something else done to show serious ramifications for their actions so that it doesn’t happen again. And this lawsuit is the only way that I believe that that will happen.”
“The Minnesota Department of Human Rights report said that the MPD social media accounts were espousing racist stereotypes, that they were saying negative comments about the NAACP or about certain activities,” continued the professor. “I think by doing that kind of infiltration activity, it undermines the credibility of organizations like the NAACP that are pushing for and making change.”
Zaragoza said the Minneapolis Urban League was also subjected to MPD’s undercover surveillance along with the NAACP, according to the MDHR report but the Urban League is not part of the NAACP lawsuit.
Not surprisingly, the lawsuit noted that the MPD did not use covert accounts to track the actions of White supremacist or White nationalist groups.
“Looking at surveillance of the Minneapolis NAACP and the Urban League,” she added, “in the lawsuit we pointed out that the (MDHR) report noted no information that MPD was doing the same thing with White supremacist organizations … that actually might be planning dangerous acts.”
She observed that if this “is a common tactic or a tactic that MPD used to kind of legitimize in undercover social media accounts, then why aren’t they doing it to White supremacist organizations?”
Zaragoza adds that using social media surveillance, which both MPD and the City assert is legal, is now a part of modern policing and that social media surveillance has become a de facto policy for police departments, even if it’s not something that’s written down.”
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