Several in the Memphis community have asked why Brandon Webber, a 20-year-old black man, couldn’t be taken alive like Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man was when he was arrested for the shooting deaths four years ago today of nine parishioners attending Bible class at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Others evoked Cliven Bundy’s 2014 armed standoff with law enforcement for which charges were dismissed.

“Please bring the young man back alive,” the Rev. Stacy Spencer, president of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope and senior pastor of New Direction Christian Church told a crowd Sunday during a prayer vigil of lamentation at Civic Center Plaza downtown. “That is all we ask when our kids go astray. Bring the young man back alive. That’s all we ask is to give the same fault for a young black man that you give a young white man. Bring the young man back alive.”

Clergy flank community members as a symbolic message that MICAH stands with and for them. Photo by Johnathan Martin.

While laughing, Roof, a self-declared white supremacist, confessed to gunning down State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. The local sheriff described him as “calm” and officers treated him to a Burger King meal before processing him.

Roof lived to see his day in court, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

“My hope is that his death has not been in vain and that we can be a community of upstanders who live up to Brandon’s interpretation of the Universe of Obligation,” Stuart said.

Many said the protest was about the loss of Webber but also so much more, including a feeling of occupation by police rather than protection, and disinvestment by government. MICAH’s intercultural equity task force has been meeting with police and law enforcement “talking about the issues that are the basis for what exploded on Wednesday,” said Meggan Kiel, MICAH’s partnership chairperson. Moreover, MICAH recently held a community meeting with about 500 people to discuss economic reinvestment in Frayser.

“We were really asking for funding for transportation and asking for First Tennessee” to bring community reinvestment dollars to places like Frayser, Kiel said of the meeting that included Shelby County Commission members and County Mayor Lee Harris. “We’ve seen the issues that are there and what needs to happen is telling public officials what these issues demand and holding them accountable.”

Ronald Davis, a recent graduate of Xavier University who attended Central, came to Sunday’s vigil to show city leaders that young people want to be a part of solutions. He said young people need to be in dialogue with community leaders about their lived experience. When news of Webber’s death spread, Davis said he knew community reaction could be used as a pretext by law enforcement to overreact, but he wanted everyone to “be patient” and not “act out of anger, act out of emotion. I wanted everyone to calm down and step back and think about solutions to the problems we have.”

Reflecting on Webber’s death and how his loss has affected his family and community, Spencer said:

“We mourn the loss of potential, a young man that was never able to actualize his potential, just as this city hasn’t been able to actualize its great potential,”he said. “We look forward to the day when Memphis can be the city of good abode it was meant to be. A city of good abode for all people regardless of race, religion or gender or class.”

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 Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.