Underneath a gloomy sky, Danielle Inez stood behind a podium atop a makeshift stage in the heart of Civic Center Plaza Downtown today and spoke to a crowd packed with Shelby County officials and community leaders.

Inez, who serves as the chief of staff for Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, spoke from her perspective as a black mother.

“Joseph is 5,” said Inez, pointing to her son, who stood beside her onstage. “Right now, he’s cute. We’ll all blink, and he’ll be 15. He’ll still be handsome because he’s got a little bit of me sprinkled into him, but on an evening walk, to and from a friend’s house, he may be deemed a threat.

“Please don’t kill my son.”

For Inez, this speech became a form of therapy, a way to publicly address her fears for her son and her community. It’s the driving force behind why she organized a memorial service for George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 galvanized the country and impassioned black mothers against police brutality.

Floyd’s pleas, captured on a viral video, include calls for his mother, while policeman Derek Chauvin, who is white, kneeled on his neck for almost 9 minutes until Floyd was dead.

“At 21, he’ll be a know-it-all because he’s got a little bit of me sprinkled in there,” Inez said, as she continued her illustrative plea. “He’ll make mistakes because that’s what young adults do.

“He’ll challenge what’s wrong, and he might ignore what’s right. He’ll hang out in bars. He might walk down the street in a hoodie. Please don’t shoot him. Please don’t follow him. Please don’t harass him. Please don’t call the police to carry out your bigotry.”

Open to the public, the nearly hour-long service offered a platform for county officials, religious leaders and community advocates to share their thoughts, prayers and calls to action. Others attending included Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, Latino Memphis Executive Director Mauricio Calvo, Temple Israel Rabbi Micah Greenstein and National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Freeman.

Guest speakers like the Rev. Earle J. Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and founder of #UpTheVote901, Memphis City Council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas, and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris discussed the need for change, unity and accountability.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris speaks during the memorial service for George Floyd at Civic Center Plaza on Monday morning, June 8, 2020. Harris called for the flags bearing the seal of the county to be flown at half mast until Wednesday evening. Photo by F. Amanda Tugade.

“My grandmother used to say if you’re stranded on an island, it’s good to have people who can build a fire, but you also need someone who can build a boat, so you can get off that island,” Harris said.

“For communities to succeed and tackle change, you need people in this fight who might not be exactly like George Floyd, who might not have had George Floyd’s experiences,” he said, before he led the attendees into a moment of silence.

“For the community, you just need to care about George Floyd and his life. Our community may never get over the murder of George Floyd captured on video, but our community will get stronger.

As the service came to a close and performer Courtney Little wrapped up with his rendition of “Lean on Me,” the crowd dispersed. People walked off into different directions, leaving the plaza still and empty.

From a short distance, Inez watched her son jump off a raised planter. Others who knew Joseph greeted him, his smile and playfulness capturing their attention.

“Today, I want him to be a part of this,” Inez said, as she looked at Joseph and started to reflect on the event. “I want him to understand the power of his voice, even at age 5. I think he is getting that.”

F. Amanda Tugade is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

This story is brought to you 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 the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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