Their numbers were few, but spirits were high as Memphis United Coalition members took to the streets Tuesday (Dec. 17) to protest what Mid-South Peace and Justice Center Organizing Director Brad Watkins called "a disturbing trend of harassment and misconduct among Memphis police officers."
"The homeless and groups of young African Americans are being singled out by law enforcement for arrests, illegal searches for no cause and other forms of misconduct in the community," Watkins said.
A related gathering took root early that afternoon at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on Fourth Street downtown. Homeless advocates and a legal representative conducted workshops where attendees were given some direct advice. They were told that citizens have the right to record or photograph any incident involving themselves or others when trying to document civil rights violations or illegal actions by law enforcement.
"MPD (Memphis Police Department) said there is no official policy in place that allows citizens to record police actions," Watkins told The New Tri-State Defender during an interview. "But the office of Mayor AC Wharton (Jr.) said that city policy does allow individuals to photograph or video any questionable incident by anyone, including police officers."
Two troubling instances of what witnesses have labeled police misconduct and abuse of power occurred in October within a few days of each other: one involved about 50 African-American young people and the other involved a homeless man. As videos and stories of similar incidences were shared through social media and other sources, more people from the same groups began to come forward and share similar experiences.
"This started a series of important conversations, and Memphis United reconvened and this whole engagement of exploring solutions came about," said Watkins. "A number of community groups came together to articulate the demands communicated in the letter delivered to officials on Tuesday.
"We must begin having conversations with our elected officials and with law enforcement. This is only the first of a number of steps we are taking to bring this about."
Letters of demand were delivered to the offices of the mayor, the police director, the Shelby County District Attorney General and members of the city council.
"We want to improve the lines of communication between the police and community, particularly where young African Americans and the homeless are concerned," Watkins said.
The five-page letter called for sensitivity training for police officers regarding issues concerning the two groups. One section of the document deals with a person's right to make a record of an incident involving law enforcement. It read:
"When we exercise our First Amendment rights by attempting to record these encounters involving misconduct or brutality, we are told that our actions are illegal, and we are stopped from doing so. Officers are misusing general laws to arrest people who disobey unjust orders to put their cameras away, violating our right to self-protection. Insensitivity, lack of training, and poor judgment of individuals on the police force have resulted in wrongful arrests, direct violations of civil rights, bogus charges, and an overall disconnect between the citizens of Memphis and the police force..."
Following the session at St. Patrick's, Memphis United marched down Fourth toward Beale Street, moved west on Beale, and then north toward City Hall, where the demand letters were delivered by event organizers.
"Memphis United is a coalition that first came together to offer a peaceful alternative to the Ku Klux Klan rally in March of this year at the Health Sciences Park. We set up workshops and family-oriented activities to bring people of all races and communities together to have a conversation about race. More than 1,000 people attended our daylong event although it was cold and rainy. It was a huge success," Watkins said.
Homeless advocates feel it is important to raise public awareness of what some have even called "random police brutality," said Minister Jim Brown of H.O.P.E. (Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality."
"...The search and violation of a homeless man was caught on video. But this happens all the time, every day. Law enforcement must be trained to be sensitive on issues regarding the homeless. Police officers are insensitive to them. H.O.P.E. gives them a voice. Their rights must be protected like anyone else's rights..."
Neither Mayor Wharton nor MPD Director Toney Armstrong had provided any public response to the Memphis United Coalition's letter by press time.
Vince Higgins of the Shelby County District Attorney's office was asked whether police prosecutions were viable possibilities.
"In cases where civil rights violations are alleged, the U.S. Attorney's office (for the Western District of Tennessee) would be involved. Those types of cases would not come to this office in the event they should rise to the level of prosecution," he said.
Edward L. Stanton III is the U.S. Atty. for this district and his office declined to comment on the matter.