Looters at work on Main St. as pockets of violence erupted downtown. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW/Enterprises)

It was terrifying.  I ran into the office of Springhill Suites hotel in downtown Memphis early this morning, listening to the voices of lawless youths trying to break the glass panels in the back.  I prayed fervently — with tears. They kicked and banged against the double, glass doors of our historic Kress Building lobby, but finally, had to abandon the task.

Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell

Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers, who were on Front Street engaged in a battle of their own, responded to our calls for help in seconds, quickly making a show of force on our parking lots in front and on the mall in back with police cars and flashing blue lights. When I heard the brief sirens announcing their presence, I felt safe coming out of the office.

As I walked out, I saw people running through the alley, fleeing the clouds of tear gas on Front Street, not more than 50 feet from our front door. Some had their shirts off. Some ran past the front door, but I came face-to-face with a man who could not have been more than 25. He was short, about 5’6”, with a straggly blond beard. It was too late to run back into the office. He had already seen me.

It was as if this man had no fear of the police. He stood in front of the hotel glass doors, which were locked from inside. They did not open automatically when he stepped closer. I prayed some more. He continued standing there, like he was trying to decide whether to force the doors open. Those two minutes seemed an eternity. Finally, he turned and ran away.

When I arrived at 11 p.m., I was told by hotel personnel that protesters had gathered downtown, a peaceful demonstration, for the most part. I am tasked with auditing the day’s fiscal transactions some nights.

We followed the movements of a segment of protesters near the bridge on I-40, tracking events in real time through Facebook Live reports from multiple people there on the scene. One hotel guest called from the Arkansas side, asking for help getting back across to Memphis. This was just before midnight.

Confronted by a strong police presence, the swarm of protesters flowed to A.W. Willis. They flooded the parking lot of the corner gas station and store there, some trying to force their way into the store. There were hundreds of them. Police quickly moved in to disperse the crowd.

Many were running, but the mass did not disperse. It moved south down Front Street and along Main Street. I knew it was headed our way.

There are three hotels situated in a row. When they reached the Courtyard by Marriott, I got a call from the auditor, who was huddled behind the front desk. She yelled frantically into the phone, “They just threw a patio chair through the window. What should I do?”

Our night maintenance man and security for all three hotels, “Mr. D,” ran down to ward off the attack.

The auditor called back with a warning.

“Mr. D said, ‘Lock yourself in the office, and don’t come out,’” the auditor told me. I immediately did so, praying as I huddled there alone, listening to the yelling and running outside.

When all the vandals had either run through the alley from police, or been arrested, I ventured outside the hotel. Down at the Courtyard, a heavy, stylish metal chair had been flung into the glass window. The shards of glass were so thick and jagged, they would have sliced up anyone who tried to climb through.

Shelby County Public Information Officer Capt. Anthony Buckner said the preference is for people to comply in situations like last night.

“Our overarching goals are to preserve the peace and protect property,” said Buckner. “We always hope to earn voluntary compliance. We know that it’s important for people’s voices to be heard. We want that to happen. But when the peace is threatened and personal property must be protected, other means must be employed.”

Overnight unrest yielded multiple arrests. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Reportedly, law enforcement officers made dozens of arrests, including two individuals for trying to impede traffic on the I-55 bridge.

“Two individuals were trying to run up the entrance ramp westbound on I-55,” Buckner said. “After numerous commands, they refused to voluntarily come down. This is a main artery into the city. The medical district is right here, and we need to keep it clear. They were arrested after these two refused to comply with officers’ orders.”

I am saddened by the death of George Floyd. I believe in peaceful protests. This was not that.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said riot was the “language of the unheard.” When private citizens are terrified being hurt by lawless hoards roaming aimlessly or property owners fearing financial ruin because of reckless looting and mayhem, that is not the language of which Dr. King spoke.

This is something quite different. It has no place in peaceful, nonviolent protests.

(Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell is senior freelancer contributor for The New Tri-State Defender.)