We are coming out of a week where terrible, terrifying things happened in Memphis. I feel and understand the fear. Yet as a journalist, it’s important that I — and the MLK50 staff — process this mindfully through the prism of power and policy and inequity.
I’ve read the reporting that followed the deaths of Eliza Fletcher, Dewayne Tunstall, Allison Parker and a still unidentified person, as well as the shootings of survivor Rodolfo Berger and two others. Journalists at other publications have uncovered some compelling information about the accused that add context to the cases.
Reading and digesting their work and doing some personal reflection, I keep coming back to a simple and much heard truth: Black lives matter.
When society doesn’t truly invest in that principle, it eventually leads to harm for everybody.
Let me tell you what I mean.
We’ve learned recently that Cleotha Abston, Fletcher’s alleged killer, was investigated by the Memphis Police Department for a rape that happened in September 2021, but not arrested, despite, sources said, strong evidence. A key factor may have been the backlog in the testing of rape kits caused by a reluctant MPD. There’s an active suit filed against the City of Memphis in 2014 about the harm done to rape victims because of the backlog. Some 14,000 rape kits have gone untested for 15 years, and they’re mostly from Black women. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the women being mostly Black and probably mostly low wealth played a role in why such a backlog was allowed to happen.
I thought, too, about October 2021, when a funeral procession in North Memphis was interrupted by gunfire. A Black man who lived in the Black neighborhood described seeing a man armed with an assault rifle and then several other people arriving with military-style rifles. ‘It’s something like the wild, wild west,” he said. “I’ve never seen nothing like it in my life.” Sixteen-year-old Emmit Beasley was killed and another person was critically injured.
The story came and went; it was reported in the context of being just another example of the Memphis area’s struggle with gun violence. It was seen as happening in that neighborhood to those people — a shootout with rifles in the middle of a street.
That’s not how it works. Yes, gun violence happens more often to Black Memphians. But we know, as they say, bullets don’t have borders. Gun violence happens in communities; communities make up cities. There’s a price for everyone who lives in a city in a state that has the tenth highest firearm death rate.
That’s why we published a story that explored what it would mean to approach gun violence in Memphis as a public health crisis, to take a big-picture view and treat it as a community problem.
We now see that it is.
And that’s how I got to my simple truth. There are certainly many more layers to these events that I’m not exploring here. I also don’t mean to excuse the individual actions in these tragic acts. I appreciate the necessity of public acts as tribute and catharsis in a moment when nothing feels adequate. And I know that both white and Black lives were affected and continued to be affected after last week.
Yet I wonder where we might be if women (and men) had united and felt compelled to run or rally in support of the women whose rape kits weren’t processed. Or if the shooting in North Memphis had shaken the entire city to its core, and was seen as newsworthy nationally. It’s my job to think about how those stories were reported and how these more recent stories are being reported and, if there are differences, why that might be.
The phrase “Blacks lives matter,” of course, was born as an emphatic statement, a call to understand that along with other lives, Black lives matter, too. This week in Memphis shows the consequences of not fully embodying that principle, in our policy, in our actions, in our media.
To beat back the people, systems and policies that create problems we all end up paying for, we have to react to harms that don’t happen directly to us with the urgency we do when we feel affected. Because, eventually, it will affect all of us.
When society acts like Black lives don’t matter as much, it can lead to terrible, terrifying things.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.