Lafayette police used cybersurveillance on activists, nonprofits before strangely warning of ‘terrorism’

Hundreds of Lafayette-area residents gathered at the Shell convenience store, the site of the police shooting of Trayford Pellerin, in protest Saturday afternoon.

This story was first reported by the Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

In the days leading up to Lafayette’s largest protests against the fatal shooting of Trayford Pellerin by police, authorities used a cybersurveillance agency to keep tabs on community activists and nonprofit groups that had public-awareness or political-related events scheduled that weekend, according to documents obtained by the Louisiana Illuminator

On Aug. 28, email messages sent from a Louisiana State Police intelligence agency to the Lafayette Police Department contained a list of about a dozen upcoming community events with details aggregated from various social media sites. The list came from an online server operated by the Louisiana Fusion Center, a cybersurveillance agency that gathers intelligence on terrorism and criminal threats under a program called the State Analytical and Fusion Exchange. (See list below).

The list of events in Lafayette included a “#SaveOurChildren Walk” hosted by two residents to raise awareness about child trafficking, a “Justice for Tray” protest planned at Lafayette City Hall in response to Pellerin’s homicide and two fake events created as a satirical joke to poke fun at people who believe antifa is coming to take over their communities.

The list also included events scheduled outside of Lafayette such as a “100th Anniversary of Women’s Voting Rights Press Conference” hosted by the Louisiana Health Equity Center in Baton Rouge, a “Trump/Pence 2020 Boat Parade” hosted by two West Monroe residents and a student walkout planned at Tulane University to protest Pellerin’s killing by Lafayette police.

Reached via Facebook on Monday, a representative of the Louisiana Health Equity Center said the organization was not in contact with law enforcement regarding its event and could not say why the organization’s event would be included on such a list.

In a separate email, police also expressed concerned about an online event hosted by Black Lives Matter activists that called for a “virtual march” on social media to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Even though the event was a virtual one, Lafayette police Sgt. Don Thibeaux wrote an email to department brass and city-parish officials urging them to “remain vigilant” and recommended extra patrols at Lafayette City Hall, Home Depot, the federal courthouse, the Circle K where police killed Pellerin and — for reasons that are unclear — the home of a civil engineer who runs a business that manufactures pipeline valves.

From Lafayette Police Sgt. Don Thibeaux’s email on Aug. 28, 2020:

This is just an FYI, in regards to the 57th year anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech in Washington along with the 1st Annual Black National Convention, BLM, are requesting that each chapter conduct virtual marches and share these marches via social media. With that said and the rumors that are circulating locally on social media. We need to remain vigilant, and have our officers conduct patrol request(s) at City Hall, Federal Court House, Circle K (Chalmette at the Tw.), and Dru Fisher’s residence, and Home Depot (4pm Saturday, Ambassador Caffery). Again, “locally”; the chatter on social media indicate that there will be a protest, however the area of the protest remains unknown at this time.

CYBERSURVEILLANCE

The extent of the surveillance or intelligence gathered on the various groups is unknown. Lafayette officials have not responded to requests for comment, and the Louisiana State Police offered only a vague statement in response to a reporter’s questions. LSP spokesman Taylor Scrantz said: “The Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange (LA-SAFE) routinely provides intelligence bulletins to public safety partners as part of our commitment to provide a safe and secure environment for peaceful protests and community events.”

According to its website, the Fusion Center styles itself as an agency that “promotes collaboration in an all-crimes/all-hazards environment, supporting federal, state, local and private sectors by working together to provide timely information for use in promoting public safety and national security against terrorist and criminal threats.” The agency “actively works to collect and analyze information” and provides the information to “responsible parties.”

Several of the events on the list stand out because they are written in red typeface. The Louisiana Fusion Center’s website contains a flowchart that differentiates intelligence with either green or red labels. Green is used for intelligence labeled “Analysis Evaluation,” and red is used for intelligence labeled “No Action Warranted.”

Among the events listed in red are the two fake ones created as a satirical joke by 28-year-old comedian John Merrifield. The comic posted one of those imaginary events on Facebook with the title, “ANTIFA Takes Acadiana Mall” and a description that read “Cajuns rise up! Acadiantifa is back, and more organized than ever. We’ve even got a mall cop on the inside feeding us tactically-relevant information…Remember, the ONLY good cop is a MALL cop. As usual, membership cards must be on your person and your uniforms must be worn beneath your disguises.”

But the Fusion Center’s decision to list Merrifield’s satirical post in red typeface — suggesting that no action was warranted — didn’t stop Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory from suing Merrifield days after city officials received the Fusion Center’s intelligence list. Guillory’s suit claims Merrifield cost the city money because Guillory’s administration sent officers “to ensure no harm befell any citizens or property from people taking the Antifa hoax seriously.”

TERRORISM?

About half of the events on the Fusion Center list were described as protests or demonstrations, and only one of those — the “Justice for Tray” demonstration — was planned for the Lafayette area. Although a small portion of the email was blacked out, it’s not entirely clear which events the police are suggesting could have led to terrorist activity.

Chris Kaiser, the advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana, was perplexed at why Lafayette Police would be monitoring  seemingly innocuous events.

“It seems like a rather benign list of activities,” Kaiser said. “I’d like to know which of these they considered to be terrorism.”  

Amid the protests against Lafayette police, city-parish officials twice said or implied that “outside agitators” or terrorists were bringing violence to Lafayette. On Aug. 22, the day after police killed Pellerin, many Lafayette residents gathered for a vigil at the Circle K where he was killed. The event was followed by police officers clashing with and arresting protesters who marched and blocked traffic along Evangeline Thruway. Mayor Guillory later condemned violent demonstrations, saying, “We will not put up with terrorism.”

Then on Aug. 31, Lafayette Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter sent a message to several local nonprofits, urging them to not shelter any Hurricane Laura evacuees because of a “serious local security threat” amid the protests.

“We are not in a position to safeguard people displaced by Laura with this serious, local security threat,” Wingerter wrote. ”We know that bad actors will take our hospitality and use it against us.”

Wingerter’s message quickly attracted nationwide attention and almost just as quickly prompted other city-parish officials to clam up. Neither Wingerter nor her colleagues provided details on the alleged security threat, but their internal emails provide some clues. 

In several emails, Wingerter wrote nearly identical statements defending her stance on the shelters: “On Saturday afternoon I personally witnessed pedestrians walking in and along Johnston Street carrying semi-automatic weapons and wearing bullet proof vests. I was concerned. Many people were concerned. As a result, I had asked local pastors to “pause” – meaning temporary – on establishing shelters in their churches.”

It’s possible Wingerter was referring to photos captured by a journalist with the Lafayette Daily Advertiser that show a handful of people with rifles slung over their shoulders in accordance with Louisiana’s open-carry firearms law. They marched next to the protestors without incident.

In a brief interview with the reporter, two of the men with rifles identified themselves as “Boogaloo bois,” which is a designation used by a fragmented far-right militia group with wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory beliefs and no formal structure or organization. Some have been white supremacists associated with violence elsewhere in the country.

One of the events on the Fusion Center’s list, titled “Repel Forces of ANTIFA,” appeared to be associated with the Boogaloo bois. It was created in response to the fake antifa event and described its mission to “Repel forces of Antifa to stop the destruction of the City of Lafayette Louisiana.” The post also identified a rallying point: Home Depot — the same Home Depot that Sgt. Don Thibeaux wanted extra patrols to cover.

However, in his email Thibeaux made no mention of possible white supremacists with guns coming to “repel” an imaginary antifa. Thibeaux connected only a virtual Black Lives Matter protest to any chance of violence.

About the Author

Wesley Muller is a reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator.

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