VOL. 131 | NO. 137 | Monday, July 11, 2016
Black Lives Matter Protest Draws Thousands In Memphis Protest Milestone
By Bill Dries
Black Lives Matter protesters on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge Sunday, July 10.
Four and a half hours after it began Sunday, July 10, the city's most significant and largest Black Lives Matter protest ended with police in riot gear slowly walking a group of around 100 protesters off the Hernando DeSoto Bridge and south on Front Street.
The protest that lingered for about an additional hour with smaller and smaller groups of people massed along Front Street is one in a series of local protests organized by various groups in the last week. The Memphis protests follow police shooting deaths in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana as well as the deaths of five Dallas police officers. They also come a year to the month after the fatal police shooting of Darrius Stewart by Memphis Police office Conner Schilling.
For a variety of reasons Sunday’s march eclipsed all of those efforts with a spontaneity that surprised both police and the various organizers.
It was much larger than the other gatherings because it drew a mix of different groups with views that sometimes clashed during several hours of protest. It also drew several waves of many Memphians watching social media posts from the sea of iPhones carried by those who blocked traffic on the bridge.
“Which side are you on?” one protester asked shortly after walking back to Front Street from the bridge. “Something’s got to be done. We aren’t all thugs. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got kids. I’ve got a job. Something’s got to be done.”
Social media feeds were filled with numerous photos and videos of protesters on the bridge.
“You didn’t go up,” a woman said to a friend standing at the foot of the interstate ramp at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
“Never go in a closed area with no escape route,” he replied cautiously.
The protest and its different off shoots Sunday were peaceful. But they were also tense at times.
The series of events began as a Black Lives Matter march from the National Civil Rights Museum to the plaza at FedExForum.
The march and its move to the bridge also broke through a social barrier for protest in Memphis that has been standing since the events of the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis.
Memories of the violent clashes surrounding those events have been a barrier to the kind of aggressive protest tactics seen in other cities even before Black Lives Matter.
Those same memories have also influenced police response to protests as the MPD has changed over the decades.
But many of those in Sunday’s protest weren’t alive in the Memphis of 1968.
And Rallings discovered during the rally outside FedExForum that promising a meeting or calling on everyone to talk things over doesn’t go very far.
He got shouted down.
“The only thing I want is peace. I don’t want officers committing any offense where someone is shot unjustly,” Rallings began. “That’s my job. I don’t want any African Americans or Caucasians killing anyone. In my city I have 120 homicides.”
“Ever since 1700 our people have been dying,” a man near Rallings in the plaza shouted. “What you got to say about that?
“I wasn’t born then,” Rallings said, which brought a cascade of shouts.
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings made two trips to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge during Sunday's protest and spoke twice at rallies at the FedExForum plaza.
“Maybe we should talk on another day. What I want to do is have a conversation,” Ralling said when it subsided. “I’m not here to yell at anybody. I’m here to let you know I love you. I care about you.”
He urged the organizers to call his office and set up a meeting.
“What I need y’all to do is help me to keep the peace,” Rallings said, setting off a chant of “No Justice, No Peace.”
Rallings left with protesters trailing him to his car. Meanwhile, another speaker using a megaphone used the phrase “everyone’s lives matter.” And another shouting match erupted.
“It’s a black lives matter protest, not an everyone’s lives matter protest,” said a distinctly different voice from the megaphone.
Organizer Frank Gotti moved to the other side of the plaza, close to B.B. King Boulevard to stay clear of the bickering and abruptly began leading a march south on the boulevard.
That was when it became evident a good-sized protest had turned into one of the largest protest marches Downtown in the last 40 years.
As the front of the march reached B.B. King and Adams Avenue, the street was filled with people all the way south to Union Avenue.
Around 100 people joined the march when it reached the Criminal Justice Center at B.B King and Poplar Avenue and kept going north, turning on Jackson Avenue which dead-ends at one of the interstate ramps onto and off the bridge.
A group of 14 police officers, three in riot gear – the rest in regular uniforms with three patrol cars in front of them, stood inches from the front of the march and protesters.
The police line held there and after a tense five minutes, the march went south on Front Street quickly finding the interstate exit ramp there. Those in the middle of the march surged as they caught sight of the already long line of marchers about halfway up the ramp.
After about an hour, another group of protesters made their way onto the bridge using the Riverside Drive ramp.
A half hour later, Rallings arrived in a group of nine police cars, two unmarked, and the caravan made its way slowly up the ramp by the convention center. He began an hour and a half of talks with protesters.
Most on the bridge walked off at around 8:30 p.m. led by Rallings. Rallings was arm in arm with organizers of the protest including Devonte Hill who was among those who quarreled with Rallings earlier in the plaza.
“We didn’t want to shut down the bridge,” Hill said at the plaza with Rallings two hours later. “Nobody wanted to talk to me.”
Rallings continued to push a more general definition of Black Lives Matter beyond fatal police encounters in which black men die.
“When you say black lives matter, I’ve got to see it in the street. I’ve got to see it with police. I’ve got to see it in the hood,” Rallings said.
He suggested and Hill agreed to a call for “30 days with no killings” – an effort directed at the city’s high homicide rate.
“Let’s do 30 days with no killing,” Hill said in joining the call. “When you feel like you need to pull the trigger, think – ‘I’m messing my community up.’”
Rallings returned to the bridge after that. But he did not fare as well with the remaining protesters. Police in riot gear advanced slowly on the group which walked slowly off the bridge and onto Front Street where police continued to walk protesters back until they dispersed around Front Street and Madison Avenue in front of the University of Memphis Law School at around 11 p.m.
After his two trips to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge Sunday evening, Rallings met with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland at City Hall as the last of the protesters were moving past City Hall’s western side just a yard or two ahead of the police line.
In a written statement, Strickland called the session with other division directors and his inner circle an “initial conversation” with more to come starting Monday with a 4 p.m. town hall meeting at Greater Imani Christian Church in Raleigh.
“As a majority black city, I recognize that Memphis is part of a larger national conversation about race in America, and how some of our citizens feel disenfranchised,” he wrote. “To that end, I am hopeful that our city will remain part of the conversation in a way that is respectful and recognizes our humanity.”
Strickland said he is also open to talking with protesters.
“But we want to do it in a legal way, as well,” he added. “Let me be clear: you can exercise your First Amendment rights without breaking the law.”