The July 10, 2016, protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge
threw solidarity on the streets of Memphis into sharp relief. The city
hadn’t seen spontaneous support for a cause on that scale for nearly
half a century.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of the 1968 sanitation strikes in
Memphis marked the height of an era of policy-challenging civil
disobedience in the city — and served as the backdrop to King’s
assassination. The subsequent decades brought both institutional and
cultural calls for more compliant protests; city laws required
protesters to pull permits, and gatherings without those permits were
limited to fewer than 25 people.
As that long night last July settles into our collective memory, the
story of the thousand residents of this majority-black city who came
together to march against the deaths of two black men in other cities
is unique. Their impromptu momentum kept traffic at a standstill
across the six lanes of Interstate 40 that cross the Mississippi River
for several hours.
Collective experience allows us “to build a narrative picture of the
past and through this process develop an image and an identity for
In the crowd, people explained why they showed up — sometimes at the
top of their lungs over fists and cell phones raised high, and
sometimes in the face of the Memphis police officers, who hemmed
protesters in on both eastbound and westbound lanes. There was a
discordant collection of sounds: spirituals, chants, profanity, sirens
and bullhorns, but it was peaceful.
Below are testimonies by folks who witnessed that catharsis, in their
own words and, sometimes, images. Only the people who gathered in that
place and time can tell what took place high above the Mississippi
River’s southern flow.
“Why do people have to tell you what they need when they need basic things?
You know that there is an issue with employment in Memphis, you know there is an issue with over-policing. They know that they’re tired. The way to change that is not to pat them on the back and tell them “you need to tell me what you need.” What we need is for our elected officials to decide that what they need is important and then to take action around that. The reason people were out there is because they were tired of the status quo that’s happening in Memphis. And then the very next day those voices get squelched.
This is the making of something tragic. Memphis is so on the cusp of burning this whole thing down or turning it all around. The decision has to be made which way that’s going to go.
I think different leadership in the city would have gotten results. I think different people would have respected the fact that those people came out. People who said, ‘hey, this means something.’ …
It’s like people still talking negative about kids, and what’s going on with the crime and yet 2,000 kids show up for a Memphis jobs for teens opportunity. And nobody says, ‘hey, we should do something.’ The response is we going to have them pick up (litter), 200 of them and then put them in the newspaper saying they have idle time. That’s the response that we get when people show that they want, need and are looking for change.”
“I don’t think — as far as I’m aware — there was ever a plan, like, ‘we are going to take the bridge today.’ I think it was just once we were there in that space at the FedEx Forum, the level of energy, the frustration and just the sheer number of people…
This is a city that, in my experience, people are very committed to nonviolent direct action. I have always really been frustrated with the media asking if this protest will remain peaceful — like, what’s the precedent for it not? I think whether people have an academic understanding of nonviolent direct action or not, folks in this town are very committed to nonviolent direct action, in my opinion.
My analysis… The ills that we are experiencing — violent crime in our community — are symptomatic of desperation, stress, trauma, from years of the community being beaten down and pushed around…. There’s really been no concerted effort to fundamentally address that properly other than with the use of police and punishment…. We cannot police our way out of the situation.”
Rev. Earle J. Fisher
“We can never talk about the movement in Memphis and not talk about the significance of Darrius Stewart being killed. (Stewart was a 19-year-old man who was shot and killed by a Memphis police officer in 2015.) And the ways in which the community responded to that…That may have been just a catalyst. But I think ultimately that was kindling for the fire that ended up burning and blazing on the bridge.
It’s fair to say that the broader community, the broader city officials and administration listened differently and more attentively. I can’t say that they listened more responsively. It’s a shame that people are putting more pressure on us to come up with a plan than they are. The people who been elected, appointed, and employed to come up with plans.
I think what the bridge served as was a crystallizing moment where you could see that the city was indeed waking up.
There’s a part of me that wonders what everybody would have been saying if it didn’t end with no arrests. What if that thing would have broke out in some crazy chaotic kind of conclusion? I think a lot of people would be saying, ‘Nah, I didn’t have anything to do with that.’
I’m going to go to sleep on April 3 and wake up on April 5 and see who’s still willing to do something.”
“This was a response that the police haven’t seen since 1968, and they weren’t prepared for it. And they also wanted to make the right decision involving thousands of people, right? They didn’t want to make the wrong decision that would end up creating violence, because it was a peaceful demonstration.
When I got on the bridge, I started noticing people that I knew, friends, friends from childhood. Just everyday Memphians and then people that I share movement work with. There were different voices popping up from the chaos of it all, the beautiful chaos of it all.
What I felt in that moment was release. I can get how people can reflect about the bridge and describe a sense of unity and solidarity. But, I think that that is not the totality of the picture. The reason why I saw release is because it was that energy that was present that allowed people to be angry if they were angry. To be joyful if they were happy.
This particular instance was outside of our control as organizers. The people who took the bridge weren’t led there because everyone had the same thought of taking the bridge; they were led there from experienced organizers of the city.
Organizers who have been building up the experience to deal with large crowds with police presence…. That knowledge had to be built from having actions of 15 people doing civil disobedience, 100 people doing civil disobedience. That knowledge had to be built up, and this moment, I think people realized the potential of what we could do that day, and that was to shut down the bridge.
But, we would have never had the opportunity if it weren’t for the masses. The masses indicate the temperature of things. I don’t think we as a movement community have ever been able to tap into that, or support our communities in exercising the power that they have for self-determination and for justice from the city.”
The presence of law enforcement
“It was still daylight when the blockade was formed. And I just remember the semi at the front of the line of the traffic that was trying to cross the bridge. And it was a white guy, leaning out, smiling, honking his horn, being clearly supportive. And he encouraged a lot of the protesters to actually get up on top of the truck, and you know, gain attention that way.
It was a very remarkable sign of solidarity from someone who is caught in the very inconvenient position of that demonstration. Everyone actually let him pass. It think it was one of three vehicles that were allowed through. Of course, that got turned into “thugs” trashing property, y’know, the typical racist narrative.
There wasn’t a lot of activity between then and when the police really started cracking down. Well, there wasn’t a lot of activity of very noticeable things, but just the atmosphere there was absolutely incredible with all of these people — strangers — united around this cause and mutually validated by people being supportive, sharing water….
People whose battery ran out on their phone, they would go up to strangers and exchange information with someone who did have a phone. There were people looking after each other’s children. Just … generally watching out and making sure people were safe.
Just small, really amazing interactions like that.
That feeling of solidarity on the bridge … I think that it galvanized people to strength in communities after that, and realize that ‘We have to be there for each other.’”
“I made sure that they understood, cause I didn’t wanna have them in a situation just like, ‘Come on. Let’s go cause I’m going.’ I talk to my boys. They’re very intelligent, even though they’re young … Especially Isaiah. He was like, ‘Mom, I have dreams, I have stuff I wanna do.’ And I’m like, ‘Lemme go get these poster boards and write ‘I have dreams’ and the other one ‘Don’t kill my dreams.’
What happened, it was wrong. And we’re all coming together as a powerful force, letting it be known: What’s going on is wrong. Cops killing innocent African-Americans; it’s wrong. And then getting off?! Like … These are humans.
I’m targeted. Black females, especially by themselves, they’re targeted. And it’s like I have to watch where I’m going, I have to watch my surroundings. I don’t even be out at night, really … Like, when you call, you can call an officer and he’s looking at you like, ‘What are you tripping over? It’s nothing.’ … It’s really a lose-lose situation.
Things can change. You just have to get people who are compassionate. … This world lacks compassion. It lacks compassion, it lacks trust. I don’t trust the police officer, really. Cause I don’t know where your mindset is at. And that’s sad. Cause once upon a time, I did.”
“A lot of people were crying together, but it was like tears of joy. Because a lot of people were hurt. That’s the only reason why we were up there. A lot of us were hurt. Not being heard, not being felt, not enough resources.
The vast majority of the people out there were from different ethnic groups, creeds and religion. Everybody was out there in support of each other.
There was so much raw emotion going on. I don’t think we could ever reinvent something like that. But I do want to continue to hold memorials or something on that day. Especially around that time, that early evening. For some reason, people were able to come out at that time. There was something about the makeup of that day. People had free time to where they could come out.
It kind of hyped me up, y’know? I had this high for probably like the next month. Like people are being heard, and they are finally getting the chance to be heard. And I kept thinking of the time of day, and what brought people together, the pieces together that caused all of that.
How do we do something like that without the hurt and the pain? How do we organize something without the hurt and the pain?
People maintained those new relationships that were built from the bridge. I think it did show a lot of Memphians that Memphis has what it takes to be that perfect city. I mean, there’s no perfect city, but a place where everybody can enjoy themselves.
It showed us all that we can support one another, and that there’s a space for everybody to be who they are. Everybody was themselves out there, and nobody gave a care in the world. So, most definitely that showed a lot.”
“Memphis Voices for Palestine (MVP) always meets on Sundays but we cancelled our meeting. We walked up and there was a couple hundred people (at the FedEx Forum). It was kind of hot there. People were debating, they were angry. It was because of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile happening within days of each other. They were sick of seeing black men being murdered. People had enough. Not it just happening within days of each other, but it happening. And there was footage.
It definitely wasn’t like anyone had ample time to publicize this protest. There was so many that week (one on Wednesday for Alton Sterling, two on Friday for Philando Castile and a broader one outside of the National Civil Rights Museum.) But this is the biggest thing that happened in Memphis in a long time.
I wasn’t scared. People might have been scared, but you can’t really feel scared when you have that many people around you that are there for you and for the same reason that you’re there. The police have their guns and their military gear and that didn’t scare me. I was so proud of the amount of people that showed up, the allies. It was beautiful.
As a non-black person of color, I was doing a lot of listening and watching to make sure the police didn’t hurt anyone. I’ve never seen a protest like this before. In Palestine, from afar, but I’ve never been in one that big ever in my life. It was such an intense day. I remember the chants and songs. I teared up a couple of times listening to Jayanni lead chants. ‘Wade in the Water’ was also so beautiful.”
Author’s note: Interviews were condensed and edited for clarity
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.