Josh Adams changes a bulb during a Brake Light Clinic hosted by DeCarcerate Memphis at Douglass Park. Adams, who works with the Memphis Public Library, is a self-taught mechanic who helped organize the series of clinics and the volunteer training in brake light repair. He cites the African American proverb “each one, teach one” as informing his approach. Photos by Brandon Dill for MLK50

At The Root is a new MLK50 series that highlights everyday radical action. As the writer and activist Angela Davis said, “radical means simply grasping something at the root.” This visually-driven feature will be recurring. To suggest an idea for At The Root, email visuals director Andrea Morales at 

Rico Washington knows sometimes he lays on the gas a little too much. That awareness stays with him as he drives from his home in North Memphis across the city. As a Black man, he knows the risks involved with getting pulled over by the police.

On a Saturday morning last month, volunteers canvassing the Douglass neighborhood approached Washington to tell him about the Brake Light Clinic that DeCarcerate Memphis was hosting at Douglass Park. Washington brought in his electric blue Kia to get checked out. Josh Adams, a clinic volunteer, inspected the car and found that both of the brake lights were burned out. It took just a few minutes for Adams to switch them out. 

The organization challenges the idea that increasing law enforcement leads to safer streets and aims to end the racial and class bias used in the justice system.This was the first in a series of clinics to address a common pretense for police stops: Faulty brake lights.

Rico Washington waits while the lights on his car are replaced during the Brake Light Clinic held by DeCarcerate Memphis at Douglass Park. DeCarcerate Memphis analyzed the most recent available numbers for traffic stops in all nine Memphis Police Department precincts. From 2011 to 2018, the North Main precinct, which polices the Douglass neighborhood and much of North Memphis, had the highest number of traffic stops in six of those years. 

According to a recently published New York Times investigation, over the last five years American law enforcement have killed during traffic stops more than 400 unarmed drivers or passengers who were not suspected of a violent crime. Although the police face a probability of less than 1 in 3.6 million of ending up dead during a traffic stop, the perceived danger is used as a justification for use-of-force during these encounters. “That presumption of peril has been significantly overstated, but it has become ingrained in police culture and court precedents — contributing to impunity for most officers who use lethal force at vehicle stops,” the investigation said. 

Additional Brake Light Clinics

Saturday, Nov. 6: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Orange Mound Tower, 2205 Lamar Avenue

Saturday, Dec. 4: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at First Congo Church, 1000 South Cooper Street

Follow DeCarcerate Memphis on Facebook for updates.

Darrius Stewart, 19, was a passenger in a car that was pulled over during a 2015 traffic stop for a non-working headlight in Hickory Hill. Memphis police officer Connor Schilling detained Stewart, claiming that he had an active warrant. The encounter ended with Schilling shooting Stewart to death. 

A burned out brake light was part of the justification for pulling over Philando Castile in Minnesota . A broken tail light led to Walter Scott being pulled over in South Carolina. Samuel DuBose was driving a car with a missing tag when he was pulled over in Ohio. All three men were killed by the police during the stops.

“We have seen these types of deaths all across the country starting with a simple traffic stop,” volunteer Kathy Yancey Temple said. “It is no longer justifiable. It’s never been justifiable.”

A recent study listed police use-of-force as the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men. 

The replacement bulbs and Adams’s labor came at no cost to Washington or anyone else who took advantage of the clinic’s offerings. This act of service helps Washington avoid an encounter ending with what could be a fine of around $60, at best

“[The police] were probably going to do the most, probably figure out some more problems with my car that way they can add some more stuff to the ticket,” Washington said. “And that would just make it worse for me, way worse than just my tail light being out.”

Volunteer Donna Houston (center) canvasses along Brookins Street to inform residents about a brake light clinic being held by DeCarcerate Memphis at Douglass Park.
Tommesha Churchman waits while her car is checked.
Volunteer Donita Williams canvasses along Brookins Street. “If you’re pulling over for a brake light, it should only result in a ticket,” Kathy Yancey Temple, another volunteer at the clinic,  said. “Not in an arrest and certainly not a murder. But that is what’s been happening.”
Some of the volunteers canvassing the Douglass neighborhood on the morning of the clinic were residents of the community as well.
“The police should have more tools in their toolkit than to simply go fishing for reasons to bust somebody for something,” said Adams, the volunteer mechanic. “You’ll get pulled over for your brake light being out. Then officers will use whatever else they may claim they find as far as probable cause to pull you out of your vehicle” and, he said, find other reasons for an arrest. 
A used bulb sits on the sidewalk before being discarded at the Brake Light Clinic. The cost of a replacement bulb for a brake light is less than five dollars. Memphis, like many other cities and towns in the South and Midwest, collects more than 10 percent of its revenue from fines and fees, a practice that critics say burdens Black and brown residents while failing to improve public safety.

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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