By Kelvin Cowans, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Interim Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings already was next up in the “Good Blue and You” series featured periodically in The New Tri-State Defender. His busy schedule pushed the interview back, unknowingly creating time for something epic to happen – the Black Lives Matter-inspired march that morphed into a shutdown of the Hernando-Desoto Bridge over the Mississippi River.
Just as a neighborhood should not be judged by the actions of a few bad apples, neither should law enforcement agencies. The “Good Blue & You” column spotlights law enforcement officers who do it right. None showcased so far have had a higher-profile opportunity than the one Rallings stepped up to on Sunday night.
Kelvin Cowans: Director Rallings, what would you say got you into law enforcement?
Director Michael Rallings: When I was a little boy…I spent hours watching all of the police shows… “Chips,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Shaft” and some others.
KC: Which part interested you the most, the guns, uniforms, fast police cars and motorcycles or the helping of people?
Director Rallings: I’d have to say all of it. As a young man, you know, we’re attracted to the action. I think about my grandson Kyle (5) and he wants to be a super hero and, well, so did I. I think that we have to help our youth channel that energy into real life. When I grew up I wanted to be a soldier and a policeman and through the grace of God I was able to accomplish that. I grew up around older people and they were so positive, wise. I took all of that in as well to get to where I’ve gotten to in life.
KC: What part of Memphis did you grow up in?
Director Rallings: Funny story: Just took my grandson to Glenview Park. That’s where I grew up, right across the street from it on Kyle Street. As a little boy I remember simply walking across the street to go play and have fun. I remember all of the programs we had with the Park Commission and all of the counselors that kept us positive. On from there, we moved out to Whitehaven, where I attended Westhaven Elementary, Fairley Elementary and Sherwood Junior High. From there, when I went on to the sixth grade we moved out to East Memphis and that’s how I ended up at Wooddale High and graduated.
KC: So you’ve been around?
Director Rallings: You know what, I have. I got to see both sides of Memphis by being in a white community and then a black community and mixed community.
KC: What has been the public’s reaction to you as a police officer when you were what they call “walking the beat?”
Director Rallings: I’ve always had positive experiences. Me and my peers always interacted with the community. I mean, you’re going to arrest the bad guys, but by the same token we checked on the elderly and played with the kids. We would stop many days to eat with people or to sit down and talk. I think people have forgotten that if you want people to be friendly, then you have to show yourself friendly. Sometimes you have to get out of the squad and have a conversation.
KC: Exactly! And for the few officers and community members who actually wish to engage in positive conversations what are the platforms that The Memphis Police Department provides so that they can have that conversation? I’m not sure the city even knows. Of late the routine has been that if a police officer shoots someone, then the community says, “Let’s fight.” Or if someone in the community shoots a police officer, you guys have often said, “Let’s fight.” We’re going to have to talk on a continued basis. I once had a bully and after we fought that one time we didn’t even fight anymore after that because we began to talk; and so we knew each other and respected each other.
Director Rallings: I agree, and we have several programs. We have a community outreach program titled “Youth Crime Watch,” where kids can privately report kids that have guns or commit violence in their schools. We have an “Ambassador Program,” where you can support your nearest precinct with community issues. We have “Leaders of Tomorrow,” where we have a large, smart group of children that are going to make a difference in this community. There are also others and we have to do a better job of letting them be known.
KC: Your time as Police Director is (short), but the breaking news from the other day grew us all up quickly. The Memphis community, by the title of Black Lives Matter, marched in protest of two recent African-American male killings at the hand of the police. Flat out Director Rallings, I have to say that this is not the same thing as black-on-black crime because “Rico, Andre, Shane, Big Will or Little Mike” haven’t sworn to uphold the law or preserve life. So we don’t want to hear that comparison, which mostly comes from main street media or many uninformed citizens with too much time on their hand and a computer at their fingers. Through the smoke, the bottom line is police officers can’t just be pulling African-American males over and killing them at traffic stops. You sir, you get it; you were at FedExForum during the rally and on the bridge with the protestors and you’re the (interim) director of the Memphis Police Department. How did that come about, what moved your soul?
Director Rallings: That was a dangerous situation. The bridge is made for traffic and not protest. My dealings with bridges are car crashes or people in crisis trying to jump off of one. It is no place for protests from adults or children. Let me tell you what my day was like and you’ll understand the background.
On that particular day I went to church and my pastor preached a message of peace. He wanted to make sure that all of us understood that no matter what was going on in the world, that it was our job to understand that anger could turn into rage. And when you’re enraged, you can’t hear nor can you help. We have to have poise and we have to have control. One thing he said in his sermon that stuck with me was “peace be still.”
I carried that message with me all day. I left church and went home for a minute and then went to a Tennessee Black Caucus-type meeting at First Baptist (Church) Broad. I left there and went to a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout graduation ceremony. I left there and went to the FedExForum, where they were having a rally. I just went there to visit as I was actually on my way to WLOK Radio station for a Rainbow PUSH show.
KC: So while many of us are tired from church and putting lemon pepper on some wings for Sunday dinner, you’ve made at least three more stops to basically invest in people?
Director Rallings: Hey, I love people. So while I was in front of the (FedExForum), me and a few of the brothers down there were having some lively conversations and I heard a roar coming down Beale Street, probably a group of about 100-plus of young people. They were walking toward FedExForum and I was in the middle of them. A young man asked me did I want to address the group and I said, “Hey man, it’s your rally, but if you want me to, I will.”
So I spoke to them and headed out for WLOK and on my way the sky fell out. The group got bigger and got mobile. I went to my real time crime center and looked at the bridge and said, “Oh my God, I have to get up there!” I called my deputy director immediately and said put on your clothes and get Downtown. By the time I got to the bridge, he and other deputy chiefs were already there. Please know that my Deputy Director Mike Ryall is a Caucasian male and he jumped right up there. So I was supposed to be there. I’m trying to get to him so we can mitigate the situation.
To the naysayers, I say that me not being up there is about as smart as not voting in local elections or for the Presidential elections. My number one goal is to protect the public and keep the peace. I walked with the protestors. I understand their pain. My number one job was to get them off that bridge safely; so we walked and worked together. No one wouldn’t truly know if I didn’t say it, but the gang members and the activists that were up there helped me facilitate a peaceful protest and getting everyone under control. So I want to thank them for helping me keep that protest in peace. The only thing I kept thinking about was Selma, Ala. ….
KC: And the Edmund Pettus Bridge (scene of one of the ugliest civil rights-era confrontations).
Director Rallings: I said to myself, “What would Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.) want me to do?” And I chose peace. I never would’ve thought in a million years that I would be participating in a march on my bridge that was only a few blocks away from where Dr. King gave his life to make a difference in my life. I was moved and humbled. I’ve talked to over 200 people that told me, “Mike, when I saw you up there I just started praying.” I said thank you, because I could feel it. To them and all of you I say, keep praying for our city and keep praying for the police officers.
KC: Because of your mercy sir, you have the ears and, most importantly, the hearts of the people of this city in where people may call low and high places. I pray you understand that mantle. From those that watched from afar in admiration, to those that were out there with you on the bridge that you didn’t meet, and especially those that may never even be allowed into City Hall. We say thank you. You helped break some chains of racism, uncomfortability with police officers and many tears of no hope.
(Kelvin Cowans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)