When Black people are unjustly killed for holding a wallet or cell phone, for jogging, for “fitting the description,” or even while sleeping in bed, I find it appalling that Memphis police refused to even question a white man Wednesday night when he pointed a gun at me and other protesters.
There were multiple police officers around when it happened, and even with photo and video evidence shown to them, they refused to take a report at the scene and did not question or detain him.
Instead, the man, Paul Staples, was allowed to turn himself in two day later. On Friday Staples, 39, was finally arrested and charged with aggravated assault and fabricating or tampering with evidence. He tried to deceive police by turning in a toy gun rather than the 9 mm pistol he later admitted he used in the assault, police said.
Having a gun pointed at me was a terrifying end for an already emotional day that began with the announcement that the white Louisville, Kentucky, policemen responsible for killing Breonna Taylor would not be charged.
I was with a group of about 15 demonstrators on South Main Street about 9 p.m., and had just finished a protest to demand justice for Breonna.
We were in the street near the National Civil Rights Museum when we heard shouting just south of us, so part of our group, including me, headed toward the shouting.
There were two men in a second floor window of 481 S. Main, and one of them was shouting at protesters.
One of my friends had a bullhorn, and was shouting back at them. She told them to go back inside, to leave us alone. One of the men, Staples, told us to get out of the street. My friend told him it did not concern him. Staples moved away from the window.
Then I heard someone shout, “He has a gun!” Staples was now in the doorway of the building aiming a handgun at us.
I was scared, but somehow had the presence of mind to snap a photo of him, while others also took photos or shot video.
I had noticed an unmarked police car parked near our group with the engine running (I know it was a police car because a uniformed officer later emerged). Officers were also stationed in marked vehicles to the north and south, blue lights flashing.
My friend was shouting in the megaphone to the police to come get this man with the gun, to stop him. Staples went back inside, closing the door. The police did nothing.
I was stunned.
My friends and I approached the police officers, but none were willing to take a report — not even when we showed them the video and still shots of the man aiming the gun at us.
One officer said, “Are you sure it is a gun? That looks like a cell phone to me.”
So, I contacted my friends who are attorneys, and we decided to go file a report at the police station.
At the North Main station, it was only after several of us tried reaching Memphis Police Department Director Mike Rallings on the phone that an officer took down our names and contact information, saying a detective would call us.
We spoke by phone Thursday morning. The officer was cordial, respectful at first. But that changed after he asked for names of others who were present and might have evidence in their phones, and I told him I would ask them to contact him.
He said that would unnecessarily complicate the investigation. I told him I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, and we abide by a strict moral and ethical code. I do not give out names and contact information for people without their permission.
He abruptly changed tone, and said I was impeding an official police investigation, and he was striking me from the record due to refusal to cooperate. He then hung up on me.
I went to the police station that night and spoke to him in person, and he claimed he hung up because I was uncooperative, but that he already had taken the report. He said I could add to my statement, which I did.
As a minister, I do not violate confidences without a moral necessity, which would override the privilege people put in me. Murder, child molestation or threats of suicide are all reasons I would definitely report to an authority everything I knew that could be relevant. Being present at a protest or being a victim of a crime is NOT sufficient grounds for me to give up names and contact information.
My frustration with the Memphis police leads me, as a white woman, to imagine how incredibly complex it is to navigate every aspect of society in this country as a person who lives in Black or brown skin.
The complexity and danger were evident Thursday night when Kentucky’s only Black female state representative, Attica Scott, was arrested while protesting the Breonna Taylor decision in Louisville. There were several charges, including first-degree rioting, a felony.
Authorities claimed she tried to burn down a library, but she called the charges “trumped up” and said she had been working to support the libraries in the state.
A felony conviction would take away Scott’s right to vote.
So, a Black legislator who exercised her right to protest is charged with a felony while white police officers who stormed the wrong apartment and killed an innocent Black woman are not charged in her death.
If you study the history of policing in this country, you will learn that police do not exist to protect everyone. They are an institution designed to protect wealth and property, almost always white wealth and white property.
In June, a white St. Louis couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, threatened protesters, walking past their home, with an assault rifle and a pistol, claiming they were protecting their property. They were charged with unlawful use of a weapon, a felony, but still were invited to the Republican National Convention.
In September, nine Black Lives Matter protesters who had their lives threatened by the couple were cited for trespassing in the incident.
Staples told police he confronted us to keep us away from his vehicle that was parked out front, and he “felt in fear.” He was protecting property.
Let me ask you: What would happen if a Black man began yelling out a window at a group of people in view of several police officers, then emerged and aimed a gun at the people? Would the police, at a minimum, go to the building to question the man? Detain him? Would he even be alive to question?
To those who oppose reallocating police funds, I ask you, what are the police for?
The Rev. Edith Love is a Unitarian Universalist minister who feels her calling is to work toward love and justice. She is the founder of the Church of Resistance, a deliberately inclusive community of seekers. She believes all people are her people, the streets are her parish, and everywhere we are, we are standing on holy ground.
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