Start with last year’s fatal attempted carjacking at an East Memphis gas station. Add in residents’ demands for more security. Add to that a white cop turned armed security guard and an unarmed Black man in a car playing loud music.
It’s the perfect recipe, criminal justice advocates say, for the outcome that was as tragic as it was predictable: The Aug. 7 fatal shooting of Alvin Motley Jr. by Gregory Livingston, who has been charged with second-degree murder.
The incident raises concerns about the link between policing and private security, the expectations for Black people in predominantly white spaces, and who suffers most when calls for increased public safety are answered.
The two men’s paths crossed just before 7 p.m. that Saturday, when Motley, who was visiting from Chicago, and his girlfriend, Pia Foster, who was driving, pulled into the Kroger Fuel Center at Poplar and Kirby. Livingston, who worked for a third-party contractor, confronted Motley about the volume of the car’s music, according to police and news reports.
Foster had Motley get back into the car to leave, according to a police affidavit, but Motley exited the car and walked toward the security guard. Foster told police that Motley said to the security guard: “Let’s talk like men.”
The police affidavit says that surveillance video shows Motley holding a cigarette and a beer can when Livingston fired. Motley, 48, was pronounced dead on the scene.
Motley’s family hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represented the Trayvon Martin family after a neighborhood watch volunteer shot and killed the unarmed Black teen in Florida in 2012.
Many of Crump’s previous clients are families of people killed by police, and while security guards are a lesser authority, they are not less prone to the systemic problems in policing, he said.
Security shares policing’s staff, bad practices
Because security firms often hire off-duty law enforcement or former officers such as Livingston, it’s inevitable that the racism in policing culture shows up in security services, advocates said. Livingston worked as a Horn Lake, Mississippi police officer from 1998 to 2001, according to WHBQ Fox 13. He also did not have a Tennessee-required license to work security, The Commercial Appeal reported.
“Whether it’s private or public, the outcome is still the same. Having police is inherently dangerous,” especially to communities of color, said Chelsea Glass, an organizer for DeCarcerate Memphis, which advocates for criminal justice reform.
Motley was a victim of racial profiling, Glass believes, and was an even greater target in the predominantly white and wealthy area that surrounds the fuel center, where Memphis meets Germantown. However, profiling occurs independent of geography and the race of the officer or guard, she said.
“I don’t know that he necessarily would have been shot… in a different area where more people look like him,” she said. “But I don’t think that profiling is unique to only white officers, I think profiling is baked into the culture of policing.”
On Monday at Shelby County General Sessions Court, where Livingston had one of his first court appearances, attorney Leslie Ballin denied that the shooting was racially motivated and said instead that Livingston was doing his job and defending himself.
“If there are facts that speak to this being a racial event, teach me, let me know,” Ballin told the media. “I don’t know of any right now.”
However, Shahidah Jones, an organizer with The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter said neither police officers nor Livingston’s jobs should include the option to kill and that issue is systemic whether the agent is a government or corporate employee.
“These are two issues where we see systemic oppression, systemic anti-blackness, and the systemic belief that policing and authority gives you the right to make life or death decisions,” Jones said. “They are all coalescing here to create an environment in which Black people’s freedom is removed immediately and you have to prove yourself to earn it back. That is systemic, regardless of whether that is private security…”
Livingston didn’t shoot solely of his own accord, but with the backing of the company policy and laws that gave him the option, she said.
While Livingston may have had “some fear,” Jones said, “but for me, more than anything, (the shooting) comes from an entitlement to a decision. That happens when you give the authority of law enforcement to people.”
Public safety looks different if you’re white
There is no doubt that racism steered Livingston’s actions, said Carl Adams, Motley’s close cousin.
“You have to ask yourself the question, if Alvin Jr. was white, would he have been killed? And the answer is absolutely not,” Adams said in an interview last week.
The Kroger fuel station where Motley was killed had been the site of several other incidents, including a September attempted carjacking in which the car’s owner shot and killed one of the people trying to take his Mercedes SUV. The killing was ruled justified.
A petition titled “Keep Kroger customers safe in Germantown/Memphis with armed security guards” gathered more than 350 signatures and in November, the creator declared victory, posting, “We won! Kroger listened. Kroger now has guards at the gas station! Thank you to everyone that signed.”
Kroger did not respond to questions about whether the company added security because of the petitioners’ request.
Calls for more security often protects white people’s safety while jeopardizing Black people’s, said Glass, who is white and lives in Collierville. She doesn’t make a distinction between private security forces and state security forces.
“Safety means different things to different people,” she said. “The lived experiences of people who look like me, and live where I live, have either no real experience with law enforcement, or they have a perceived positive experience with law enforcement.”
“Communities of color… don’t share that experience,” Glass said. “Their experience with law enforcement is typically negative. It’s wrapped and intertwined in harm and trauma — and we’re talking generations of that.”
Angie Deupree, who is white and a Germantown resident, was one of those who signed the petition. “At this point, (Kroger) can become liable at some level for injuries or deaths that occur as a result of Kroger taking ‘no action,’” Deupree wrote.
Reached last week, Deupree said she never expected that the community’s request for armed guards would lead to Motley’s death. No one should be shot simply because of loud music, she said.
“I wouldn’t expect someone to get shot unless they were doing something wrong,” Deupree said. “I wasn’t there to know if this particular victim had done anything wrong or not.
“But if someone’s (committing) a crime, I would not be afraid for someone to take action.”
That petitioners didn’t consider the danger an armed security guard could pose to Black people is precisely the issue, Glass said.
“Even if race never crossed any particular individual’s mind, to me that is an act of racism – to be so blinded by your own personal experience as a white person, or in a predominantly white area, that you have no consideration for the outcome and the impact that it will have to Black and brown neighbors.”
Deupree said the shooting of Motley doesn’t present a safety concern to her – and reform advocates say she’s right. Armed security presence isn’t a threat to white women such as Deupree, and that’s why armed guards are a narrow-sighted response to crime that mainly benefits the white and wealthy, said Wesley Dozier, a fellow at Just City, which advocates for a smaller and fairer criminal justice system.
“(Motley) wasn’t safe if he was just playing loud music and got killed. So when we’re thinking about safety, whose safety are we talking about?” Dozier asked.
“Obviously, it was not his, and I could imagine that it’s not a lot of other Black people who go out there.”
Germantown, East Memphis exist as a ‘white haven’
While Deupree sees Germantown as racially mixed – “You’ve got a lot of apartments … you see people of all races, all backgrounds and all ages in that particular area,” she said – census data suggests otherwise.
Multifamily dwellings are one strategy to increase the economic and racial diversity of a community, affordable housing advocates say, and exclusionary zoning laws are a way to “discriminate against people of color,” President Joe Biden’s administration noted in a June blog post. Germantown officials have fought to limit the number of multi-family complexes and in 2020 approved an ordinance that banned most new apartment complexes.
The gas station sits near the edge of Germantown, in an East Memphis census tract where the population is 85% white, 6% Black, 7% Asian and 2% two or more races. That makes it the least diverse of the county’s suburban towns. The tract’s median household income is just shy of $130,000.
In comparison, Memphis’ population is 63% Black, 26% white, 2% Asian, 8% Hispanic and 1% two or more races. The median household income in the city – just over $43,750 – is less than three times that of families in Germantown, where the population is 2% Black, 93% white, 2% Hispanic and the rest other.
Decades of white flight set the stage for racist encounters such as the one that claimed Motley’s life. The demographic contrast between Memphis and Germantown is “by design,” Dozier said.
“You’re operating on really tenuous ground because Germantown is this very white, wealthy haven to exclude everyone else,” he said.
Germantown’s homogeneity comes with unspoken rules and expectations for people who aren’t among the wealthy white majority, a concept known as “respectability politics,” said Jones, who is Black.
“(Respectability politics) plays a major role because there’s an assumption of what (Black people) should be doing, the way you should be performing in front of the white gaze. In my mind, that would be the reason for the interaction.”
What behavior is shunned depends on the demographics of the neighborhood, Jones said, and loud music could be considered prohibited behavior by East Memphis residents in a way it isn’t in areas of Memphis with larger Black populations.
Even so, Alvin Motley Sr. doesn’t understand why loud music would prompt Livingston to interact with his son, much less kill him.
“I’m pretty sure all of us have had young people pull up in a gas station or come down the street with the music too loud,” said Motley Sr., 72. Guards are “there to protect property, not people’s sensibilities.”
Jones and Crump agreed, likening Motley’s death to that of Martin’s. In both instances, a Black person was gunned down by quasi-authorities not because they threatened safety, Crump said, but because they violated respectability power dynamics.
“If he didn’t turn his music down — ‘If he didn’t obey the white man’ — then the white man got a right to kill him,” Crump said.
Though the race of the people responsible for previous carjackings isn’t immediately known, Jones suspects prior crimes at the gas station led security to be overly watchful of Black men. This then led Livingston to see his role as policing how Black people show up in spaces, turning a minor interaction into a fight for control.
“Anytime we’re talking about more policing, whether it’s in schools, whether it’s in nice neighborhoods, whether it’s in poor Black neighborhoods, it becomes (more) about policing people’s actions and respectability politics than it is about safety concerns.”
However, respectability politics can’t be directly addressed through an election or a piece of legislation, Jones said.
“I’ve heard over the years that we can’t change people’s hearts and minds, we should just change policy,” she said.
“Personal transformation of our thought processes is how we change culture. We have to change the way we think and the way we act. Policy in itself doesn’t ever get to that day-to-day change.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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