As dignitaries and national press gathered in Memphis to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, eight activists and an independent journalist who had gathered to protest immigration detention sat in jail.
Keedran Franklin, a high-profile organizer in Memphis, was the first arrested when officers pulled him out of a pedestrian crosswalk in front of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar. Yuleiny Escobar, an organizer with Communidades Unidas en Una Voz, was next.
Minutes before her arrest, Escobar was leading a makeshift “chain gang” of demonstrators wearing prison-style garments shuffling behind Bill Stegall, who was dressed up as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. He was arrested shortly after Franklin and Escobar.
Three other demonstrators were arrested in the scuffle that followed, as well as Manuel Duran, of the Spanish-language publication Memphis Noticias, who was reporting at the time.
Minutes before her arrest, Escobar was shouting in the direction of the justice complex: “We know that you illegally hold people for more than 48 hours,” she said. “We know that you hold them until ICE can come and get them!”
C.U.U.V’s chain-gang demonstration, or “street theater,” was meant to call attention to the uptick in ICE raids and undocumented migrant arrests in the area.
The Coalition of Concerned Citizens, or C3, Memphis activists who demonstrate for economic justice issues, joined C.U.U.V. at the justice center after their own demonstration on Tchulahoma Road, where they shut down traffic in both directions outside the gates of FedEx’s distribution hub.
“It’s called the Rolling Block Party for a reason,” Franklin had said at a planning meeting the Saturday before. “We’re going to roll, we’re going to block, and then we’re going to party!”
Escobar, Franklin, Stegall and dozens more had gathered in a South Memphis neighborhood Tuesday morning to plan the day. While they finalized details of the so-called “Rolling Block Party”, C3 member Al Lewis summed up their objective.
“We got stuck on the mountaintop fifty years ago,” Lewis said in a reference to King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered at Mason Temple the night before his assassination. “It’s time to come down. Our fight is in the valley now.”
Protests tied to issues King fought for have rolled across various sites in Memphis in the past year and a half — including at public parks that, until recently, housed monuments to the Confederacy; and the I-40 bridge connecting Tennessee to Arkansas, which was shut down for hours.
Also arrested Tuesday were Fight for $15 organizers Ashley Cathey and her sister Ambra Cathey, Spencer Kaaz, Zyanya Cruz and Elizabeth Vega.
The protesters were charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway or passageway. All those arrested, except Duran, now are out on bond. Some Memphis activists have posted that Duran may be in ICE custody.
Michael Moorehead, a bail bondsman, watched the scene unfold from the window of his office that faces 201 Poplar. And though arrests are a bondsman’s bread and butter, Moorehead wasn’t happy about this potential crop of arrests.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. People are getting arrested for no reason,” said Moorehead.
This story 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. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.