Huge crowd of Black Lives Matter supporters marches through Memphis, shuts down I-40 bridge
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Deadly officer-involved shootings of two black men, one in Louisiana and another in Minnesota, have the attention of the country and that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sunday night, a group here in Memphis marched across the city and onto the I-40 bridge to protest the violence.
It started as a peaceful rally at FedExForum at 6 p.m. with hundreds of people. Things heated up when protesters interrupted Interim Police Director Michael Rallings.
After rallying, the crowd marched to police headquarters at 201 Poplar and then continued on toward the I-40 bridge, gathering more people.
Police had blocked the entrance to the bridge, but the marchers eventually found a way on via the exit ramp, and police had trouble stopping them.
Traffic was forced to a standstill, making stranded drivers unwitting participants in the action. The bridge was closed for hours as police ordered the protesters to exit.
Rallings helped keep things peaceful by interacting with the protesters, including linking arms with them as he walked them off the bridge. As protesters marched arm-in-arm with they city’s interim police director, they chanted, asking where Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland were during this critical moment for the community.
Meanwhile, there was still a crowd of marchers who did not make it onto the bridge, as well as a big group still back at FedExForum.
There was a big police presence surrounding the rally and march, including a police helicopter and officers in tactical gear. As the situation unfolded, police assured the public they had everything under control, though they advised people to stay away from the downtown area.
Despite the tense atmosphere, there has not been any reported violence or arrests. The crowds finally dispersed by around midnight, but not before coming together in prayer — Rallings still among them — back at FedExForum, giving thanks for the peace at the protest and everyone who fought for justice but asking for continued peace in the community as well as unity among people of different races.
Activist Devante Hill pleaded for “30 days no killing! When you feel like you need to pull the trigger, think, ‘I’m messing my community up.'”
Organizers and community members came away from the momentous evening with a positive outlook yet with the realization that the work isn’t over.
“It felt good that the city came out and united together,” said anti-violence activist Frank Gottie, who helped organize the rally at FedExForum. “We got to do this until our words get heard.”
A man who came down to the protest after hearing about it on social media agreed it was good to see Memphians joining together but said he wishes people could come together as much against violence in our own community.
Local leaders offered their thoughts on the protest:
“As a majority black city, 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.
“As Memphis mayor, I respect the Constitution and the right to assemble peacefully in protest. Tonight, the protests have been peaceful thanks to the great work of the Memphis Police Department, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and all of our partners.
“There will be an initial conversation tonight and we will have follow-up conversations in the coming days. We are here to fully support those conversations — and my door has always been open. But we want to do it in a legal way, as well. Let me be clear: you can exercise your First Amendment rights without breaking the law.
— Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland
“The NAACP stands with and fully supports the rights of The Black Lives Matter Movement and all citizens to gather in peaceful protest. The peaceful gathering demonstrates our awareness and disdain with the poor economic policies of our city and its priorities as well as the national sentiment towards injustices that permeate the disproportional contact between law enforcement and people of color.
The Memphis Branch of the NAACP wishes to express gratitude to the men and women of The Memphis Police Department and the partner branches of law enforcement for exercising restraint under extreme pressure during tonight’s peaceful protest. We further call on Mayor Strickland to use his executive authority to suspend the national search for a police director and appointment Director Micheal Rallings effective July 11, 2016. Director Rallings has demonstrated tremendous calm and intestinal fortitude at a very critical time in our city and a break in leadership at this point would be counter productive to the good will that we will gain after tonight.”
— NAACP Memphis Branch
“I think it’s promising because the one thing that I’ve said, and I’ve said it on social media, is that it’s time for us to address the white elephant in the room. The only that we can improve our city is that we definitely have to come together at a table, all at one, to have the dialogue about building race relations in the city of Memphis.”
— Councilman Berlin Boyd, whose district covers the bridge where the protests were
Rallings and Strickland plan to meet with protesters Monday at a community meeting held at Greater Imani Church at 4 p.m.