Not quite 24 hours have passed since Memphis was held hostage, or so it seemed, by a gunman who embarked on a citywide shooting spree that claimed four lives, injured three others and left most of us reeling. 

For the five hours between the first reports of the spree until just before 9:30 p.m. when police took 19-year-old Ezekiel Kelly into custody, I was terrified. 

My younger sister lives just a stone’s throw from where Kelly allegedly carjacked and killed a woman. Desperate for news, I toggled between local news, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, refreshing obsessively as I sheltered in place at a Midtown restaurant and watched flashing red lights zoom by. 

My heart raced as I called my sister again and again. My text messages went from “Just checking on you” to “You’re (expletive deleted) killing me! Answer your phone!!!”

As I waited for her call, hoping and praying she would call, I was furious. Angry that one man could terrorize an entire city. Anxious for him to be apprehended. Indifferent to whether Kelly was captured alive. Relieved and weepy when my sister finally called.

All of those feelings are to be expected, but it’s the indifference that unsettles me. I believe in criminal justice reform, yet I felt my fear pushing me toward the status quo. The policy approach that has given us what we suffer through now, where “tough on crime” rhetoric drowns out the possibility of a better way forward that makes us safer, not less. 

Wednesday’s terror comes after too many headline-grabbing incidents, including the July shooting death of Rev. Autura Eason-Williams, the August shooting death of community activist Yvonne Nelson, and most recently, Friday’s kidnapping of teacher and mother Eliza Fletcher, whose body was found Monday. And then there are all the other homicide victims whose deaths received less attention but are no less traumatic for those who loved them. 

In the face of what feels like unrelenting violence, how do we continue to advocate for progressive criminal justice policy and restorative justice? How do we refrain from seeking vengeance, revenge and retribution?

One of the vehicles that Ezekiel Kelly allegedly drove while on a shooting spree through Memphis was abandoned on McLean Street Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Hunter Demster

My colleagues at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism are wrestling with these issues too. Said Brittany Brown, our newest team member: “How can we, as a society, have discussions on how to hold people accountable and attain justice without being punitive? How do we contend with ongoing violence? 

“Whose harm do we pay attention to, and whose do we ignore?”

Noted executive editor Adrienne Johnson Martin: “Both of these men (Cleotha Abston, who has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with Fletcher’s death, and Kelly) were in the criminal justice system, one for 20 years. It clearly wasn’t a deterrent or reformative. 

“Part of the abolitionist journey is asking the questions, taking a breath, thinking each piece through. It’s OK and natural to feel vengeful. But is that what justice is or meant to be?”

I find hope in reflections like those of Bobby White, chief public policy officer for the Greater Memphis Chamber and, more importantly, father of a little Black boy, who, on his personal Facebook page Thursday, called for us to first ask questions.  

Kelly was sentenced to three years in prison after he pled guilty to aggravated assault but served only 11 months and was released in March, according to news reports. The basic questions, wrote White, include why Kelly wasn’t still behind bars. 

Better questions inquire into what education Kelly received, whether he had a mental illness and if so, if it was being treated, White wrote. 

“What schools did he attend? What type of student was he? Was he diagnosed with a mental illness? Was it being treated?”

The best questions force us to consider our responsibility to young people who have turned to violence. “What opportunities did we miss to pour into this troubled young man’s life? Who showed him love?” White wrote. 

“How can I support others who are steering young people from dark pathways like this?” 

Reform, as my colleague Jacob Steimer notes, can be messy. 

“Unfortunately, this type of violence – while not usually so random – is far too common in many corners of this city,” he said. “My heart goes out to people who have to feel this fear more often than I do.

“There is real evil in this world, and it can be natural to despair. But despair is ultimately short-sighted. Death doesn’t win. Easter follows Good Friday.”

The promise that death will not win should encourage us to maintain our commitment to criminal justice reform even when, and especially when, our fear would lead us to do otherwise.

Said our digital editor Stephanie Wilson: “Even after last night, I still believe in reform. Probably more so, because all of this stuff we’ve been dealing with as a city just proves to me that what we’ve been doing ain’t it.”

Dr. Martin Luther King’s last book was “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” His simple query serves as an anchor at times like this, tethering me to my core values of hope and love, even for those who hurt us, and protecting me from being paralyzed by fear.

“The most durable, lasting power in this world,” King said in a 1957 Easter Sunday sermon, “is the power to love.” 

Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at wendicthomas@mlk50.com.


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