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VOL. 132 | NO. 163 | Thursday, August 17, 2017

Mayor's Office Says Confederate Monument Protesters Asking City To Break Law

By Bill Dries

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Jefferson Davis was surrounded this week, first by a group of more than 100 citizens seeking to remove his statue from Memphis Park and then by police after the Tuesday, Aug. 15, protest.

The gathering, heavy with religious leaders, was coordinated by several groups that have been active about various community issues the past year and a half and pursuing the removal of Confederate monuments.

The goal of the "Take Them Down 901" group is to push past an administrative process city government has been bogged down by for several years and start a formal process to remove Davis’ and other Confederate monuments initiated by then-Mayor A C Wharton.

That would take too long, says a list of demands the group presented in writing Wednesday afternoon at City Hall.

This monument of Nathan Bedford Forrest at Health Sciences Park won’t be there much longer, protesters vow. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Wednesday he will not instruct any city employee to break the law by removing the monuments.

"The few folks  that are asking us to do it, there's a reason they are not doing it themselves," he said. "Because it's against state law and they would be arrested. I'm not above the law. I don't have special privileges that the average person doesn't have."

The city council passed a resolution in 2013 changing the names of Confederate, Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest parks to Memphis, Mississippi River and Health Sciences parks, respectively, with plans to remove Confederate monuments in those parks.

The 1962 statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is not in the park that was named after him but in what is now Memphis Park, formerly called Confederate Park.

Moving the statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, would also involve dis-interring the remains of Forrest and his wife, who are buried at the base of the equestrian monument.

The protests are keeping pressure on city leaders to hasten the removal of the monuments.

The "Take Them Down" group called Tuesday on Strickland to change the Memphis Police Department to “center on community policing and criminal justice reform,” according to a demand list read by Rev. Andre Johnson during the early evening protest.

Another demand read by Tami Sawyer, who organized the rally, called on the city to keep Sons of Confederate Veterans “and all white supremacy groups from holding conventions and meetings in our city.”

“These statues can really come down and white supremacy can be banned in our city,” she said. “And we can focus on social justice issues that will unite and really bring equality and economic freedom for all people.”

Sawyer also vowed that the protests, which have escalated locally since last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, will continue.

“We will continue to have actions,” she said. “We will continue to put pressure on our city. We’re going to keep moving all the way until we can get a solid, solid way to get these down.”

Those who circled the statue outnumbered a small group of supporters of the statues who oppose their removal.

Several of those at the Memphis Park protest were outside Graceland earlier Tuesday evening for the annual candlelight vigil marking the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.

Last year’s candlelight vigil included police and private security checkpoints where some of those attending were barred from entering the vigil area on the street because they were identified as protesters.

This year there weren’t spotters trying to separate protesters from Elvis fans, although there was a massive police presence as well as numerous large barriers to auto traffic.

Six activists, including one who was among those arrested a year ago, walked from the Craft Road entrance to the vigil all the way to the Graceland gates, passing police officers several times with no words exchanged. They left after about 10 minutes.

By Tuesday evening, police were holding their own vigil in Memphis Park and Health Sciences Park – five patrol cars around the Forrest statue and a dozen around the Davis statue.

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