An Eyewitness Account: Police Violence Against Protesters in Memphis, Tennessee

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest covered in protesters’ signs.

The terrorist attack against anti-fascist demonstrators on August 12, in Charlottesville, VA, ignited a flame of anti-fascist and anti-racist actions all across the United States. A comrade in the struggle against fascism and white supremacy had fallen at the hands of a neo-Nazi, leaving everyone else in this struggle in a state of sadness, rage, and determination. We could not sit idly by while our comrades were being killed.

Within hours of the attack, roughly 150 to 200 Memphians gathered at the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the downtown Health & Sciences Park. This was the beginning of a week of non-stop pressure being applied to both the city and state governments to have this monument, dedicated to the slave-trader and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, removed from its place of honor.

The entire week remained relatively peaceful. We marched. We protested through all hours of the night. We also spent a day demanding the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue in another park downtown, where we were met with shouts and threats from those who want these “pieces of history” to remain intact and unharmed, though they were few in number and easily driven from the park.

We were making our voices heard, and no one was getting hurt – until Saturday, August 19, exactly a week following the attack in Charlottesville and the tragic death of Heather Heyer.

It wasn’t the neo-Confederates or white supremacists who attacked us, who threw us to the ground, who dragged us, who hit us with their cars. It was the Memphis Police Department.

The day was scorching hot – around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity and no breeze whatsoever. The plan was much like the one we had the Saturday before: gather at the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest at 3:00 pm to hear organizers speak about the many problems plaguing our city (severely under-funded education, a severely over-funded police force, abysmal public transportation programs, and a local government that seems to talk a lot of talk without actually moving forward on any of these issues). We wanted to keep trying to get the local government’s attention, to push them to make good on their promises, including their promise to do everything in their power to get these stone symbols of slavery and genocide removed immediately.

I pulled up to the park to see the usual media vehicles parked in the front, but a surprisingly small police presence. At least, that’s what I saw at first glance. The park was packed with demonstrators – more than had attended any other rally throughout the previous week. It took me a few minutes to find a place to park. 

Once I did, I fell in beside a man I had never met or seen before. We made some small talk about the heat and the difficulty in finding convenient parking. When we came within view of the park and the statue, he told me that he had lived in Memphis throughout his childhood, but had moved to a different city and stayed there for the past 14 years. He had just recently moved back, and he had no idea the statue even existed before the protests of the past week. We had brought it to his attention. We were hoping to do the same for our government officials.

The rally began as always: an organizer using a megaphone brought up the energy by leading us in the chants we had all become used to. “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS! WHOSE CITY? OUR CITY! WHOSE PARK? OUR PARK!”

Following the hype, the city’s lead organizer took over and began to speak on the issues mentioned above. She lead us in a moment of silence in honor of Heather Heyer. The megaphone was then passed to other organizers and members of the local clergy. Each gave rousing and inspired speeches on the necessity of combating racism, fascism, and police violence.

It was during these speeches that the first attempt to cover the statue was made.

The rally was mainly focused at the southern side of the statue, but behind it there lay a few large banners. Each read: “Black Lives Matter,” “No KKK, No Fascist USA,” and the popular local hashtag “#takeemdown901.” It was the latter banner that was used. Several people tried to throw it over the statue in order to cover it temporarily as a statement to the city, but the cloth had barely touched the top of the stone slave-owner’s head before the police who were standing by ran up and snatched it out of the protesters’ hands.

They were met with boos and hisses from the crowd, but we weren’t exactly surprised. What was surprising was how those cops allowed one of the pro-Confederate opposition members to charge up and take it out of their hands without them even reacting. This unidentified man then ran off with the banner, northward and out of the park.

A few protesters gave chase. I held back before I saw that another member of the small “counter-protest” had started following the chasers. I followed him, keeping a safe distance (we had been informed that it was likely that these people were armed), but he left the park when he saw our people returning with the banner back in their possession. Evidently, there had been a small scuffle with the man who had ran off with it, but he gave it up after a few seconds.

We had the banner again, and we weren’t going to let the neo-Confederates intimidate us. Nor were we going to let the police stop us from making a harmless, visual statement that the people of this city would not stand for racism being put on a pedestal.

Before making the second attempt, everyone else at the rally formed a human shield around us, the banner, and the statue. By now, the police presence had more than doubled, indicating that they had had plenty of officers on stand-by, away from view. We waited until the human chain was complete. Hundreds of Memphians all playing a part in this single act of peaceful defiance. We went in for the second attempt.

This time, we wrapped the banner around the base of the statue. We managed to get it all the way around, but the police broke through the wall of people before we could securely tie the corners together.

This was not at all an act of violence on our part. No one was being hurt. We were not attacking anyone. We weren’t even damaging the statue. We had no ropes or chains. We weren’t tearing it down. We weren’t vandalizing it. We were wrapping a piece of cloth around it. In and of itself, it was a harmless act that was simply meant to inspire the people and send a small message to our government. We did not instigate. We did not make threats.

The violence began only when the police stormed the crowd.

The next minute or so is a blur. The platform around the statue became a scene of total chaos. People – including the elderly – were being shoved to the ground. The banner was being ripped from our hands on every side, tightening around some of our necks. I linked arms with the others while still trying to hold on to the banner. One officer attempted to pull me away. I put out a leg to brace against his pull. He grabbed that leg and my torso and tossed me into the surrounding crowd. I’m thankful for those who caught me.

There was more screaming and shoving and tugging. The cops eventually had control of the banner, and that’s when I noticed my friends and comrades in handcuffs, being pulled towards the surrounding police vehicles. We collectively followed.

Several times we asked the arresting officers for their names and badge numbers–none answered. We followed our friends to the vehicles they were placed in, and promptly called for everyone to surround those cars to prevent them from leaving. We were threatened with batons and mace. The cops driving the cars started backing out, seemingly not caring if they ran any of us over. A group of people–including at least one clergy member–sat down behind one of the vehicles. They were violently dragged away by the MPD.

More arrests were made during this time, and we again followed those comrades to the cars that were to take them to jail, this time on the south side of the park. The police predicted what we were going to do and formed a line in front of those vehicles, allowing none of us to get through, though we certainly tried.

At this point we stood face-to-face with the cowards of the MPD. We chanted: “Shame!” We shouted, asking them if they felt good about themselves. If they felt proud to have attacked elderly members of our community, to have arrested peaceful people with the use of force, to have dragged church leaders across the dirt. We were not shy about the fact that many of us had caught them in the act with our cameras. They didn’t care. After all, the police in the U.S. have gotten away with much worse, even when being filmed.

Once the vehicles carrying our friends and comrades left, we briefly regrouped around the statue to hydrate and prepare for our next move. We were met by a sight that was nothing short of inspiring. While the police were arresting people and dealing with hundreds of us trying to stop them, a few protesters had stayed back to finish the simple task we had attempted before the chaos began. The base of the statue was now covered in the signs many of us had left behind. The banner was no longer needed. The statue of the slave-trader was now covered in words such as: “No Honor for Racism, No Platform for Fascism,” “Take ‘Em Down,” “End White Supremacy,” “Racism Can’t Stand,” and, a phrase popularized locally by a speech given the Saturday before by a local reverend, condemning centrism and moderation when dealing with fascists and neo-Nazis: “PICK A SIDE!”

The sight of this was wonderful, but it reminded us that our work wasn’t over. We decided to march to the primary city jail to demand the immediate release of our friends and comrades. We started the march west down Union Avenue, chanting the whole way. The police followed, trying to get around and ahead of us, driving up onto the sidewalk and blasting their sirens as loud and as possible, using their speakers to tell us that we would all be arrested if we didn’t get out of the street. At least 2 more of us were put in handcuffs and hauled off, but not without resistance from the rest of the crowd.

Halfway to the courthouse, we got word that our friends were being relocated to the smaller jail on the University of Tennessee campus, right next to the park where it had all went down. We rerouted, but once there, police vehicles blew past us in the opposite direction, carrying those arrested comrades to the courthouse.

Still, we stood outside of the UT building and spoke our minds to the local media. We told them that this was far from over. We dispersed to go to our cars, eat, hydrate, whatever we needed to do.

Several people made it back to the courthouse on 201 Poplar Avenue, and camped outside until all 8 of those arrested were released. Thanks to the local Black Lives Matter chapter, all the bail money was provided and everyone was out by the next morning.

The hearings took place on the morning of Monday, August 21. Most of the charges were dropped, and one judge even spoke highly of what we had done and were trying to do, bluntly giving verbal support to our cause. So, in the end, the only thing the MPD accomplished was further distancing themselves from the trust of the people. Videos of their actions have circulated all around the city. National news has picked up the story. They might have held a few of us over night, but they will forever be known as cowards who would protect the inanimate statue of a slave-owning Klansman at the expense of the actual people of this city. I hope every single one of them comes to realize that they are on the losing side of history.

It should be noted that while all of this was going on, on Saturday, August 19, Mayor Jim Strickland was cutting the ribbon at the new Crosstown building–a building which represents and epitomizes the continuing gentrification of this city. He was partying with the “new money” that has been flooding in and benefiting only the rich, while hundreds of his fellow Memphians were being brutalized by the police force he keeps loading with city funds.

We have taken the past few days to rest and regroup, but this is far from over. The city government and the MPD did nothing but stoke the flame of our determination and will to fight for our city.

  • We demand an immediate end to the respect and honor being paid to genocidal Confederates in the form of these monuments.
  • We demand that city officials begin listening and caring about the heart and soul of this city – the poor, the workers, the people who keep Memphis moving – rather than the wealthy newcomers and property-buyers and landowners who are trying to force Memphians out of Memphis.
  • And after last Saturday, we demand the MPD be held accountable for its actions.

Categories: Police Brutality, Racism, Reactionary Watch, U.S. News, Workers Struggle

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