by Karanja A. Ajanaku and Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell —
“If you want protests to stop, stop the injustice,” said the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher. “Protests are the response to the injustice. So, as long as there is injustice, you can expect protests.”
Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven and founder of #UpTheVote901, made that statement in response to a question posed on a video press conference hosted by Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer on Thursday.
The press conference followed Wednesday’s downtown demonstration staged as a show of solidarity with and support for the family of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. The 46-year-old African-American man died on Monday after being subjected to a police choke hold during an encounter captured on a chilling video that has sparked waves of anger and protests through much of the nation.
The Memphis demonstration was organized by local educator Ayo Akinmoladun as a silent protest following Centers for Disease Control guidelines for restricting the spread of the coronavirus.
It started out that way, however, the scene then devolved into a confrontation when counter-protesters showed up brandishing signs, one of which read “Police Lives Matter … Comply…Confederate 901.”
Memphis Police Department officers made moves to keep the groups apart, subsequently issuing dispersal orders in response to streets being blocked illegally, according to a police narrative.
Five arrests were made, including a 21-year-old woman charged with assaulting an officer – an accusation vehemently rejected by protesters, some of whom pointed to police knocking a woman down in the street with plexiglass.
Later on a social media, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland posted this: “I’m proud of the Memphis Police Department and the way our officers conducted themselves last night.” During Thursday’s COVID-19 media briefing, Strickland said he understood “why people are angry and sad and frustrated that these things seem to occur over and over. …People have the right to peacefully protest, and we support that wholeheartedly.”
Sawyer punctuated the press conference with her own list of demands, beginning with Strickland addressing “the use of “excessive force.”
“Stop treating us as dangerous; stop treating us as the enemy,” Sawyer said, wrapping up the hour-plus long video conference. “This city is more than 60 percent black and the majority of us are black and poor and disenfranchised.
“We’re not going to take it anymore, elected or not, reverends or not, teachers or not. We are not going to take it.”
Additionally, Sawyer called for a reprimand of officers and the guiding of MPD Director Mike Rallings to “make sure there is an empathetic response…when these protests spill into the streets.”
Other demands: drop all charges against protesters and “an apology for how you show up when black people show their pain in one of the only free forums that we have, the streets of Memphis.”
In a statement issued after Wednesday’s encounter, Rallings said, “My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Mr. George Floyd. There is no explanation for what we witnessed in Minneapolis. The level of force and the disregard of life that was shown sicken me.”
Adding that he supports “the expression of the First Amendment right,” Rallings said, “law and order must be maintained for the safety of all citizens. Protesters cannot block roadways, assault officers, or disrupt others within our community.”
MPD’s goal is “to continue to respond professionally and provide protection and order for all citizens,” said Rallings.
Akinmoladun said he and 30 to 40 other educators involved assembled to have a silent protest, noting that he wished there was more he could do for Floyd’s family.
“I know some folks thought we probably were going to shut down the bridge, shut down the highway. That wasn’t the intention. The intention was to stand in solidarity and show that we support George Floyd’s family. …
“The intention of the protests was for all races – whites, blacks, latinos – to come together, honor George Floyd, honor the black kings and queens that continue to die to police brutality….And an arrest to be made for the officer that killed George Floyd.”
Floyd’s deadly encounter with the Minneapolis police came after he reportedly attempted to make a purchase with what employees in a small store determined was a fake $20 bill. Floyd left out of the store and sat outside up against a wall.
The police were called and Floyd was arrested. The store owner said he never saw Floyd resist arrest. Store video was turned over to authorities. At least one other video has surfaced and it shows no sign of Floyd resisting arrest.
The four officers who responded to the call were immediately fired and their names released to the public. Floyd’s family, the city’s mayor and others are calling for the arrest of Derek Chauvin, the 19-year veteran officer who kept his knee against Floyd’s neck until he lost consciousness.
Floyd, who could be heard saying he could not breathe and that he was dying, had no pulse and did not respond on the street as paramedics worked to revive him.
Since then, the area where the incident unfolded has been then scene of multiple protests. And then came violence and looting.
For many, including demonstrators in Memphis, Chauvin’s arrest cannot come soon enough.
“We are demanding his arrest right now,” said Akinmoladun, calling for the dismantling of institutional racism.
“The criminal justice system needs to change now.”
(UPDATE: Chauvin was arrested on Friday.)
Then, said Fisher, “There are names in Memphis of people who have been killed and brutalized by Memphis Police Department. We stand in solidarity in the spirit of the most recent name.”
Rep. G. A. Hardaway added what he called “this reminder…for all black people, brown people, those of little means, those of no means:
“If you are oppressed and you ask permission from the oppressor for when, where, how to fight for your freedom, you will never be free.”