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VOL. 133 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 5, 2018

Memphis Leaders: Avoid Parks During Protests

By Bill Dries

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City leaders are urging Memphians to avoid two city parks and a third area Saturday, Jan. 6, after several groups indicated they plan to protest last month’s removal of Confederate monuments. However, city chief legal officer Bruce McMullen said at a Thursday morning taping of the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines” that no group had applied for a city permit to hold a march or demonstration.

Memphis leaders are advising residents to avoid two parks where Confederate monuments were removed last month, because of possible protests Saturday.  (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

Meanwhile, the Memphis Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was urging its members to stay away from a planned car and truck caravan organized by the group Confederate 901 that is to start at the Tennessee Welcome Center Saturday and drive past Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park. And organizers of Confederate 901 were sparring with the SCV on social media over the decision.

The Confederate 901 group’s Facebook page included a post Wednesday evening critical of the Memphis Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“I am starting to believe the SCV is hiding something,” the post reads. “The rally is still on and if you do not want to be part of it so be it. Least we are taking a stand to come together as numbers not keyboard warriors.”

Several groups, local and otherwise, have posted on social media in the last week about different kinds of protests in the city. A white nationalist group is calling for a demonstration similar to the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August that included a torchlight march by alt-right groups and ended in violence, killing one person.

“We respect the right of free assembly and free speech and we will continue to do that as it relates to the potential for demonstrations in Memphis this Saturday,” read a statement Wednesday from Memphis chief communications officer Ursula Madden. “We are continually monitoring the situation and are working with all partners to ensure public safety. The best way for the public to help us with that is simple. It’s for Memphians to stay away from the demonstrations. We’re strongly encouraging people to avoid sites like the Tennessee Welcome Center, Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park, Saturday.”

Following his New Year’s Day Prayer Breakfast, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said various city agencies, including Memphis Police, would be prepared for whatever demonstrations take place Saturday. He also said the administration was coordinating the response across several parts of city government.

Almost five years ago when a group of Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis demonstrated on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse, city leaders and other groups organized alternatives to the demonstration, including a “Heart of Memphis” gathering at the Fairgrounds.

Meanwhile, Memphis Police sealed off a 16-block area on all sides of the courthouse to vehicles and pedestrians with an elaborate set of chain-link fences, security checkpoints and 400 police officers, most of whom were wearing riot gear.

The strategy of other events to divert attention and crowds was a reaction to a tactic 15 years earlier when a different Klan faction demonstrated at the courthouse. Before that event, the city and several civil rights groups urged Memphians to ignore the protests.

The 1998 Klan demonstration ended in violence, with police dispersing counterprotesters with clubs and pepper spray after some breached police lines. Some of those who urged the public to ignore the courthouse protest said later the strategy hadn’t worked.

The Memphis Branch NAACP, along with a coalition of local ministers and other civil rights leaders, have called a Friday press conference to announce “a call to action” on the matter. The NAACP made similar announcements in advance of the Klan courthouse protests in 1998 and 2013.

The 2013 alternative events at the Fairgrounds included the People’s Conference on Race and Equality organized by the group Memphis United. While it was billed as an alternative to the Klan rally Downtown, the Heart of Memphis event on Tiger Lane, organized by then-Mayor A C Wharton’s administration, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Greater Memphis Chamber, included such events as an Easter egg roll, food trucks and live music.

The 2013 Klan protest specifically was a reaction to a City Council vote to rename the city’s three Confederate-themed parks, with plans beyond that to remove the monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis in two of those parks.

On a rainy March Saturday, around 60 protesters from the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialist Movement gathered behind a chain-link fence around the courthouse perimeter. Around 1,200 counterprotesters assembled two blocks away, behind another set of chain-link fences and on the other side of 400 police officers.

There was one arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct among the counterprotesters and no violence.

The Klan and neo-Nazi protesters spoke on the courthouse steps for about an hour, using a failing bullhorn for which they apparently forgot to bring fresh batteries.

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