Thursday, May 28, 2020

County, State Officials Criticize Memphis Police Department, Administration's Response to Protest
Micaela A. Watts and Samuel Hardiman,
Memphis Commercial Appeal
8:20 p.m. CT May 28, 2020

A group of demonstrators in Midtown Memphis on Wednesday protest the recent deaths of three black Americans across the country hold signs with the name of George Floyd who was killed in Minneapolis. The protest turned when a counter-protester holding a Confederate 901 sign showed up. Police closed part of Union Avenue and put up barricades to keep the two groups separated. (Photo: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

A Wednesday evening protest over police brutality and the deaths of black Americans ended with at least five of the demonstrators being arrested. In the aftermath, activists, community leaders and the Shelby County Democratic Party criticized the Memphis Police Department and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Activists and elected officials questioned why the MPD allowed two counter-protesters to use racial slurs (epithets were also hurled at police), and why three of those arrested were still in the Shelby County Jail on misdemeanor charges when the site is among the known outbreaks of COVID-19 in Shelby County. They also said they don’t feel that police are listening to them.

"People in Memphis do not feel they are being heard," said Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer during a virtual news conference Thursday. Sawyer and State Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis criticized the actions of several MPD personnel on Wednesday evening and early Thursday morning during the protest that shutdown Union Avenue in Midtown Memphis for hours.

Other participants in the virtual news conference included the Rev. Earle Fisher; educator Ayo Akinmoladun, who organized the Wednesday protest;  activist Keedran Franklin; community organizer Theryn Bond; and local Black Lives Matter organizer Shahidah Jones.

Sawyer and Strickland opposed each other in the October municipal election and embarked upon what was a tough campaign. There is also no love lost between the city of Memphis administration and some activists.

"They (police officers) were out of line last night, and I'm being kind when I say that," said Hardaway, who did not attend the protest, noting a moment when a member of MPD used a riot shield and knocked a woman over.

Video footage, originally captured by activist Hunter Demster, showed a woman standing on Union Avenue when she was approached by an MPD officer with a riot shield who knocked her to the ground with the shield. 

In a statement and public comments Thursday, Strickland also expressed outrage at the deaths of black Americans, particularly the death of George Floyd Monday. But the mayor criticized the lack of social distancing, saying it put the protesters and MPD personnel at risk for contracting the virus.

The protest, which lasted for hours, came at a time when groups of more than 50 are forbidden in Memphis and Shelby County unless there's a clear social distancing plan.

The group also expressed concern about Strickland’s criticism of protesters for forgoing social distancing guidelines and placing themselves and the police at risk of COVID-19.

Akinmoladun, one of the organizers, said the demonstration started with observation of social distancing guidelines.

What started out as a spaced-out, silent protest turned into a crowd as tensions flared between protesters and counter-protesters as well as police.

MPD later used barricades to keep protesters on the north sidewalk of Union Avenue, which, momentarily, put them in a more confined space than the blocked-off street. The protesters were free to move about, however, and they later marched east and west down Union Avenue.

After 10 p.m. Wednesday, the main body of protesters returned to an area east of Walgreens at Union and McLean Boulevard, a crowd of more than 50 gathered around MPD Deputy Chief Sam Hines. Some in the crowd were wearing masks. Others were not.

After the crowded confrontation between Bond and Hines, the MPD Deputy Chief motioned for dozens of officers to back away from the crowd in an apparent attempt to deescalate the conflict. Some time later, police returned in riot gear.

MPD officers were also seen throughout the evening standing shoulder to shoulder. Both protesters and police convened in small groups, standing next to each other. Most MPD personnel on the scene wore masks, but more than a few did not wear anything covering their mouths or noses.

Strickland’s criticism over the lack of social distancing was, in turn, critiqued by the Shelby County Democratic Party.

“In response to Mayor Strickland’s statement released this morning, the Party takes the following position: the Memphis Police Department unnecessarily placed themselves, their colleagues, and the protesters at risk — not the other way around, as the Mayor stated,” the party said in a statement.

The party said, “During a global pandemic, officers refusing to maintain at least six feet between themselves and protesters, unless absolutely critical to do otherwise unnecessarily places citizens at risk. Refusing to maintain that distance while not wearing a mask or gloves increases risk, and setting up barricades, making it impossible for many protesters to maintain six feet apart, unnecessarily places citizens at risk.”

MPD and Attorney General Amy Weirich did not respond to a request for comment. The Strickland administration refused to comment beyond his statements and comments Thursday. Two of at least five people arrested due to the protest were released on their recognizance. 

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