Chattanooga Organized for Action and Mercy Junction join together to denounce the increasingly racist, misogynistic and threatening online rhetoric we have seen from local law enforcement officers and their supporters over the past week. While we continue to be troubled by the systemic lack of police accountability to the public, we have found reason to hope this particular situation will be rectified in Police Chief Fred Fletcher’s assurances to complainants that he takes the online comments seriously and is conducting an investigation. We support Chief Fletcher’s efforts to investigate and to enforce the existing social media policy that stops harassment of community residents by officers who are sworn to protect and serve the very people against whom they are launching these vicious online attacks.
While we found appalling the words of Chattanooga Police Officer William Puckett that began this episode on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, we feel compelled to speak out after watching the situation dangerously escalate over the weekend. Officers with both the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, along with their supporters, have engaged in online conduct that is degrading and threatening to women, people of color, journalists, and those fighting for social justice.
There is a guaranteed First Amendment right to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances without threat or intimidation from government officials. The conduct of officers and their supporters over the last week has reinforced an environment in which people who live in the community are intimidated from speaking out against police abuses. The worst offenses have occurred in a public Facebook group, “Chattanooga News & Review, The Redux,” administered by a Hamilton County sheriff’s deputy, a Chattanooga firefighter and a former Chattanooga police officer, and whose members and commenters include several current officers. In this Facebook group, the home addresses of two Chattanooga Times Free Press employees were posted. The Facebook group has included memes and comments that threaten violence against women, are racist, degrade people’s religious beliefs, and belittle activists.
Chattanooga Organized for Action, as a feminist, anti-racist organization, and Mercy Junction, as a social justice ministry, are compelled to stand with those, across the country, in speaking out against police violence and killings of people of color. While such comments by law enforcement officers, as we have seen in the last week, would be wrong at any time, they are especially offensive and inappropriate after a month in which we’ve seen two grand juries refuse to hold accountable white police officers who killed unarmed black men. There is a current climate of anger, distrust and anguish toward a justice system of violent policing and mass incarceration. That climate has sparked a nationwide movement that makes the timing of local officers’ online posts even more disturbing.
At a time when one in three women in our country will be sexually assaulted, at a time when one in three women will be victims of domestic violence, the officers’ comments are frightening. If women are led to believe — by officers and their supporters’ language on social media, including a meme that stated “Choke Bitches” — that those who are sworn to protect and serve harbor misogynistic attitudes, another layer of the public’s trust with the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has been eroded. The misogynistic language used on personal profiles and in public pages and groups is a direct reflection of a societal attitude in which it is still acceptable to hate women and girls, and that attitude leads to real world, violent consequences for women and girls. These consequences include Tennessee being ranked the sixth worst state in the nation for violence against women. These consequences include 3,076 victims of domestic violence in Hamilton County in 2012. These consequences include three women being killed by their husbands or boyfriends in Chattanooga in 2011-2012.
At a time when we see protesters in the street across the nation, taking up the cry that Black Lives Matter – including a recent act of civil disobedience by members of Concerned Citizens for Justice in Chattanooga – it is especially disturbing to see local law enforcement impinging upon the First Amendment rights of activists and journalists with the implied threats of publicly posting home addresses, referring to those fighting for racial justice as “wackos” and “bitches,” and distributing photos of those who disagree with them among their supporters. That these officers claim First Amendment rights to continue their harassment of activists and journalists is beyond absurd. Officers are armed agents of the government and their virtual conduct creates an atmosphere in which those they are sworn to protect and serve are less likely to speak out because they see what government officials are doing to those who dare raise their voices. The First Amendment right to free speech in Hamilton County has been thwarted by those in power – the police.
Chattanooga Organized for Action and Mercy Junction stand unwaveringly with the thousands of people across the country bravely taking to the streets and making the cry that “This Ends Today.” It is time for all of us to stand firmly against racism, misogyny and government censorship, whether it comes in the form of police shooting unarmed black men, domestic violence, or Facebook posts that represent and reinforce racism and misogyny by armed representatives of the government.
Sources for Tennessee/Hamilton County-specific statistics regarding violence against women: Violence Policy Center, City of Chattanooga’s grant application to establish the Hamilton County Family Justice Center