The arrest of local journalist Manuel Duran was viewed live. In a virtual sense, we were there with him. We were there as he reported on the theatrical protest at 201 Poplar on Tuesday, April 3rd. He let us be witnesses, via his phone, as he live-streamed for Memphis Noticias and interviewed individuals who had gathered for a multi-lingual and multi-cultural peaceful demonstration.
He's a well-known Spanish-language journalist, and he was reporting on a protest against immigration detention and private prisons. He was doing his job, his press credential was visible, and he was the only journalist arrested by the Memphis Police Department that day.
While there were other journalists on site, only Duran talked us through Tuesday's action as it was happening — giving us unedited, live footage. He filmed protesters holding signs while others lined up, in the spirit of performance activism, dressed in blue scrubs with chains and shackles, others theatrically representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. He showed us, through his eyes, as someone spoke the following words — which continue to ring in my ears today:
- Memphis Notacias
- Manuel Duran
"We are changing the narrative. Poverty is not the problem. It's the people who create, engineer, and perpetuate poverty, that is the problem. We have to take the fight to them. This is just a representation of their power, but now, they've even monetized jails where they have people working for little to nothing."
Duran is a Memphis journalist, and he was doing his job. His commentary throughout the live-stream reminded us what this protest, led by the Coalition for Concerned Citizens (C3), Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz (CUUV), and Fight for 15 members, was really about. It was to bring attention to the continued injustices created by private prisons and the prison industrial complex. They were not only calling out the disproportionate rates that black and brown people are incarcerated and how their bodies are exploited for cheap labor, but were also calling for an end to the collaboration between Shelby County and ICE. As Duran says, this is a simple request by the people, given that ICE has increasingly been targeting folks with noncriminal arrests. He also reminded his Spanish-speaking viewers to recognize that while the separation of families through deportation is affecting the hispanic community, black people, too, are tied to this struggle, as black and brown communities are both exploited by private prisons.
Duran was doing his job. And we followed him as he filmed protestors crossing Poplar on the pedestrian crosswalk in front of the Shelby County Justice Center. And we walked backwards with him as he followed police requests to get off of the street. And we watched as an MPD officer pointed at Duran and a protester next to him, and the officer said to nearby cops, "Get 'em, guys."
Our vision, through Duran's phone, is shaken. We see the black concrete, the officer's shoes, and hints of the blue scrubs. We hear a car alarm blaring beats in between people's screams — and then, we, the viewer, are on the ground looking up at the gray, cloudy sky.
In those same hours the city was observing the MLK50 activities, journalists, photographers, and individual Facebook live-streamers were also documenting this demonstration and the arrests of eight protestors and of one journalist, Manuel Duran. All charges were dropped, and everyone walked, except Duran.
While the sheriff and the county have claimed that there is no collaboration with ICE, Duran's detention proves otherwise. Their unwillingness to release him came despite overwhelming community support for him. More than 130 organizations and businesses and over 1,000 people made phone calls and sent emails. The sheriff had no obligation to honor the detainment request by ICE, further proving that the city and county are isolating those seeking truth.
In his live-stream, Duran pointed out that there were many journalists at the demonstration because "es importante esta noticia." This news is important. Duran wanted to share this news with those who could not be there, with those who fear the hyper-surveillance in downtown Memphis, and who feel excluded from #IAmMemphis by means of criminalization. He wanted to show us that when our families are under attack, our communities will show up and support each other to address the causes of injustices and inequities.
Tuesday's arrests were made with no valid reason. Even Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich had to admit that "[there] was not sufficient evidence to go forward with the prosecution." But those arrests reveal what is a different Memphis for some and just a daily reality for others. This is not the first time that the state has picked up, arrested, or detained prominent community organizers. In fact, you may remember, earlier this year, we commemorated the life of a particular famous civil rights leader who was targeted for his message in a very similar way.
Aylen Mercado is a brown, queer, Latinx chingona pursuing an Urban Studies and Latin American and Latinx Studies degree at Rhodes College. A native of Argentina, she is researching Latinx identity in the South.