By TSD Newsroom
A protest at FedExForum against police brutality gave way to protesters effectively shutting down the flow of traffic across the I-40 Bridge across the Mississippi River on Sunday evening.
Hours later, with traffic backed up and the situation tense and uncertain, Interim Police Director Michael Rallings locked arms with protesters on the bridge and walked with a group of them back to FedExForum.
A discussion ensued and an agreement was announced to meet Monday at 4 p.m. at Greater Imani Church – The Cathedral of Faith at Christian Center located at 3824 Austin Peay Hwy. Mayor Jim Strickland will take part in that session.
While protesters repeatedly gave voice to the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” the demonstration that began at FedExForum and moved to the I-40 Bridge was not organized by the Memphis Black Lives Matter chapter. It was, according to Tami Sawyer, who is affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter movement, believed to be coordinated by a group of local teenagers.
The evening of demonstration remained peaceful throughout. Such was not the case in other cities where protests were held against police brutality.
In several cities in various parts of the U.S., tension has risen palpably over the past week or so amid the police shootings of two African-American men – Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. – and the gunning down in Dallas of five white police officers by an African-American suspect in what has been reported as retaliation.
Traffic on Interstate 40 stopped in both directions after the Black Lives Matter protesters marched onto the bridge. Police in squad cars tried to stop them, but several hundred had already made their way up the ramp, and the crowd swelled to more than 1,000.
By 11 p.m. the bridge had been reopened and traffic started to trickle forward. As much of the crowd dispersed, some remained behind, vowing to stay until the matter of fatal police killings had been addressed in a direct manner.
Noting that Memphis is a majority African-American city, Mayor Jim Strickland issued a statement saying, “I recognize that Memphis is part of a larger national conversation about race in America, and how some of our citizens feel disenfranchised. To that end, I am hopeful that our city will remain part of the conversation in a way that is respectful and recognizes our humanity.”
Later during an interview, Strickland said such conversation has to be done in a constitutional and legal way and that blocking traffic is not one of those ways.
The day’s demonstration brought out protesters of various backgrounds. However, it was dominated by African Americans.
“It’s not black people against white people or against police,” said one male African-American protester, making the case that African Americans are not the only group of people concerned about police brutality.
“It’s just that black people are kind of on a pedestal right now because that’s what’s up front for everybody.”
Sawyer said, “Under the call of Black Lives Matter, people are able to stand together. Two years ago we celebrated the shutdown of Edmund Pettus Bridge (in Selma, Ala.). Now we take the (Hernando-)Desoto Bridge. We no longer want to be the victims to systematic oppression.”
Sawyer says it was more than the recent police shooting shootings that “drove people to the bridge today.” It was a reference, she said, to people who are suffering from lack of resources in places such as Orange Mound.
“We’ll talk about crime, but we won’t talk about people being poor,” said Sawyer, who is running for the Tennessee House of Representatives (District 90).
As the protest wound down, many noted the posture taken by Rallings.
Bernal E. Smith II, president and CEO of The New Tri-State Defender, said Rallings is the kind of “person that we need at the helm to reverse some of the trends we have seen in the crime and violence in our community….
“He has really demonstrated himself to be the kind of leader that we need to take our law enforcement agency and Memphis to another level.”
Rallings, said Smith, understood the moment. He noted that Strickland and Rallings stepped up and dealt with the issue of the two MPD officers who have been relieved of duty pending an investigation regarding inappropriate and potentially offensive social media posts.
(This story reflects reports by TSD freelancer T. M. Gray, The Associated Press and other TSD media partners.)