How Memphis Kept Protests Peaceful While Other Cities Burned

How Memphis Kept Protests Peaceful While Other Cities Burned

As the country suffers through a pandemic, untangles the meaning of racism, and digs out from death and destruction, Memphis is a city to watch and emulate.
Paula Rinehart
By

In this tense summer of racial unrest, cities around the country have erupted in violence. The damage estimate for Minneapolis’ riots is more than $500 million for the first weekend alone. Portland is heading into its eighth week of destructive riots. Even Christopher Columbus could not escape the anger of the mob as they toppled his statue into Baltimore’s inner harbor.

One large American city has maintained peaceful protests night after night: Memphis, Tennessee. Given that Memphis is routinely listed among the country’s most dangerous cities, it is hardly a place one would expect to escape the scourge of violence. More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by an assassin there on a gentle evening in April, and the city still bears the scars. Although some problems remain yet unsolved, Memphis has clawed its way back from the precipice, blazing a path for other cities.

One crisis in particular, the 2016 bridge incident, illustrates the Memphis approach. Memphis police had shot and killed a local man when he pulled a gun on an officer. In response, more than 2,000 people flooded the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, cutting off access to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and blocking the interstate.

Police Director Michael Rallings walked out onto the bridge in his Sunday church clothes to talk with protesters. Four hours later, police and protesters walked two miles off the bridge together with an agreement to meet the following day at City Hall.

This ability to diffuse a potentially explosive situation did not come out of nowhere. The key to Memphis’ peaceful protests lies in an intricate web of relationships forged over time between churches and police, business leaders and community activists. These intentional efforts have made Memphis a model for how a torn city can come together again.

A Police Force Engaged with the Community

For the past 30 years, the Memphis police have worked hard to build relationships that foster trust in the community. Matching the racial demographics of the police force to the racial demographics of the city has been a major goal.

Memphis is 60 percent black, so police have worked hard to recruit and train black officers. Most have grown up in Memphis or surrounding areas. They know the community and its history. The police force is now more than 55 percent black.

Years ago, the Memphis police began to sponsor summer camps staffed and run by police officers. James Kirkwood, who now heads a Memphis pastors’ network, spent 31 years on the Memphis police force. He claims he can hardly go to the mall without some grown man calling out to him. “Hey, Kirkwood, you don’t remember me, do you?” It’s one of his old campers whose name, indeed, he can’t quite place. A handful of those former campers now serve on the city police force.

Summer camp is only one of the ways Memphis police have sought to forge community relationships. They created backyard neighborhood watch groups that listen for problems and search out practical solutions. Midnight basketball games bring together police and youth in the community.

One particular effort has brought tangible returns over time. Memphis police created “academies” that invite clergy and citizens to learn what police do and how they work. They demonstrate how fast someone can pull a knife on them — or a police officer. When police are dispatched to a violent scene, they do “ride alongs,” meaning a clergy member accompanies the officer.

As Kirkwood explains, “We work hard to make sure people understand that the police are not just about crime. They are here to serve the community.” Police are called to intervene in domestic violence, or take someone in kidney failure to dialysis, or talk a suicidal person into giving life another try. Even now, as almost a 1,000 cars a night bring food to the Memphis Food Bank during the pandemic, it’s the Memphis police who direct traffic.

Memphis’ Localized Dialogue

One unique aspect of Memphis’ ability to maintain peaceful protests is its history of hands-on, common-sense approaches to neighborhood needs.

Years ago, the Memphis mayor’s office created a partnership that brought together neighborhood residents, business leaders, and city officials. Folks meet at the Piccadilly Cafeteria and get stuff done. Where are the abandoned buildings? The piles of trash left untended? The house where drugs are sold? These are precursors to crime and neighborhood blight.

As one city official explains, these practical things must be tended to or people lose their sense of safety and peace of mind. When neighborhoods decline, crime and drugs take over.

As tensions rose following the tragic death of George Floyd, church and civic leaders realized that harder, more painful conversations needed to take place. They committed themselves to listen and ask only clarifying questions. Two meetings were held with area residents and community activists. No media were allowed.

At one of the meetings, George Robertson, the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church downtown, voiced the sentiments of many when he said, “I want to apologize for what the people of my race continue to do to the people of your race.” “I appreciate what you are saying, George,” one activist responded. “But if you really mean that, let’s do something about it.”

A new effort called “Opportunity Youth” is slowly evolving from those meetings. Economic inequality has been a point of ongoing pain in Memphis. An estimated 40,000 people ages 18 to 24 live below the poverty line. They have few meaningful skills that would allow them to hold a job.

Business, church, and civic leaders have committed themselves to create on-ramps for younger people who have been left behind. Their goal is to provide more apprenticeships that allow people to learn on the job. They recognize the need for coaching and accountability, for a social network that provides young people with support and role models — and in some cases, surrogate families.

As the country suffers through a summer pandemic, untangles the meaning of racism, and digs out from death and destruction, Memphis is a city to watch and emulate.

Kirkwood says the lines from an old hymn he learned as boy often filter through his head in this dismal season: “Lord, shine the light from heaven on my soul. If you find anything that shouldn’t be, take it out and straighten me. I want to be right. I want to be whole. I want to be saved.”

Perhaps the city of Memphis could share a bit of its salvation with the rest of us.

Paula Rinehart, LCSW, is a therapist in Raleigh, N.C. who writes on contemporary cultural issues that affect families. She’s the author of four books, including "Sex and the Soul of a Woman" (Zondervan).

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