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VOL. 129 | NO. 241 | Thursday, December 11, 2014

Armstrong’s Comments Overshadow Attorney General’s Visit

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong had some concerns Tuesday about speaking before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed a group of 100 local leaders at Hattiloo Theatre in Overton Square.



Armstrong is often a reluctant public speaker. But Tuesday he stole the show from Holder at one of the attorney general’s two public appearances in Memphis.

More importantly, the city’s top law enforcement official said the growing number of protesters locally and nationally have a valid point about police methods.

Holder is on the road doing what cabinet members do – pushing the company line. In this case, the company line is the changes Holder enacted this month that specifically bar federal law enforcement officers from using racial or gender profiling.

Holder expressed hope that local and state law enforcement agencies will adopt the same standard.

Armstrong stayed local and on Ferguson – the Missouri town whose name has become shorthand for the belief that police respond more aggressively, differently and lethally to African-American men in particular than other citizens.

He began by reciting a lyric or two from the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On”: “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying.”

“Y’all know the song,” Armstrong told the crowd in the theater. “If you fast forward 30-something years and you look at what’s going on around the country now, and here we are right back in that situation now.”

From there, Armstrong’s remarks were the best indication of his thoughts on the meaning of the reaction since grand juries in Ferguson and New York refused to indict police officers in fatal police encounters.

“If you want to know what pressure is, pressure is being an African-American police chief or an African-American police director in these times. Pressure is being an African-American police director in a city that is predominantly African-American,” he said, turning to his experience as a child of a single mother in North Memphis.

“I cannot forget. I won’t forget, regardless of what kind of pressure is put on me as far as being in this position,” he said of his experience. “If I forget, all the people under my command forget. If I don’t stand up and I don’t take responsibility as far as the tone we set in this community, I can't hold the people that work under my command accountable.”

Instead of federal standards for profiling, Armstrong urged the Justice Department and Holder to hand down standards for community policing that better define it for police departments of all sizes and give such efforts a better chance at sustainability over the long haul.

“We must enlist the help of all these young people that you see protesting around this country,” Armstrong said as a line of protesters stood along North Cooper Street outside the theater. “These are the same young people that when our president ran for his first election, he tapped into that. He tapped into that and now we have a two-term president because those young people got involved and they stayed involved. They are doing exactly what the president asked them to do and that is push for change.”

Earlier Tuesday, a group of 80 students from LeMoyne-Owen College marched from the campus under police escort to the corner of Union and Bellevue in a “justice and equality” march.

A group of students at Christian Brothers University held a “walk out to chalk out” protest on campus Tuesday, drawing chalk body outlines on the pavement.

“We are a city and we will remain a city with a police department that says while your hands are up and you are begging us not to shoot, our arms are extended out to you,” Armstrong pledged. “Our arms will stay extended out to you until you embrace us, regardless of how long my arms have to be extended out.”

More protesters, a line of about 25, awaited Holder at his second stop of the day, a town hall

forum at the National Civil Rights Museum before a group invited to take part in the session. The protesters were not among those invited, and the session was closed to the press.

Those attending the National Civil Rights Museum town hall included representatives of the Black Law Students Association at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and the Memphis NAACP Youth Council.

Holder talked at the theater of the need to listen to protesters.

“Make no mistake. Out of the tragedies of the past few months and weeks comes an opportunity for this great nation that we must use and have too often in the past squandered,” Holder said. “We’ve had these opportunities before. … Now is the time to have the conversation.”

The first attempt wasn’t successful. Protesters questioned Holder as he stepped onto the balcony at the museum where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and he again made the case for federal actions to date. During the encounter, some heard Holder say, “You need to do your homework,” before walking back into the museum.

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