On the bed of a pickup truck parked in the protest-blocked intersection of Poplar Ave. and Danny Thomas Blvd., L.J. Abraham was gazing westward toward the heart of Downtown Memphis when asked what she was thinking at that very moment.
“That I hope this applies the pressure that needs to be applied to City Council and County Commission to do what we’re asking and get accomplished. Because we are not backing down,” she said.
“I’m also wondering how many places are actually being affected. … I hope this is affecting commerce because that is all Memphis really cares about anyway is their money.”
Another in a string of protests called in the pursuit of justice for Tyre D. Nichols, this one (Saturday, Feb. 4.) came on what was hailed as a National Day of Action. It was the next-leg response to the videotaped beating of Nichols, who was brutally and repeatedly struck and kicked while handcuffed by five Memphis Police Department officers on Jan. 7.
Three days later, he was taken off life support and pronounced dead.
Approaching a month later, the five officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and kidnapping offenses for what amounts to the false imprisonment of the 29-year-old Nichols after what they asserted was a traffic stop.
The five charged officers are African Americans. A sixth fired officer, who has not yet been charged, is white. To the protesters and myriad others, that matters.
A seventh officer, who has not been identified, has been relieved of duty as MPD’s internal investigation continues.
Three members of the Memphis Fire Department have been fired for dereliction of duty that evening. After video footage was released, two Shelby County Sheriff’s Department deputies were suspended pending the completion of an investigation.
Meanwhile, continuing are investigations by the Shelby County District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Tennessee.
With all of that percolating, local activists plan to be at the Memphis City Council on Tuesday and the Shelby County Commission on Wednesday. They started Saturday’s protest on the steps of the Judge D’Army Bailey Courthouse.
Amber Sherman of the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter framed the demands directed to local officials on behalf of Nichol’s family, including passage of a Data Transparency Ordinance crafted to enhance the city’s tracking of transparency about complaints against MPD officers.
The plan is for information regarding such an ordinance to be presented at the City Council’s public safety committee meeting on Tuesday morning.
Other demands: End pretextual traffic stops; end unmarked cars manned by plainclothes officers; end task forces and specialized units; remove police from traffic enforcement.
“We’re asking you to show up at those meetings, make a public comment. It’s important to pass those ordinances,” said Sherman. “They are needed to keep our community safe. We already know they are not safe. … We are terrorized by police … beat by police and nobody is saying anything. Tyre was murdered by police on the pretext of a traffic stop.”
As the demonstration flowed west on Adams toward a left at Third Street before turning right on Poplar to Danny Thomas, Bartholomew Jones with Cxffee Black at 761 National St. marched along. The Black-owned coffee shop supplied coffee for protesters.
“I lot of the activists slide through our coffee shop … talking about this this week. So, we’re showing up to support, try to keep an eye on things and make sure we don’t have no infiltration, to the best of my ability.”
Kelli Gates sang “Stand Up” from the movie “Harriet” before the protesters began to move. Later, camped with others at the blocked intersection, Gates pointed to the Walter L. Bailey Jr. Criminal Justice Complex and said, “My mother used to work there. She was a sergeant.”
Gates was there representing Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Center for transforming communities, which works in conjunction with BLM to serve the community “financially, spiritually, educationally” and more.
She’s also part of the 20-member Freedom Singers “that come together for times like these … to have some peace, to encourage people to be a part of the peaceful protest and also to keep the hearts, minds and spirits of our people unified at this time.
“Because we are angry,” she said. “We’re upset, there’s a lot of emotion, but we cannot forget our purpose. We must remember to remain united so that our goals and our demands can be reached.”
Gates brought her two sons, ages 7 and 8.
“They just asked me, ‘Mom, why do we have to be here?’ I said honey, people have been marching like this since before you and I were born and it could have been either one of us. So, it’s our job, our duty to follow in those footsteps and continue the good fight.”
Gates also is an early childhood education teacher who works with “many young Black boys who cannot speak. … They have autism. They are non-verbal. I am an advocate for them and an advocate for all little Black and brown boys….”
A succession of call-and-response chants added to the soundtrack at the blocked intersection.
“If we don’t get no justice!”
“You don’t get no peace!
Then Barbara Burress called for three minutes of silence to simulate about how long Nichols was beaten. A designated timer gave the signal to commence.
After the hush, Burress spoke.
“I really wanted to go and interrupt her (the timer) and say, ‘Is that three minutes up yet?’ Imagine three minutes getting beaten while in handcuffs … screaming for your mother … My heart is beating (fast) still.…”
More chants, including several energetically led by Veda Washington, who made her way to Memphis from Baton Rouge, where her nephew, Alton Sterling, was killed in an encounter with two officers in 2016. A video of the deadly encounter went viral.
“If we don’t get it!”
“Shut it down!”
“If we don’t get it!”
“Shut it down!”
Moments later, her voice amplified by a bullhorn, she said, “I came here last night through an organization called B.L.I.N.D. to be standing here with ya’ll. I come here all the time. But when I needed you, you came for me and don’t think I’m not coming for you. …
“That’s what you gotta do, shut it down. I love y’all so much standing out here closing, making their life uncomfortable like they do us every … day.”
Soon after, she talked with The New Tri-State Defender and fielded a question about where her spirits are after being on the protest road for years.
“My spirits are where they are supposed to be because I’m not going let nothing deter me from the love of God.”
She was thankful for Jennifer King’s connectivity in helping others get to Memphis.
“Jennifer is from Memphis. She has family from all over the United States. Mike Brown (father of Mike Brown Jr., killed in Ferguson, Mo.) is on the way here through Jennifer. She gets everybody here, everything set up, place to stay, our security. She’s been doing this since Mike Brown.”
More chanting: “We gone fight all day night until we get it right!”
King’s resolve is rooted in what she states as a reality. Helping get Sterling and others to Memphis for the day is what must be done.
“Every day I wake up I could be the next hashtag. I could be the next person locked up for a crime I did not commit. Being Black, being Black in America.”
Several families “reached out to me and wanted to come and show solidarity and stand with Tyre Nichol’s family,” she said. “Of course, they know exactly what they (Nichol’s) are going through.… I cannot express their pain because I’ve never been through it.
She will be at the City Council, County Commission, or wherever else she needs to be.
Encouraged? Or resolved?
“I’m blank because, unfortunately, it seems like they don’t care because it was us (African Americans) that did this instead of looking at it as blue. Be honest, if it was all white officers, this place would be burning. Everywhere would be burning….”
Through his bullhorn, Casio Montez declared that he is “about business” in making those directly involved in Nichols’ death uncomfortable “like you made these families uncomfortable.”
That includes visiting their homes.
“Your neighbors are gonna know who … you are. … The firefighters, you can expect a visit. We’re gonna come on your property and let your neighbors know who they staying next to.”
“Say his name!”
The day’s protest was billed as the beginning of a week of action.
“This a good show of letting the people who need to know what’s going on; that it will not stop regardless of whether it’s 200,” said Keedran Franklin. “If it’s two, the same reform needs to happen.
“It’s impacting people on a broader scale. Around the country I know there are other cities (participating) in a National Day of Action. It’s a good start to apply more pressure.”
A veteran activist, Franklin said he doesn’t measure progress relative to protests as do “the powers that be.”
“As long as I see my community constantly growing, they are learning, building capacity, then that is the progress that we need. … The progress in the community, I see it,” said Franklin.
“Those small inches forward on laws and policies, we see some of those too. But I look more so for the progress in my community to be more educated around what is going on. Then they can take action around what is going on, then they can organize around what is going on.”
In that vein, Abraham said of the day’s protest, “I wish it could’ve went bigger, but I’ll take this.”