For 15 days, dozens of demonstrators occupied space outside City Hall, dotting it with tents and colorful messages written in chalk. They served meals, danced, posted “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” signs and a list of demands, including reallocating police funding to community services.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the city told protesters they’d have to make way for a long-planned construction project. And on Wednesday morning, with barely 12 hours notice and two hours earlier than expected, dozens of Memphis police officers descended on the encampment. They arrested more than 15 people, organizers said.
“This was a safe space until the police showed up,” said Michaelantonio Jones, an organizer of the City Hall Occupied Protest (CHOP). “This is something that’s true across Black and Brown communities across the country. When the police show up, violence happens.”
While CHOP was the most durable presence outside City Hall, they aren’t the only group to demand change from local government in that space. In June, an interfaith coalition and a nonprofit leader group representing 150 organizations issued similar demands, adding their voice and influence to what’s become an international movement sparked by the death of George Floyd, the Black man whose death underneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee was captured on video.
Around 5:30 a.m., officers arrived at the encampment, instructing protesters to collect their belongings and leave the premises, Jones said. Using waist-high metal fencing that police referred to as bike racks, officers barricaded Civic Center Plaza, barring entrance to others who arrived at the scene.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” chanted about 10 masked demonstrators who stood shoulder to shoulder outside the tall chain-link fence not far from City Hall’s front door. Activist Hunter Demster live streamed from a cell phone. “It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Police officers wore black pants, black shirts and masks, as the group also chanted: “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here!”
As they yelled, Salamander, who uses one name, sat behind them, tied to the City Hall fence with bungee cords.
“I’m pissed,” she said. “Something has to change.”
Around 8 a.m., police moved journalists behind barricades placed on the other side of the Main Street trolley tracks. About 10 minutes later, a police officer addressed the demonstrators using a megaphone. “This is your last opportunity to leave the premises,” before they’d be arrested for disorderly conduct, he said.
“Y’all are disorderly,” Demster yelled over the officer. “Y’all are the problem!”
On Demster’s live stream, police can be seen approaching him first. His video abruptly ended, leaving viewers with few, if any, real-time ways to observe what police did next.
Not long after, police led those arrested — some walking, others being carried by the arms and legs by cops — away, past journalists, and put them in waiting police vehicles. Demster was released with a citation a few hours later. As of Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear how many remained in jail.
People’s Plaza and seven demands
The protest, which began June 16, was intended to last for about a day but grew as others joined in, said Jones in an interview Tuesday. He is also co-chair of the Memphis-Midsouth Democratic Socialists of America.
Civic Center Plaza was renamed the People’s Plaza, and it quickly became a place to share meals, hold dance parties, sing-alongs and other gatherings. On Sunday, people planted tomatoes, kale and basil on the plaza’s grounds.
The garden, Jones said, was a “small act of civil disobedience.” It was a way to call out city officials, Jones said, as if to say: “Hey, you could be feeding people instead of spending money on cops.”
Mayor Jim Strickland, who ran on a “tough on crime” campaign platform, has been laser-focused on boosting Memphis Police Department ranks to 2011 levels, when there were more than 2,400 officers on the force. In January, Strickland reported there were just under 2,100 officers; the goal is to have 2,300 officers by the end of 2020.
“Just because crime is high doesn’t mean that we need more police,” Jones said. “If crime is high, it means to look at the underlying reasons why crime is high and then meet those human needs by feeding folks who are hungry, or housing people who are unhoused, or making sure that people who don’t have healthcare have what they need.”
From a lamp post hung a weathered white banner with seven demands, including “Defund harmful policing.” On Wednesday, Demster said the city should reallocate $30 million from the police budget and divide it evenly between education, mass transit and housing for people experiencing homelessness.
The $30 million represents about 11% of the Memphis Police Department’s 2019 budget, which was more than $272 million.
‘This will be Strickland’s legacy’
On Tuesday, city officials announced City Hall renovations would begin the next day, July 1. In early 2019, the city erected a metal barricade when the marble facade began to fall off the building.
Public notice signs about the construction project to repair the roof and replace the exterior marble panels were placed along the fence outside City Hall.
Yesterday the @CityOfMemphis posted this. For months, there's been a metal barricade outside City Hall; pieces of the facade had been falling off.
This expands the "construction" zone and also clears the occupation. (Timing is probably a coincidence.) pic.twitter.com/20o8unu4JY
— MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (@MLK50Memphis) July 1, 2020
According to the public notice, construction would take place between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. That meant that the construction zone outside City Hall, which surrounded the front of the building, would expand to include the area where dozens had rallied for just over two weeks.
Baris Gursakal, social media coordinator for the Memphis-Midsouth DSA, said that he hadn’t seen any construction workers since the occupation started.
“It’s all a farce just to keep people out of City Hall,” he said.
“I keep saying this over and over again, but this will be Strickland’s legacy right here: the violation of rights, the lack of transparency, the complete dysfunction of democratic process in our city, where the public is literally chained out of the City Hall.”
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has recently implied that officers had caught the coronavirus from demonstrators during recent protests where law enforcement was present. But on Wednesday, live stream video captured several officers with masks covering their mouths, but not their noses.
That would seem to be in violation of the most recent Shelby County Health Department Health Directive, issued June 22. It states: “Individuals should wear cloth face coverings or masks that cover the nose and mouth in public settings where being in close proximity to others is anticipated and particularly where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain at all times.”
The chorus demanding change grows
Groups other than CHOP are demanding policy reform.
On June 16, the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH), which represents more than 60 faith-based and community organizations, attached its justice and equity charter to the metal barricade outside City Hall. Hundreds of residents attended the moving ceremony, as MICAH leaders and members called out the names of Black people killed by police. Among the charter’s demands: Police accountability, criminal justice reform and a greater investment in mass transit and housing.
The day before, Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action, a black-led coalition representing local nonprofits, issued an open letter to local elected officials and business leaders, demanding a reallocating of police funding to “alternatives rooted in community health and crisis response” and many of the same reforms backed by MICAH, Black Lives Matters and other social justice groups.
More than 100 nonprofit directors signed the letter and by Monday, when Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action held a press conference outside City Hall, more than 150 nonprofit executives were on board.
Two of those leaders returned to an empty plaza Wednesday morning, skeptical of the timing of the city’s decision to clear the plaza.
“If there were pre-planned projects, they knew about those projects far in advance,” said Sarah Lockridge-Steckel, co-founder of the Collective Blueprint, a nonprofit that helps young adults find careers, on a video streamed on social media.
“They said that it was for safety, but if it was really about safety, then we would provide services to the people who need services and support to the people who needed support.”
Amber Hamilton, executive director of Memphis Music Initiative, called Wednesday’s actions by the city “absolutely ridiculous.”
“Clearly this is just a political game to people,” she said. “It’s not OK, it’s not cool, we see you and we will hold you accountable for each and every aggression you take against the people.”
Many of those arrested were still in custody late Wednesday morning when on Twitter, the city’s chief communications officer issued a statement about the construction and the evacuation of the plaza.
Ursula Madden wrote that demonstrators were “given two alternative locations on Civic Center Plaza to continue to exercise their first amendment rights” and that Hospitality Hub representatives visited the encampment to offer housing assistance.
The statement did not say why the demonstrators were given less than 24 hours notice to leave and nor did it acknowledge the arrest of demonstrators.
A growing number of activists and organizers — including MICAH, Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action and a group of Black pastors — have been disappointed by Strickland’s response to demands for reform.
In May, the mayor announced he’d meet four times with a group of faith and community leaders to discuss police reform.
“I’m grateful for our clergy members and the leaders, specifically DeVante Hill and Frank Gotti, and the participants of the peaceful protests we’ve been having and what they represent,” Strickland wrote in his June 26 newsletter. They reached agreement in six areas, including an agreement to ban no-knock warrants.
“Now, our initial meetings (may) have concluded, but the discussion and our work in the area of police reform is far from over. We will continue to work every day to do better and to be better. We will broaden the discussion to include more people and the topics they want to discuss.”
On Monday, Strickland responded to the nonprofit’s open letter at length, noting that the Memphis Police Department is already following all of “8 Can’t Wait” policy recommendations made by Campaign Zero, which has developed a research-based progressive agenda to address police violence.
However, a close reading reveals at least five areas in which Campaign Zero’s recommendations and MPD policy do not align.
For example, Campaign Zero’s demands require “officers to give a verbal warning in all situations before using deadly force.” MPD policy requires a warning “if feasible.”
Campaign Zero also bans all chokeholds and neck restraints “in all cases.” MPD chokehold policy includes an exception for self-defense “where the officer has been attacked with deadly force, is being threatened with the use of deadly force, or where the officer has probable cause and reasonably perceives an immediate threat of deadly force” — scenarios which rely largely on an individual officer’s perception.
On Tuesday, Strickland unveiled the “Reimagine Policing in Memphis” website, which provides information on how to file a complaint against an officer. It also solicits applicants for the police force.
But as Lockridge-Steckel stood next to a metal barricade, looking at the public property that just hours before was home to dozens of residents calling for change, she was left with a question.
“Is this what we meant when we were reimagining police?”
Editor’s note: In May, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed suit against the city of Memphis, Mayor Jim Strickland and chief communications officer Ursula Madden on behalf of Wendi C. Thomas, one of the reporters on this story. The suit alleges that they violated Thomas’ First Amendment rights by refusing to add her to the city’s email media advisory list. After the suit was filed, the city launched the @CityofMem_Media Twitter account from which it sends media advisories. Read more about the case here.
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.