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VOL. 131 | NO. 260 | Friday, December 30, 2016

Memphis Bridge Protest Underscores 2016 National Narrative on Race, Police

By Bill Dries

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It was a year to the month since Memphis Police officer Connor Schilling shot and fatally wounded Darrius Stewart during a traffic stop in Hickory Hill. Stewart’s death in July 2015 and a subsequent decision by a Shelby County grand jury that Schilling would face no state criminal charges was still an issue in Memphis. This past July, it became the local face of a resumed national narrative.

Alton Sterling was shot and killed that month by Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police outside a convenience store. And just before Sterling’s death, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in St. Anthony, Minnesota, with his wife broadcasting the immediate aftermath live on Facebook. Between those two incidents, five Dallas, Texas, police officers were killed by Micah Xavier Johnson during a Black Lives Matter demonstration there. Johnson, who was killed by police at the end of the siege was not a part of the protest.

The new incidents in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas prompted a new wave of local demonstrations. While the number of protestors often was small, Memphis Police were present and visible.

When more than 1,000 protesters shut down traffic on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge for several hours July 10, it was the most significant local protest action in terms of turnout since the early 1970s.

The march to the bridge was also the rarest of protest actions: spontaneous, unplanned and peaceful.

It began as a march from the National Civil Rights Museum to the plaza outside FedExForum that consisted of 200 people at the most when it reached Beale Street.

What was supposed to be a march from the National Civil Rights Museum to FedExForum in July continued as an impromptu march to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that shut down auto traffic. It was the most significant protest in Memphis in decades.

(Daily News File/Bill Dries)

The march organizers were a coalition of several groups not seen before in several years of Black Lives Matter protests in Memphis that began in 2014. Some of the leaders, notably Frank Gottie, had affiliations with Memphis street gangs. All were able to use social media to reach constituencies that hadn’t been involved in Black Lives Matter actions before.

And not all of the leaders were of the same mind on all parts of the discussion about the relationship between black citizens and law enforcement.

In the plaza, some of the conflicts and differences were on display as some of the leaders passed around a bullhorn. Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, on his way to another speaking engagement, took a turn but was shouted down.

Shortly after that, Gottie got the bullhorn back and ran into the street, beginning a march north on B.B. King Boulevard that ended the bickering. Much of the crowd followed, having grown in the interim in the plaza with an abundance of live posts on social media. Those posts also documented the march north, with more people joining it when it reached the western side of the Criminal Justice Center.

Gottie later would say the CJC was the original destination he had in mind. But when he saw a heavy police presence around the building, he pushed further north and turned toward the river and the westbound ramp onto the bridge.

There was a tense standoff between those at the front of the march and police massed at the narrow entrance to the bridge. Some of the police brass had pepper gas ready to spray but didn’t use it.

When those in the front ranks broke off the confrontation, some behind them already had moved ahead to the exit ramp nearby and were all the way up the ramp by the time the original front line of the march had caught up.

Live social media posts from the bridge brought out a diverse group of latecomers – including not only gang members, but also families, college fraternity and sorority members, and young professionals.

Rallings came to the bridge to negotiate with the protesters hours after being shouted down by some of them. He walked off the bridge that evening arm in arm with most of the leaders on a march back to the FedExForum plaza. A group of approximately 100 remained on the bridge for about another hour, with Rallings returning to talk with them. When the talks failed with that group, police with riot shields and batons carefully and slowly advanced, remained in one spot and then advanced again several times over with no direct contact.

Rallings and other police brass were directly behind the front line of police, instructing them step by step in the tense ending to the protest.

No one was arrested and no one was injured in the day’s protests.

Rallings and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland met with the protest’s leaders the next day at Greater Imani Christian Church in Raleigh. But that meeting ended in confusion and tension as protest leaders said they didn’t get the forum they were promised, specifically on the issue of police conduct and policies on the use of force.

“We’re dying out there,” said Rev. Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church. “If you don’t know what it’s like to have them lights flash on you and you grip the hell out of the steering wheel because you don’t know if you are going to get a bullet for your trouble, you don’t need to be here. This is for the long haul.”

Some pushed for Strickland to end his national search for a permanent police director and give Rallings the job immediately.

“They took us for a joke,” Gottie said after the session.

The day after the forum, a smaller group of protesters, including Gottie and others who were on the bridge, blocked traffic on Elvis Presley Boulevard outside the gates of Graceland, with six being issued police citations.

The Concerned Coalition of Citizens, one of the groups formed out of the bridge protest, called for a protest at the August candlelight vigil outside Graceland marking the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.

The group’s issues were broader than police conduct. They put more emphasis on access to better-paying jobs for Memphians and a move away from warehouse and distribution jobs.

Police arrested three people as they enforced a line on Elvis Presley Boulevard separating those attending the vigil from those they identified as protesters. The barrier was a controversial and not always successful tactic, with a group of white protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter” from the vigil area after they walked past police without anyone stopping them.

The protesters also claimed that the police based their determination of who was a protester and who was an Elvis fan based on race.

Meanwhile, three leaders of the bridge protest, including Gottie, were arrested by police on outstanding warrants in the months after the event. Rallings said police did not initiate any of the warrants and denied it was reprisal by police but instead the result of the leaders having a higher public profile.

At year’s end, a group of coalition leaders held a “die-in” protest on the front lawn of Strickland’s home.

Strickland referred to them as “trespassers.”

“It was an attempt to intimidate me and my family, and an attempt to get media attention,” Strickland wrote in his next to last weekly update of his first year in office. “The former did not work, but the latter did.”

Both Strickland and Rallings have said they are willing to discuss changes in police policies and procedures, but each also has said they see no reason at present to change either. At year’s end the U.S. Justice Department was conducting a comprehensive long-term “collaborative review” of the police department with the city’s cooperation.

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