As we wait for the video depicting the beating to death of Tire Nichols, there is a lot of focus on the perceived threat of violence in response.
“I want our citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest, to demand action and outcomes, but we need to make sure the community is safe in the process,” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis posted Wednesday night. Said in a video. “These are not calling cards to incite violence or destruction against our communities or against our citizens.
National and international media picked up the subject, with star journalists pouring in who probably knew only the blues and barbecue in Memphis.
But our mission statement says in a way that we’re here to “see the movement grow,” and that’s exactly what we do. We’ve seen peaceful protests in Memphis. We’ve also seen unnecessary police aggression.
What may be unfamiliar to international attention, therefore, is the adversarial relationship between police and communities that goes back decades. Below is a collection of MLK50 stories and columns that add context to this tragedy.
Protests in Memphis
On July 10, 2016, more than 1,000 Memphis protesters—nearly all young and black—proclaimed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil disobedience. It was the largest act of spontaneous civil disobedience in the city’s modern history.
The spark: Police killed two black men in less than 24 hours, in Alton Sterling, Louisiana on July 5 of that year and in Philando Castile, Minnesota on July 6, 2016 .
The trigger: Generations of resentment and anger brewing in a majority-Black city where wealth and prosperity are concentrated in the hands of a few whites and many blacks live on the economic margins.
So, that Sunday afternoon, they blocked the Interstate 40 bridge, with its iconic M-shaped arches, that carries more than 37,000 vehicles a day from Arkansas to Tennessee.
Intentionally or not, the masses followed King’s directives in his final speech here: put economic pressure on cities to offer better-paying jobs and end economic segregation. (The demonstration was peaceful and police made no arrests.)
On January 6, 2021, the MLK50 team noticed that police were handling white domestic terrorists in Washington differently than they were roughing up racial justice advocates in Memphis. These images from Black Lives Matter and other protests, captured by MLK50’s visual editor Andrea Morales, are stark reminders of the inherent disparities in police use of force.
In 2020, Memphis, like many cities, saw demonstrations sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But in Memphis, as elsewhere, the seeds of mistrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. Law enforcement has grown those seeds ever since.
For years, the Memphis Police Department has been spying on black journalists and activists. The founding editor and publisher of MLK50 knows this well.
In 2020, after protesters peacefully occupied 15 days outside City Hall, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland dispatched police, claiming the area was no longer safe because the building was undergoing repairs .
When demonstrators chanted: “Why are you wearing riot gear, police officers in black pants, black shirts and masks showed up. We can’t see there is no riot here!”
Baris Gursakal, social media coordinator for the Memphis-South Central DSA, said: “…this will be Strickland’s legacy here: rights violations, lack of transparency, a total failure of the democratic process in our city, and the fact that the public Get out of City Hall bound.”
Law and order in Memphis
In 2017, then-Memphis Police Department Chief Michael Rallings called for a federal review after the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into police killings of unarmed black men. Rallings was acting on the advice of former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee Edward Stanton III, who served in the Justice Department’s investigation into the July 17, 2015, killing of Darrius Stewart.
But then, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided that the community policing office, which was supposed to conduct the review, needed to “correct course” and that local police could better run their own shops without federal advice. In short: there’s not much to see here, so continue to be vigilant.
In 2020, the MPD released a surprisingly bad survey designed to gauge public attitudes towards police use of force. Surprisingly bad. The survey relied on a nonrandom sample, the questions were ambiguous, and any conclusions drawn should be taken with a grain (or two, or 50) of salt.
Hundreds of Memphisans have called for police reform for years. DeCarcerate Memphis is just one of many recommended for the newly hired Davis.
“In 2016, we witnessed a wave of uprisings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the time, Memphisans made many promises of transparency, accountability, and opportunities for community engagement. Since then, the results have been poor, if not terrible .”
In 2019, MLK50’s Wendi C. Thomas teamed up with then-Marshall Project’s Simone Weichselbaum to try to answer this question: Are more police officers the answer to crime? (Spoiler alert: None.)
“Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who took office in 2016, vowed to combat the city’s high violent crime rate by strengthening its dwindling police force,” Weichselbaum wrote. “His most novel idea: using an advisory body, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, to pool anonymous private donations from the city’s elite to reward officers who remain in the force.
“His wish list, known as the ‘Blue Sky Strategy,’ outlined in emails obtained by The Marshall Project, is ambitious: $48.2 million, including $12.7 million to subsidize housing and private school tuition for police families, $8 million Dollars are used to buy cars.
“So far, the fund has allocated $6.1 million to city budgets, much of it for police retention bonuses. FedEx, International Paper and about a dozen other private entities are now funding public safety in America’s largest cities.”
(Now former) President Donald Trump – a gruff Republican – and Strickland – ostensibly a Democrat in lockstep with the (deposed) Republican District Attorney People – what do they have in common?
Trump is obsessed with cities as symbols of chaos. His instructions for police to crack down on civil disobedience by any means necessary are disturbing.
Strickland also ignored calls to abolish status quo policing while offering what amounted to reform crumbs—he immediately made his own demand: Memphis must now have more police officers.
But their message is the same: only the police can keep us safe, structural reforms put our safety at risk, and more police force leads to better communities.
Maybe we should worry less about the Russians and focus more on Strickland’s disinformation campaign. He basically argued in a November 2019 weekly email that the city couldn’t fight crime if Memphis police couldn’t violate a 1978 consent decree.
“Misinformation is generally defined as information that is incorrect but intended to cause harm. However, disinformation is false information that is intended to cause harm. In this case, it is the civil liberties of all residents that are compromised, especially with Sterry Activists and organizers with controversial relationships with Crane.”
This story is made by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power, and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.