Opinion » Letter From The Editor

Extreme Vetting at City Hall

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Years ago, in more innocent times, the Flyer's front door wasn't locked during business hours. It led to some interesting encounters, mostly for those of us in the editorial department.

People would come in to the front desk with a "story that needs to be investigated" and ask to see the editor. The receptionist would call me and say "There's a gentleman here to see you about a story." If I wasn't particularly busy, I'd go up to the front desk and take the visitor into our conference room.

Ninety-nine percent of the time they were harmless. Many folks wanted us to investigate their awful employer, who'd just fired them "for no reason." Others were just fascinating nuts, like the guy who said he was growing pot just across the river and that "black helicopters" were hovering over his land and that "government agents" were following him around Midtown. Once, the visitor was a Frenchman who was sailing around the world. I actually got a story out of that visit.

With most of these folks, I'd listen for a while and then say, "We'll look into it." Then I'd shake their hand and firmly escort them out of the building. But eventually it got to be a problem. A couple of folks showed up who were a little scary, so we installed a lock with a buzzer and intercom. Call it our version of "vetting." We even have a couple of folks who are not allowed in. I guess that's our "list."

Which, unsurprisingly, I suppose, brings me to the city of Memphis' list of folks whom the MPD have decided need an escort when they come to City Hall. The problem is that there seems to have been no cohesive protocol for putting people on the list.

I get why you'd put disgruntled former employees on it. And I get why Mayor Strickland would want to sign an authorization of agency against the people who staged a "die-in" on his lawn. If I looked out my window and saw 20 people demonstrating in my yard and looking in my windows, I'd call 911 and grab a shotgun. And if they ever showed up again, I'd want them arrested, pronto.

But those folks, and others, were added to a larger list that includes a lot of people who are absolutely no threat, including former Tiger basketball player Detric Golden, who works with disadvantaged youth, and the Rev. Elaine Blanchard, who was once the subject of a Flyer cover story for her inspirational work with women in prison.

Others appear to have been added to the list for no reason other than they are community activists who may or may not have participated in protests. Many on the list have committed no crimes.

This vetting stuff can be tricky. Just ask President Trump, whose recently overturned immigration ban sought to exclude all citizens from seven countries, even though 99 percent of the people coming from those nations are fleeing persecution and violence or have legitimate business here. That isn't "extreme vetting." It's xenophobia. It's casting a wide net when only a lasso is needed.

Memphis needs to take a cue and fine-tune its list. We need to encourage community activism and free speech, not demonize it.

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