Opinion » Letter From The Editor

Protesting the Protestors

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As a journalist, my first instinct is always to wait for all the facts to emerge before passing judgment on incidents such as the one that occurred last week, where Memphis police officers shot and critically wounded Martavious Banks after a routine traffic stop. But this officer shooting does not look good. Cops don't turn off their body and dash cameras unless they're trying to hide something. If officers are following protocal and doing the right thing, they want the evidence to validate their actions. The officers — still not identified as of this writing, a week later — were relieved of duty and the TBI was called in to investigate the incident.

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In the immediate aftermath, angry relatives and friends of the victim were joined by other protesters and took to the streets, chanting "F—k the police!" among other epithets. Some protesters lay on the pavement and got arrested. Emotions ran high. Video coverage of the event was widely available from several local news outlets.

The following day, Commercial Appeal 9:01 columnist Ryan Poe stirred the pot, though he may not have intended to: "Standing on the parkway in the clammy Memphis heat, the protest felt familiar," he wrote. "The faces were mostly the same. After well-known activist Keedran Franklin and Shelby County Young Democrats Human Rights Coalition chairwoman Theryn C. Bond yelled in officers' faces, officers barricaded the parkway and closed Airways. Activists and officers dutifully took up their positions on either side of the barricades. They'd done this before."

Poe's column drew heat the following day from the likes of Wendi C. Thomas, Rev. Earle Fisher, and others who pointed out that Poe lacked standing to second-guess the protestors since, as a white person, he'd never had to experience the kind of incident Banks' family, friends, and supporters were dealing with. Poe held his ground, tweeting: "There's too much hate and too few solutions at some of the recent protests in Memphis. It's time to put anger to work."

I get where Thomas, Fisher, and the others were coming from. I'm a white guy, with all the attendant privilege that comes with that in America today, so I can't viscerally understand the rage and frustration of Banks' family and supporters, and I wouldn't criticize it. The protesters were angry because this incident seemed to be following the usual pattern: The cops involved weren't identified. The case was being investigated by the TBI — essentially other law enforcement officers — and no information was being released to the public.

Two years ago in Memphis, Darrius Stewart suffered a similar fate at a seemingly routine police stop. Three years before that, Steven Askew was shot 22 times in the back in his own car when awakened by two Memphis police officers who claimed they saw Askew reach for a gun. I was personally acquainted with the Askew family, and I witnessed the rage, the frustration, and the tears — and the saddest funeral I've ever attended. Those cops got away with murder, in my opinion. The city paid a settlement to the family, but it's little solace when your son is taken from you.

So, I don't blame relatives, friends, and local activists for expressing their rage. These protests aren't meant to shape national policy; they're meant to show the MPD and city leaders that people are woke, and that their actions in handling this case had better be aboveboard.

But protesting is situational, which may be what Poe was trying to get at. If, for example, Colin Kaepernick had started screaming "F—k the police" when the national anthem began playing instead of kneeling, do you think his movement would have gotten anywhere? Do you think athletes all around the country would have followed his lead? Do you think that Nike would have lent its corporate clout to his movement? Kaepernick's aim wasn't to indict a particular police department; it was to raise awareness of the issue on a national scale. Taking a knee was simple, powerful, and effective.

The truth is, Kaepernick and the Memphis activists who hit the streets last week are after the same goal: stopping the shootings of young black men by police. One protest was local and targeted at MPD; the other is national and targeted at all of us. We should pay attention to both.

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