Rev. Dr. Earle Fisher, founder of #UPTheVote901, offers opening remarks at The People's Convention at the Paradise Entertainment Complex on Saturday, June 8. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

Note: TSD’s Lee Eric Smith was on special assignment for both The New Tri-State Defender and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. A different version of this story can be found at MLK50.com.

In the run-up to The People’s Convention, there were rumblings that the event would be a glorified pep rally for a predetermined slate of candidates in Memphis’ upcoming municipal elections.

But as a diverse collection of500-plus Memphians steadily streamed into the Paradise Entertainment Complex on Georgia Avenue on Saturday, there wasn’t so much a set slate of candidates as there was a slate of issues – an agenda focused on city finances, education, crime, employment and housing.

And if there was any doubt how candidates can win the support of the People’s Convention, the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher made it clear in his opening remarks.

“At no point in recent history have we had 20 candidates for elected office gathered to be vetted by a group like this,” said Fisher, founder of #UpTheVote901, which organized the convention. “And be very clear: We are not here because of them. They are here because of us.”

After registering, attendees received a handout titled “Memphis People’s Convention Agenda.” The document said that more than 2,200 Memphians were surveyed to identify the most important issues ahead of city elections in October. “Anybody who cannot support and endorse this (agenda) is not capable of providing the political service that we need,” Fisher said.

Organizers say that more than 900 people registered online for the Convention, though only about 500 of those attended. However, another 150 people registered onsite to push the attendance above 650. Those numbers, combined with the more than 2,200 online surveys, made organizers feel they’d achieved a solid but accurate sampling of the city.

And by the end of the convention, current Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer was the consensus “People’s Candidate” for mayor.

Endorsements for other offices include: Judge: Jayne Chandler; City Council #4: Britney Thornton; City Council #6: Theryn C. Bond; City Council #7: Michalyn C. S. Easter-Thomas; City Council #8.1: Pearl Eva Walker; City Council #8.2: Frank W. Johnson; and City Council #9.1: Erika Sugarmon.

“The truth is, this is probably as diverse an event as we’ve seen in Memphis but still representative of the demographic,” said co-organizer Sijuwola Crawford. “There were people who are black or African American, white or Caucasian, people of Hispanic or Latinx descent. There were people we know who identify as gay and trans(gender). Christians. Nation of Islam. People who identify as not religious. Business owners and the working poor and unemployed.

 

“We saw a great representation of what Memphis looks like – and what it can look like in the future,” he added. “This was a great step in that direction.”

The agenda (see embed above or click this link), which was officially unveiled at the convention, was broken into five major categories, with multiple policy points under each. Among the key policies on the agenda:

  • City Budget: Directly include community members in the city’s budgeting process.
  • Education: Measures for student and teacher success that are untethered to standardized testing. The agenda also calls for free access to art and music instruction.
  • Crime and Safety: More support services, including those for mental health and homelessness. The agenda also calls for the decriminalization of marijuana.
  • Labor and Wages: The agenda calls for the City of Memphis, companies that receive PILOTS (payment in lieu of taxes) and temporary staffing agencies to pay employees a living wage.
  • Affordable Housing: Creation of a public agency to end homelessness, as well as construction of more homeless shelters. The agenda also calls for increased regulations on landlords to ensure property maintenance and fair eviction processes.

And that was just the “official” people’s agenda. Partner organizations to #UpTheVote901 were given time to advocate for a variety of other issues, including reproductive rights, a new green deal and the restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.

At stake, said Crawford, is more than just an endorsement, or even votes. The idea is to mobilize money, resources and volunteers around “The People’s Candidates,” as convention organizers called endorsed candidates.

“Our work is going to be (about) how do we build this base for the agenda first, and then for candidates who align with that agenda,” Crawford said. “That’ s just the hard work of getting out and having difficult conversations with people.

“People are disengaged and disenchanted because they don’t feel a part of this political process,” he continued. “But what we want to show people is that there is power in our numbers. And we want to link candidates with these issues and from there, with a wider base, we want to move these people to the polls . . . and beyond.”

The convention applied a version of “ranked choice voting” – a method of voting where voters rank multiple candidates on a ballot. For the People’s Convention, participants voted using Menti.com, an online app that collects and presents audience feedback in real time.

Even that method of voting was its own political statement. On multiple occasions, Memphis voters have already approved a form of ranked voting for municipal elections, but implementation has stalled. The convention’s election process provided a learn-by-doing example of how such a ballot would work.

It’s been said that the democratic process is neither quick nor neat, and the Memphis People’s Convention was no different. Even as the event started nearly an hour after its listed time, people were still filing in. And as a political event, there were impassioned political speeches that stretched the convention into late Saturday afternoon.

Among those giving brief remarks was Shep Wilbun, one of the organizers of the 1991 Peoples Convention. That year, Dr. Willie W. Herenton defeated Wilbun to win the People’s Convention – and eventually the mayor’s office itself.

“The times are different. The process is different. The needs are different in some degrees, but your People’s Agenda today is the same as ours,” said Wilbun, a former city councilman. “That’s damning in one sense, and inspiring in another. I told them then that 25 years from now, we would need to have another People’s Convention, because what was done then will have been forgotten.”

But far from berating the current convention, Wilbun echoed calls for voters to hold elected officials accountable.

“People try to say it’s a generational thing. It’s always young people who want to change lives,” said Wilbun, who said he was 38 during the earlier convention. “And no mistake, the people who are favored, the people who are incumbents, they are not people who want change.”

The crowd gradually thinned out over the afternoon, but well over 100 attendees stayed long enough for mayoral candidates Tami Sawyer and Lemichael Wilson to present their cases.

The Rev. Earle J. Fisher talks with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, who told attendees that — in addition to voting — the process of political engagement also includes volunteering and donating. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Notably absent was incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland who declined to attend. Herenton, who served as mayor for 17 years and is seeking another term, also was conspicuously absent.
In remarks after the convention, Fisher said that Strickland, Herenton and other candidates had not seen The People’s Agenda, as it hadn’t been released early.

“Now, we fully expect for every candidate to have to respond to The People’s Agenda, and say where they stand,” Fisher said. “What they won’t be able to do is say that they are The People’s Candidate. They won’t be able to say that they were confident enough in the people, compassionate enough towards the people and interested enough in the people’s vision to come out and be vetted by the people.

“We won’t allow them to try to skirt the process,” Fisher said.

Fisher also challenged news outlets to press Strickland, Herenton and others on their reasons for sitting out the convention.

“Ask every one of them to thoroughly explain exactly why they did not come. And don’t settle for a coy answer, like the event was predetermined,” Fisher said. “Ask the candidates who participated in this. Ask them if it was fair, if it was thorough, if it was open to everybody.

“This was not biased,” he continued. “This was much more objective and fair and equitable than the Shelby County Election Commission elections. So don’t let them off the hook easy. Because what they’ll do is put more pressure on us to defend our process and then we will put (more pressure) on them to defend their public record.

“We’re defending our process,” Fisher said. “Make them defend their public record.”