VOL. 132 | NO. 136 | Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Bridge Protest Anniversary Draws More Action, Reflection
By Bill Dries
A year after the spontaneous protest march that ended with more than 1,000 people shutting down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge for several hours, the leader of that effort was again moving north along B.B. King Boulevard on Sunday, July 9.
This time, Frank Gottie and a group of 100 others were marching with a police escort behind a hearse. There was very little of the social media buzz that swelled the ranks of those in the July 10, 2016, march along the way. But there were plenty of different causes in the crowd, just as there were a year ago.
The hearse was to symbolize the death in June of 2-year-old Laylah Washington. Police are still searching for those who shot the child. A year ago, many were marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Darrius Stewart by Memphis police officer Connor Schilling. Stewart’s death was one in a wave of fatal police shootings across the country that continued up to the weekend of the 2016 bridge protest.
A group of children at the head of Sunday’s march stopped outside City Hall to leave a box with suggestions to city leaders on how to make Memphis less violent.
“I ‘m just trying to show the mayor that kids matter,” Gottie said.
Others involved in the march said through loudspeakers that something had to be done about “black on black crime” – a cause that some Black Lives Matter activists have rejected as an outdated and irrelevant issue.
It was that variety of viewpoints at the outset of the 2016 march that prompted Gottie to stride out of the FedExForum Plaza and into the street to lead the spontaneous march to the bridge that followed a planned march from the National Civil Rights Museum to FedExForum.
Gottie had succeeded in getting some gang members and others who normally haven’t been involved in protest actions for the initial march of around 200 people. With social media, the group on the bridge was a diverse mix of gang members, young professionals and families – many new to the political process as well.
Through his own gang ties, Gottie had already been campaigning specifically for an end to gun violence with a song and slogan: “Put Down Them Guns and Fight Like a Man.”
A day later, Gottie was among those who felt the protesters had been used by Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, who talked most of them off the bridge with the promise of a meeting the next day with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. Strickland attended the sometimes-stormy session with police brass. But politically connected activists with various causes away from Black Lives Matter dominated the meeting.
“They think we’re a joke,” Gottie said at the end of the session, only to show up the next day as part of a small protest that blocked traffic on Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of Graceland.
The bridge protest raised Gottie’s profile in good and bad ways.
“I’ve been picked on by the police and I’ve been harassed but I still keep going,” he said Sunday at the end of the march to City Hall. “I’ve been doing protests. I’ve been doing candlelights. … I’ve just been working.”
Gottie also attended some city council sessions before his name turned up on a City Hall list of individuals who were barred from going anywhere in the building without a police escort. He and others were later removed from the list. Gottie remains suspicious of elected leaders.
“That ain’t putting no money back into things for our kids,” he said of City Hall. “That’s why we are here.”
The group then returned to Church Park for a picnic. Two Tennessee Highway Patrol cars were stationed at each of the three ramps onto the bridge – two on Front Street and one on Riverside Drive.
At about the same time in Tom Lee Park, the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, another group involved in the 2016 bridge protest, held an anniversary gathering that included some protest theater and speeches calling for a move to a broader economic prosperity for more Memphians. The gathering drew around 100 people, some coming from the City Hall protest.
Among the props was a mock-up of a Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division kiosk the day after a viral rumor combined with a glitch to create long lines at MLGW kiosks across the city
by ratepayers who believed departing Memphis Grizzlies player Zach Randolph had agreed to pay $1 million worth of utility bills.
The rumor was not true, but the glitch, which showed some utility bill balances reduced, only served to feed it over several hours Saturday. MLGW is still investigating the glitch.
Some of the protesters said the mock kiosk was to show the underlying issue of the city’s economic disparity.
The protest theater included someone who posed as Martin Luther King Jr. returning to present-day Memphis.
“Do you control politics in your city?” the King stand-in asked to a response of “No” from the crowd.
Dwain Kyles, son of the late Memphis civil rights leader Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles and leader of the 21 Beale Street group seeking to manage the Beale Street Entertainment District, told those standing by the river, “Sometimes we underestimate the importance of showing up.”
Kyles said his group’s struggle to get the contract to run Beale Street is a “microcosm” of the city’s problems – economic development issues that have been a particular focus of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens since the bridge protest.
“If you go to Beale Street right now, you are going to be very hard-pressed to have any idea why Beale Street’s famous,” he said. “How do you do that? How do you justify having a street in a city that was dubbed the most iconic street in America and nobody knows why?”
He faulted a “kind of myopic and self-centered thinking.”
“We can never be as a city that is an urban center what we ought to be if we don’t honor and respect everybody – everybody’s culture, everybody’s circumstances,” Kyles added. “If we don’t pull together, we are going to continue to see this growing disparity gap between those who are doing very well and those who struggle to get by on a day-to-day basis.”
He also warned that violence comes with that disparity “whether it’s perpetrated on us by ourselves or by the police.”
“It’s a natural offshoot of that kind of poverty. You’re not going to have the kind of poverty we have in the city and not have violence,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between what goes on and why people turn inward on themselves and their ability to earn a basic living.”
As police were watching both of those protests with a visible but shifting focus, they also had a visible presence at the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ annual observance of the anniversary of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s birth.
The Sunday gathering in Health Sciences Park, which drew several hundred people and lots of Confederate flags, centered on the equestrian monument where the Confederate general, slave trader and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is buried with his wife.
As retired Army Brig. Gen. John R. Scales gave an academic talk that stuck strictly to Forrest’s Civil War campaigns and battles, Ronald Herd set a print of a painting on an easel by the statue.
Herd, an African-American, drew the immediate attention of some SCV members – all of whom were white. More police cars showed up but kept their distance.
The print is an image of the battle of Fort Pillow that shows some black union soldiers with their hands up – a reference to the black soldiers massacred by Confederate soldiers under Forrest’s command.
Herd, who is making plans with others to mark the anniversary of the massacre next April, refers to the print as “black family genocide, remembering the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864.”
He invited the SCV members to look at the print and tell him what they thought of it. Some said they liked it. Others didn’t offer an opinion on it but said they believe Forrest to be a hero. Still others said Forrest shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards.
They agreed to talk with Herd, who recorded the conversations to put on his Facebook page.
“My goal is to offer another narrative. There is room for more than one narrative as it relates to history,” Herd said after the friendly conversations gave way to a 21-gun salute by Confederate re-enactors in front of the monument.
“I’m just offering another narrative, another look at the story from the victims’ point of view,” Herd added.