Shelby County commissioner Tami Sawyer speaks at a press conference at the Shelby County office building on June 8. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer has endured lynching threats, racial and gendered epithets, and has previously hired private security for her safety, she said.

Her social media lit up again with personal attacks Nov. 23 after she posted online during the commission meeting, at which Shelby County Health Department officials presented their latest directive imposing tighter restrictions for restaurants and gyms aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“When I started to speak, a group of all white anti-mask, anti-health ordinance speakers got up, turned their backs on me and left the chambers,” Sawyer, who is Black, posted on Facebook and on Twitter during the meeting. “The disrespect never ceases to amaze me.”

At the Shelby County Commission meeting on Nov. 23 a group of people who were in the audience for the public comment period stood up and walked out as Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer began to speak. This video was recorded from County Commissioner Sawyer’s livestream of the meeting.

In response, commenters on Twitter called her racist and on Facebook accused her of not doing her job as commissioner, or alternatively, of shutting down businesses.

As an activist in 2017, Sawyer helped lead a grassroots movement that called for, and eventually secured, the removal of two Confederate statues in Memphis parks. Like national progressive figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez of New York or Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Sawyer – the only Black woman on the county commission – has become a lightning rod for largely white critics.

“I am constantly attacked for my size, my race and my gender,” Sawyer, 38, said in an interview last week following the meeting. “And that’s what people jump on because they don’t like that I have a voice or an audience.”

The commission doesn’t make health department rules, vote on the rules or enforce them, but Sawyer supports the effort to protect the community. Shelby County has recorded more than 48,000 coronavirus cases and 672 deaths as of Tuesday. Across Tennessee, hospitalizations have topped 2,200 and continue to rise, as is the case in much of the country, where deaths nationally have neared around 270,003. At today’s county commission meeting, Dr. Alisa Haushalter from the county’s health department is scheduled to give another coronavirus update.

The new health department rules require restaurants to reduce capacity to 50%, limit groups to six and close by 10 p.m., and require patrons to wear masks at all times except when actually eating or drinking. Gyms and fitness centers can stay open, but patrons are required to wear masks unless showering or swimming.

Quickly, the public comment period at the commission meeting devolved into what Sawyer called racist “dog-whistling,” with one speaker calling herself a “true American,” and adding, “We are not Muslim. It’s against my religion to put something over my face.”

Diana Crenshaw speaks during a public comment period following the COVID-19 briefing by the Shelby County Health Department. “We are not Muslim,” she said. “It’s against my religion to put something over my face.” This video was made using the Shelby County County Commissioner Tami Sawyer’s livestream and audio from the Shelby County Commission’s recording.

After the public comment, commission chairman Eddie Jones asked Sawyer if she wanted to speak. As she began talking, many people left.

Commissioner Van Turner took note. “For everyone to walk out in a coordinated manner when Commissioner Sawyer spoke was offensive,” he said at the meeting, adding that he thought those who spoke only came down to protest when it concerned them. 

“I didn’t see any of these people come down when folks were protesting and talking about the senseless deaths of our Black youth across this nation.”

In an email Sawyer provided to MLK50, Mike Miller, incoming president of the Memphis Restaurant Association, apologized for leaving as she was talking. 

“I left at the same time as a number of other people and it was apparently viewed as some sort of organized walk out,” he wrote. “I have no idea who any of those folks were besides another restaurateur who needed to leave as well, and certainly wasn’t part of any planned our purposeful walk-out. It was simply poor timing on my part.”

Charges of racism on social media

About 30 people spoke for around 1 ½ hours at the commission meeting, largely protesting the health department restrictions on businesses and gyms. 

“If someone new comes in and they’re made to wear a mask the entire time they’re doing high intensity interval training, they won’t be back,” said Vanessa Robertson, who is white and identified herself as a gym owner and argued against the mask restriction in fitness centers. 

Sawyer, who attended virtually because her parents are elderly and have health concerns, posted several times on Facebook and Twitter during the meeting. In one post, she fact-checked a claim about Sweden’s coronavirus response – a country often cited by those in favor of looser restrictions because of its initial comparatively lax approach. In another, she said she was not sympathetic to commenters “crying because they don’t like the new health directive” because she’s lost friends to COVID-19. In the comments, she was largely supported, but some took issue. 

On Twitter, conservative white commentator and radio host Todd Starnes, who in 2019 said Rep. Omar should take a “one-way plane ticket back to whatever third-world hellhole [she] came from,” accused Sawyer of “playing the race card.” Others called her racist and said she hated white people.

On Facebook, local restaurateur Nick Scott said she should be “ashamed” of herself for not attending the meeting in person. After Sawyer explained on Facebook why she attended virtually, Scott replied, “I would’ve said the same thing if I didn’t want to go to work. You don’t deserve the position that you have.”

Other commenters and Sawyer interpreted Scott’s remarks as a reference to the racist stereotype of Blacks as lazy, which he denied. Asked his race, Scott said he is Scottish, Irish and Chickasaw Nation.

Scott, who owns Alchemy in Cooper Young and is opening Salt|Soy on Broad Avenue, also alluded to “street parties” thrown over the summer by Sawyer, which other commenters took to refer to local Black Lives Matter rallies protesting police violence against unarmed Black American in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He engaged in a heated back-and-forth in the comments before a sea of voices supporting Sawyer consumed the thread. 

In an interview Wednesday, Scott, 41, said he regretted some of what he’d said, which he’d written “out of haste,” when emotions were still running high from the meeting. 

Scott said the “street parties” comment referred to “reports and rumors” he’d seen online that Sawyer was throwing parties or having barbecues, something Sawyer denied. He also said that he and his staff supported the BLM protests.

“There was even one that walked down the street right in front of the business and we were all out there in support, “ he said.

“We do not preach hate, we do not tolerate hate, we do not tolerate racism or violence,” Scott said. “I had a comment that was poorly worded and was taken out of context.” He added that he’d reached out to Sawyer’s assistant to apologize for “the way it was worded and how it got personal.”

Sawyer said she’s not heard from Scott, nor has he returned to apologize on Facebook. “The only reason I think he’s contrite is because of the public pressure,” she said, referring to the backlash against Scott’s comments on her Facebook post.

Public frustration, private pain

Much of Sawyer’s frustration, however, is directed at the larger state and federal responses, or what she views as a lack of a response.  

“In the absence of a federal coordinated strategy and a statewide strategy, leaders in Shelby County and Memphis can only do so much,” Sawyer said. Since 2017, the county has spent more than it’s brought in through tax revenues. “If Congress and the Senate had figured out how to pass more economic stimulus dollars to people and keep unemployment going we’d be in a different place. But I, Tami Sawyer, have nothing to do with that.”

Sawyer said she understands that people are in desperate financial straits. Like many people, the pandemic forced her to cut back her hours as a national field director for Black Voters Matter and eventually leave the job. She’s getting her master’s degree, doing consulting work for social justice projects and serving as commissioner, which is not a lucrative role.

“We make $29,000 a year and they act like I’m sitting there dropping caviar in my mouth while they were talking,” she said.

She also understands people’s frustrations, and thanked those who spoke for voicing their opinions and engaging in public discourse. But economic hardship isn’t new to much of the city, where about 26% of Black people live below the poverty line. 

“We were poor before and are going to be poor after COVID,” she said. “And maybe you can join the fight to end such rampant poverty when COVID is gone.”

Hannah Grabenstein 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 these generous donors.

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