“I’ve never had any run-ins with the cops before. I’ve never been to jail and have no criminal record, so when the FBI showed up to my workplace, it scared the piss out of me,” says Katy, a 22-year-old who works for a custodial services company in Cookeville, a small college town in middle Tennessee. “I really thought I was going to lose my job. The whole experience was terrifying.”
Moved by the video of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Katy — who requested she only be identified by her first name — and a friend had created a Facebook event for a Black Lives Matter rally in Cookeville’s public square on Saturday, June 6. She soon connected with several other Cookeville locals who wanted to help with planning the event, and enthusiasm grew as word of the rally spread.
“I’ve never organized a rally before, I was just winging it,” Katy said. “I didn’t expect a lot of people to show up, but overnight 600 people had RSVP’d on Facebook.”
Counter-protesters organized their own Facebook group, Protect Cookeville Against Looters, which quickly swelled to over 1,000 members. Some of the members of this group determined that Katy was the main organizer of the upcoming rally and began posting her personal information and making violent threats.
“The event for the rally had been up for about four days when we started getting death threats,” Katy said. “It was too much. I was overwhelmed.”
Katy eventually backed out of the rally — and a group of local high school students took over planning — but she had already gotten the attention of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, a federally coordinated network of local law enforcement officers who work under the direction of the FBI to gather intelligence about terrorist threats.
On June 4, agents turned up unannounced at Katy’s work, pulling her off the job and into a large truck in the gravel parking lot to question her about her connections to the upcoming rally and to antifa — the loose anti-fascist movement recently labeled as a terrorist organization by President Donald Trump. Katy had never heard of them.
As The Intercept has previously reported, FBI agents have been questioning arrested protesters about their political beliefs, apparently at the behest of U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Barr, following Trump’s repeated false assertions that there is a sophisticated, national network of antifa operatives infiltrating local protests against police brutality to enflame violence, announced that antifa is a domestic terrorist organization on May 31.
Barr also directed the JTTF to “identify criminal organizers and instigators,” even though antifa has no organizational structure and the FBI’s own internal assessments don’t support the claim that antifa is somehow weaponizing protests.
The following week, over the span of four days, Katy and at least three other activists in Cookeville, whose population is just 34,000, received unannounced visits by agents who questioned them about their political affiliations and whether they had information about outside agitators planning to hijack local protests.
“What the JTTF is doing is shocking, but we saw this happen before during the McCarthy era, when the FBI and other various agencies investigated activists with the purpose of discouraging or chilling free speech,” said Will York, an attorney who specializes in free speech cases and is a founding member of the National Lawyers Guild’s Nashville chapter. “If the movement for police reform and racial justice has legs in Cookeville, Tennessee, then it clearly has touched a deep nerve in this country. Federal and local police agencies trying to counter that momentum are likely to use these tactics to make activists think twice about organizing such an event again, especially in rural communities.”
Eli Anderson, a 19-year-old college student on summer break back home in Cookeville, decided to organize an impromptu Black Lives Matter rally in the Cookeville public square on Tuesday, June 2. A little after 3 p.m., Anderson and his friends announced on their Instagram stories that there would be a peaceful protest in the city square at 5 p.m. A friend picked Anderson up at 4:30 p.m. to head to the rally when he got a call from his mother saying, “The FBI is here and I don’t know what is happening.”
Anderson rushed home. By the time he got there, the two agents were gone and his mother was in a state of panic. She told Eli they had flashed FBI credentials.
“The agents told her they had been monitoring my social media and believed that I might have information about antifa coming to town,” Anderson said. “I’m like, ‘What the fuck is antifa?’ I had never even heard of it before.”
“I’m like, ‘What the fuck is antifa?’ I had never even heard of it before.”
The next night, on the evening of Wednesday, June 3, Mackenzie Randall, a 21-year-old electrical engineering major at Tennessee Tech University, was startled when two JTTF agents showed up to her apartment unannounced.
The agents told Randall they wanted to talk her about her social media posts offering to help provide transportation to the local Black Lives Matter protest set for that Saturday. Randall let the agents into her home, where they began questioning her about, in her words, “terrorist organizations trying to come into the peaceful protests in Cookeville.”
“He asked me if I knew anyone in antifa or had heard anything about antifa coming to Cookeville,” Randall said. The agents also mentioned private posts Randall had made on her own Facebook page, which could only be seen by her Facebook friends.
“They were very intimidating,” she said. The FBI did not respond to request for comment. One of the JTTF officers who interviewed Katy, Randall, and Smith is a deputy for the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story.
“If the movement for police reform and racial justice has legs in Cookeville, Tennessee then it clearly has touched a deep nerve in this country.”
Katy recalled a similar experience. “They were trying to make me feel like dangerous people were going to come to Cookeville and just burn shit to the ground and give us a bad name,” Katy said. “I feel like it was pure intimidation. They didn’t want us to have that rally.’
The next day, agents also showed up unannounced to the home of Andrew Smith, a gregarious 52-year-old Presbyterian minister and instructor at Tennessee Tech. Smith’s wife recorded the short exchange. Smith did most of the talking, preaching to the agents about the social justice ministry of Jesus Christ.
“I think they realized they knocked on the wrong door and weren’t going to intimidate me,” Smith said. “They couldn’t get out of there any quicker.”
The JTTF had grown in Tennessee since September 11, 2001. “Lots of agencies love the JTTF because they can keep a deputy or an agent and not have to pay their salary because the FBI pays for it,” Mark Miller, a former Tennessee state trooper and Cookeville City Council member, told The Intercept.
“There is a whole team of JTTF cyber security agents in Nashville who just monitor people’s Facebooks,” Miller said. “I know this from being a law enforcement officer, we’ve had plenty of classes on it.”
Despite the fear stoked by JTTF officers, large crowds still turned out to the rally in Cookeville last Saturday. Protesters held signs that said “Love Thy Neighbor As Thy Self” and “End Police Brutality,” and listened as their neighbors shared stories over a megaphone. It was a sunny day. There were no arrests.