By Lee Eric Smith
Less than 24 hours after demonstrators influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement shut down the I-40 bridge, a list of demands were laid to Mayor Jim Strickland at a hastily organized public forum at Greater Imani Church and Christian Center in Raleigh.
A racially-mixed audience of more than 1,000 citizens, police officers and elected officials packed the sanctuary Monday afternoon. The demands included a call for an accounting of funds spent in public works, more money for crime prevention and youth empowerment and cultural sensitivity training for Memphis Police Department officers.
But at the very top of the list of demands: End the search for a police chief. Following his on-the-job interaction with the demonstrators over the weekend, there has been a groundswell of support for removing the interim tag and naming Michael Rallings police director.
“We want Rallings! We want Rallings!” many in the crowd cheered during a standing ovation for the interim director.
Rallings’ cool-headed leadership is considered a primary reason Sunday’s demonstration ended peacefully. Rallings marched with protesters arm in arm, and later challenged Memphians to “30 days, no killing.”
“Your constituents have selected their chief of police,” #BlackLivesMatter organizer DeVante Hill told Strickland. “We want the immediate and official hiring of Michael Rallings. We don’t want anybody from outside. He’s a spiritual man, a God-fearing man.”
Strickland, like he had during an earlier press conference Monday, said the search was ongoing and no announcement was imminent. However, he praised Rallings — politely reminding the raucous elements of the crowd that he’d indeed asked Rallings to apply for the position.
“I’ve been impressed with Mike Rallings for years,” Strickland said. “I’ve asked him to apply for the job and (Sunday) night we saw why. I hear what you’re saying, but that decision will not be made tonight. …I’m doing what I promised to do during the campaign. I promised we would do a search and I’m going to keep my word.”
In a February exclusive interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Rallings indicated he was looking forward to retirement in 2018 and wasn’t seeking the position full time.
“The mayor hired me to be interim director,” Rallings said at the time. “I’m a very humble guy. I never wanted to be out front. I like to work behind the scenes to just get things done.”
True to his style, Rallings initially didn’t comment on demands for him to accept the job, Monday afternoon. However, eventually he spoke up. “It’s a very tough job. It’s up to God to put in this position whoever he wants,” Rallings said. “So we know it’s not realistic for the mayor (to) make a decision tonight.”
Also true to form, Rallings redirected the attention back onto the crowd, calling again for 30 days without a killing.
“If I can get the citizens of this city to work with me to make Memphis a better place, I will consider taking the job,” Rallings said. “I want you to hear that. We asked for 30 days of no killing. If we are committed to changing this city, let’s show that. And let’s work through the process. The mayor is the mayor and he can make his decision. But I’ve left it up to God.”
Emotions among Memphians were still raw after the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Both men were killed during encounters with police — back-to-back incidents, both graphically captured on video. Those same incidents reportedly drove Micah X. Johnson, an African American, into a shooting rampage in Dallas that left five police officers dead and several others wounded.
During Sunday’s demonstrations, Rallings took to the streets (removing his flak jacket at one point), setting a powerful example by marching with demonstrators while keeping his own officers in check. In exchange for the protestors leaving the I-40 bridge, Rallings promised he would meet with organizers. Strickland would join him.
“I didn’t set this up, this is what we agreed to,” Rallings said. “We’re here to listen. We didn’t come for you to hear us, we came to hear you.”
As the forum turned to the other demands, the outrage among some assembled began to bubble, with people shouting at Strickland and other panelists. Strickland responded to the other demands:
On transparent accounting of city spending with minority businesses: “We’ve increased MWBE spending by 17 percent. It is a huge priority,” Strickland said. “Our tagline is we mean business. We once had two entities in charge of that process. But I combined it into one person, and Joann Massey doing a phenomenal job.”
Strickland also cited an upcoming sewer system upgrade of which he said minority contracts make up 35 percent of the job.
On spending for youth empowerment efforts: Strickland said his administration has already increased programming at community centers and literacy efforts at public libraries. “We’ve already done that. We have more programming for youth than last summer,” Strickland said. “We need to give young people something productive to do when they’re not in school.”
However, community activist Kia Grandberry-Moore — the only female on the panel — countered that those dollars hadn’t been spent in communities such as Frayser, Raleigh and North Memphis. “Those are the same communities that have the higher crime rates,” she said. “The money isn’t being put where it would do the most good.”
With emotions running high, the conversation veered out of control without clear answers on sensitivity training. And that left several people disappointed with the meeting’s outcome.
“I just expected people to come out,” said Hill, who organized and moderated the event. “I did not expect a solution tonight. That would have been immature to expect a solution tonight. I just wanted to gauge the support of the people.”
“It’s easy to get up and act crazy on a mic,” Hill continued. “But we see who really wants to see change by who came tonight. I was pleased with the numbers we had. I was not pleased with the decorum. When we do this again in (a few weeks), with more order and decorum, this meeting really has the potential to change Memphis.”
Another forum has already been scheduled for July 21 at Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ.
Tuesday morning, The TSD was copied on an open email to Rallings from Keedran Franklin, a rapper/activist also known as “TNT Da Mac.” In the email, Franklin alleges that Rallings did not keep his word in organizing the meeting. “You failed to honor the agreement,” said the email, which was signed by “Concerned Citizens.”
“You made the unilateral decision on the venue and the participants. You allowed those who had nothing to do with the agreement or the event that precipitated the agreement to control the meeting. You decided or allowed the decision to be made of who would speak.
“The items you had agreed to discuss with us were not discussed,” the email continued. “You made a mockery of our agreement. You broke the trust. This says to us that you are not a man of your word. While others sing your praises, we have data that you have proven to be less than praise worthy. We are disappointed.”
Other attendees, both black and white, were also disappointed with the tone of the meeting.
“This is not what I came for. It’s just no God in this,” said Andrea Jennings of Raleigh. “Everybody hollering ‘Black lives matter.’ To me, all lives matter. All the yelling . . . it’s helping some, I guess. I love my people, but it’s a disgrace. It’s sad. It’s just sad.”
Simone Godwin, a 24-year-old white female from Midtown, attended Sunday’s march and Monday’s forum.
“I came today hoping they would listen to our demands and our feelings. I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get to hear more from the organizers. I feel like it was mostly politics, not a lot of action.”
Dave Hanisco, 80, of Raliegh, watched the rally on TV and feared for the safety of demonstrators and police. But he was inspired to attend Monday’s forum.
“Trying to get to the root of what’s happening not just in Memphis, but all over the country,” said Hanisco, who is white. “A shooting over a misdemeanor, a cracked tail light? Those things bother me. The killing in general, all over Memphis, is out of hand.”
Tarvis Starks, 27, of Whitehaven, was glad that city officials came to listen. “Did I expect (resolution) tonight? No,” Starks said. “This is just the beginning of a long process.”
The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, agreed.
“I did expect it to be a little bit chaotic because we were responding to a moment that no one could have predicted,” Fisher said. “The moment we’re in is part of a broader movement. Sometimes how you galvanize people and capitalize on events is beyond the scope of anyone’s control.
“There are some divine winds at work in some of this stuff,” Fisher said. “Being a person of faith, I believe God is going to continue to provide us with opportunities to fight for black liberation. I’m just here for the long haul.”