Mission Creep | Sojourners

Mission Creep

Is surveillance of churches and peace groups on the rise again?

On Jan. 25, 2011, Jacob Flowers left work early to get to a meeting. The organization where Flowers serves as executive director, Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, has been involved in community organizing since 1982. Although not officially affiliated with any religious body, the Center works closely with the faith community and is housed in a large building owned by First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ community in Memphis.

While a snowstorm swirled outside, Mid-South’s organizing director, Brad Watkins, presided over an afternoon workshop in which anyone who was interested could come in and complete Freedom of Information Act requests about FBI surveillance. Activists decided that a FOIA-themed workshop would be a good way to stand in solidarity with anti-war and pro-Palestinian activists in the Midwest whose homes had been raided by the FBI the year before. Since the workshop attracted only a modest crowd of peace activists, nothing could have been more alarming than the arrival of three unexpected guests—black-clad agents from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

“We suspected that they found a way to get into the building,” Flowers recalled in an interview, “because normally the building is locked up pretty tight.” The FBI agents explained that they were there to warn the owners of the property of an impending protest. Watkins informed them that it was a workshop, not a protest, and that they were currently looking at the people responsible for organizing it. As soon as Watkins began asking if they were trying to harass citizens concerned about FBI repression, the agents quickly left.

Flowers returned to Mid-South’s offices around 3 p.m. to discover nearly a dozen police vehicles on the block surrounding the church and patrolling First Congregational’s parking lot. He also noticed that a black SUV with tinted windows was idling across the street from the church—one of five such vehicles on the scene. Phone calls to the Memphis Police Department (MPD) determined that the department had learned of a planned protest and had sent officers to “keep the peace.” Someone at the local FBI office told Flowers that the only FBI agents on the scene that day had been the three who entered the offices.

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