Activism In-Depth

For several years I’ve been fortunate to continue a project photographing members of the social justice community in Memphis as they planned and executed large scale actions and later became involved in a historic lawsuit against the city.

Over time, I have worked to develop an in-depth look at the work of diverse groups activists in Memphis as well as portray the nuanced lives of individuals involved.

In 2016, I began to document demonstrations by activists including organizers affiliated with the Black Live Matter movement in Memphis culminating in a march to occupy the Interstate-40 bridge over over the Mississippi River:

I-40 Bridge

I-40 Bridge

Activists took advantage of the moment to call for a meeting with city government and law enforcement leaders. Held at Greater Imani Church in Memphis, the hastily organized event did little to address the grievances of attendees despite appearances by high profile officials including the mayor and police director.

Greater Imani

Greater Imani

Feeling that they weren’t being taken seriously, activists continued to demonstrate at high profile locations including Graceland.

Graceland

Graceland

It is around this time that a new group of activists, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens (C3) officially organizes. C3 is a diverse "leader-ful" group of Memphians focused on access to quality education, fair pay, and healthy food for all. Partnering with other groups, C3 members volunteer at elementary schools, advocate for the rights of immigrants and members of the lgbtqia community, convert blighted lots into community gardens, organize "Books and Breakfast" events promoting literacy and community engagement, and put on street theater performances:

Art and literacy volunteer work in schools.

Art and literacy volunteer work in schools.

C3 Community Garden

C3 Community Garden

“Desayuno Con Libros” (“Books and Breakfast”)

“Desayuno Con Libros” (“Books and Breakfast”)

Members also take to the streets, some having helped organize the I-40 Bridge march, disrupt the annual vigil for Elvis Presley at Graceland, and convince the city of Memphis to remove its Confederate monuments.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue Removed

Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue Removed

White tourists pose with police at Graceland while Black visitors are kept out under threat of arrest.

White tourists pose with police at Graceland while Black visitors are kept out under threat of arrest.

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After the actions of Memphis police at Graceland a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed. This actions against activists. The ACLU of Tennessee sued the city of Memphis and its police department after the discovery of a “Blacklist,” signed by the mayor, of individuals who were not permitted to enter City Hall without an escort. Later many on the list would be subjected to illegal surveillance, harassment, and intimidation in violation of a Civil Rights-Era consent decree forbidding such action by the city.

Names on the list included not only activists, but clergy, the mother of a 19 year-old who was killed by police, organizers of a “Black Owned Food Truck Rodeo” event, and people who “liked” a social media post about Saul Alinsky

When protestors rallied at City Hall in response to the Blacklist, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland again took no action to address the issue, instead asking an organizer “Why r u protesting me?”:

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Rather than keep a low profile after the ACLU lawsuit was filed, the MPD chose instead to escalate their campaign using fake social media profiles and openly following activists in patrol cars even to their homes. After internal documents revealed the full scope of the program, anger and paranoia swept through the community. The harassment continued:

Keedran Franklin reviews internal documents related to surveillance of him and those close to him. Officers make their presence known as Franklin, future County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, and Rev. Earle Fisher give an interview to a local news station.

Keedran Franklin reviews internal documents related to surveillance of him and those close to him. Officers make their presence known as Franklin, future County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, and Rev. Earle Fisher give an interview to a local news station.

In spite of this, C3, many members of which appear on the Blacklist, began organizing a series of demonstrations to coincide with official events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK50) in Memphis. Their hope was to draw attention to the ways in which many of the problems facing the city 50 years ago, persist today.

C3 MLK50 Planning

C3 MLK50 Planning

C3 decided on a “Rolling Block Party” with vehicles, music, and dancing to disrupt business-as-usual at key institutions around the city with the aim of drawing attention to persistent issues facing Memphis. On the morning before MLK50, activists met at a secret location to dance, share, and finalize plans:

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The first stop for the “Rolling Block Party” was the city’s largest employer, FedEx, where an average package handler earns less than $13/hour. Demonstrators blocked the street during shift change in front of a key entrance connecting the company’s superhub at the Memphis airport:

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FedEx and MPD were caught by surprise, and the first action went off without interference. Activists were able to carry out their demonstration and leave the area without major police intervention.

Emboldened, the group prepared for their block party’s next stop. Protesting local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE, activists headed to the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center, known locally simply by its address; 201 Poplar:

201 Poplar

201 Poplar

Police were ready with a heavy response. Within minutes of walking in a designated crosswalk at least eight people were arrested including journalist and undocumented immigrant Manuel Duran who would be turned over to ICE and detained by immigration officials for months.

The following day, with some of those arrested still in jail, C3 members attended the official MLK50 event at the National Civil Rights Museum, calling elected officials hypocrites for condoning the arrest of peaceful demonstrators the day before participating in a ceremony honoring Dr. King.

Rev. Jesse Jackson stood alone on the balcony, where he had been when his friend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years earlier, while a bell tolled 39 times, once for each year of Dr. King’s life.

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After MLK50, the ACLU trial date was fast approaching. I spent time documenting three of the original plaintiffs in the suit.

Rev. Elaine Blanchard - At her home describing police intimidation; before service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral; and during an anti-death penalty vigil.

Rev. Elaine Blanchard - At her home describing police intimidation; before service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral; and during an anti-death penalty vigil.

C3 Organizer Keedran Franklin at home, around Memphis, and headed to Federal court.

C3 Organizer Keedran Franklin at home, around Memphis, and headed to Federal court.

Paul Garner at his Mid-South Peace and Justice Center office; performing with his band Aktion Kat; and attending a victory party for Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

Paul Garner at his Mid-South Peace and Justice Center office; performing with his band Aktion Kat; and attending a victory party for Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

During the first day of the ACLU trial against the Memphis Police Department, MPD officers raided the homes Antonio Cathey’s uncle and grandmother. Cathey is a well-known activist in Memphis, and one of the targets of the MPD’s surveillance. I met with Cathey, other activists involved in the trial, and their attorney Scott Kramer as they discussed what to do next. For a story in The Guardian about the raid, Kramer said this: “The bullet point is: on the same day that the ACLU is bringing a suit against the Memphis police, [they are saying] ‘We can pull you over and put you in handcuffs whenever we want to.”

ACLU attorney Scott Kramer meets with Antonio Cathey and others.

ACLU attorney Scott Kramer meets with Antonio Cathey and others.

Though eventually reaching a favorable ruling for the plaintiffs against Memphis and MPD, the heavy-handed tactics of the department continue.

Last year MPD officers shot Martavious Banks and were cleared of wrongdoing despite all three officers turning off their body cameras. When a group of residents demanded answers from the department, the police denied access to the precinct. Undeterred the group decided to hold an impromptu rally at the scene of the shooting. Police responded with force:

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