“Protesting Isn’t Cool Anymore” — MPD
Three hundred yards south of Graceland, we arrived at the perimeter. Metal livestock fence panels, concrete barriers, and a line of forty-something police — some in basic patrol uniforms, some in Kevlar, a few in riot gear stood between the vigil and a group of what looked to be two hundred people — most of them Black. An armored truck marked Search & Rescue was running — spewing diesel fumes. There were drones above us.
I walked up to the middle of the barricade and said to one of the cops: “I’m going to the vigil can I please come through?”
“No,” I was told repeatedly. Turn around and walk back where you came from.
“Well how will I be able to get to the vigil if I can’t get in this way?” I asked. “Should I try another entrance?”
The officer ignored my question. Visibly frustrated with my desire to continue walking along this public street — now pretty much a military zone — and join the public gathering at Graceland, the officer shouted louder and louder that I needed to turn around and go the other way. The cop made it clear that he wasn’t there to help people, to direct us, or to entertain questions like mine. His orders were to keep black residents of Memphis from Graceland and the Elvis week festivities.
So, as instructed, I turned around. I walked behind the hot wings place on the right side of the street. I went up a side street and saw a handful of white folks walking down with lawn chairs and coolers and backpacks. The white people walked right up to the barricade on the hot wings side of Elvis Presley Blvd. and the police welcomed them in.
On that same street I ran into three women of color friends and suggested we follow the white folks in. We told the police standing guard that we were there for the vigil, which was true. The officer looked us over and said no. We asked again. He turned to a big bald Black man in an Elvis T-shirt and something like a VIP badge hanging from his neck. The bald guy worked security at Graceland. He looked us four black and brown women up and down and told the cop not to let us in.
As we turned around to walk away, I saw a group of mostly white friends standing outside the tourist complex across the street. I waved to them and they waved back and said come over. When the bald man saw that I knew some white folks on the inside he reluctantly let me into that long, fenced-in zone that led to Graceland. He didn’t admit my three other friends.
Once I was inside the fence the police didn’t seem to notice me or care where I went or what I did. There were few police actually, not like the dozens lined up just a few yards south, between me and the mass of protestors and other visitors. The northern border was porous. White people mulled around, crisscrossing the street between the mansion and the hotel, restaurants and gift shop.
My mostly white friends and I waited there on the sidewalk beside Elvis’s Cadillac for a while watching the crowd of protestors grow, the lines of police grow, the rows of cement and metal barricades shift between us on the inside and us on the outside. I decided to walk to the other entrance on the north to see if my friends trapped beside the armored truck could come around there.
Around this time I heard my white friends start chanting and saw them march south toward the growing crowd of protestors. Elvis impersonators followed in that direction to see what was going on. I kept walking north toward Graceland.
On my way I passed lots of visitors who gazed curiously at the police barricade and derisively at the crowd of people protesting. They didn’t seem to have a problem with the phalanx of officers, the armored tank, or the drones circling above. I overheard several variations of the same comment: “Why are they protesting Elvis? What about going back to their own neighborhoods? What about Black on Black crime?”
#checkthedemographicsonwhitehavenplease #urdumb #stoppretendingyoudontknowwhyblackfolksaretiredandangyandmourning
I passed a woman holding a sign on which she’d written, “Elvis Fans Matter.” She too was walking toward the segregated crowd — presumably to taunt people.
The sun set. It began raining. At the gate to Graceland, people struggled to light their vigil candles as Elvis songs blasted out of speakers and we lined up to start our procession to the gravesite. I overheard a few folks lament that this vigil turnout was the smallest they’d ever seen. They must not have been counting all the police that turned out. And if they were sad about numbers — there were about two hundred people being kept out who really wanted in. At some point, about fifteen officers marched past the line. The Elvis fans broke out in applause and shouted thank you. The officers smiled and waved like they were in a parade.
I was standing in line when it started to downpour. I saw three folks with familiar faces holding arms and loudly chanting “No Justice, No Peace” as they ran past the big crowd. Folks in line hurled insults at them, cursed them, threatened them. “There’s only 3 of you,” someone shouted. “Look how many of us there are!”
The rain got heavier and I didn’t have an umbrella. I’m looking around and after the three protestors had gone by I didn’t see anyone else I recognized or knew. I was alone in the rain with the Elvis people.
Since it was raining so hard, people started leaving the line in big chunks. A young woman was kind enough to leave me her umbrella since I said I planned to stay in line. At the Graceland gate, security wanded us down with metal detectors and checked our bags before entry. I was welcomed through.
People made their way up the path to the gravesite trying to relight their candles, walk past the graves, take pictures, tell stories about the last time they visited, say prayers, etc. Then they’d walk back down the long driveway to leave. By the time I got to the gravesite, there were still a good 100 people behind me but probably a thousand had already gone through and left. It was still raining.
There was a solemn vibe up in front of the graves. Feeling a heavy heart and thinking of the people I know and don’t know who’ve been murdered by the state by guns, by fists, by vans and cars, by starvation, by greed and willful neglect — the people who’ve been separated from their families, locked in cages, made to cycle in and out of courts racking up fines they’ll never be able to pay, assaulted by officers of the law, injured and traumatized — thinking of my friends a few hundred yards away herded into a corner — I began to wail in lamentation. I shouted that Black Lives Matter. I shouted about how the city starves people yet spends millions on projects for tourists. I shouted how officers get away with murdering Memphians and how after they do — they retire and get paid for life.
Two male officers — one black, one white — grabbed me by my arms and walked me down the long driveway. I kept shouting. Elvis fans booed me, told me to shut up, shouted All Lives Matter, said I needed to get out of Memphis. I shouted back, “Welcome to Memphis.”
The white officer on my left was particularly upset when I mentioned police getting away with murder. He squeezed my arm tighter and pulled me faster down the driveway. We turned south toward the barricade, toward my friends and family, where I intended to go anyway. I told them so. I told them I was leaving. I asked that they please take their hands off of me. I was leaving, I said. That’s what we both wanted. They refused to release their tight grip on my arms.
Then the officers got a call from up the driveway that a Lieutenant wanted to see me. They immediately turned around. I didn’t understand why their superiors wanted to see me, why they would turn around, and why they were suddenly pulling me back to the gates and the mansion the police wanted so desperately to keep me and hundreds of others away from. I repeatedly asked the officers why they were taking me back. All they said was, “Because I said so.” I didn’t find that answer compelling and struggled to get free.
The white officer on my left suddenly yanked my arm back, cuffed me, and told me to get on the wet ground. I refused. He told me to let go of the backpack I was holding. I said no and that I wasn’t going to let him steal my shit. I said I did not consent to him taking my bag and searching it. I did not consent to him touching me and kidnapping me. I screamed in hopes that friends would hear me or at least in hopes that the hundred remaining Elvis fans might see that it wasn’t OK to throw a person around.
The black officer on my right didn’t seem to be taking as much glee in what was going on — constraining me, hurting me, and pushing me around. I asked him a few questions. First: if he ever wished he had a different job. Second: if he was proud of what he does for a living. Finally, I asked the black cop if he’d please ask his fellow officer to stop crushing my arm.
The black cop didn’t respond. Let’s find a car to put her in, he said instead. “For what?” I asked — about five times. Again, no answers. I overheard some officers interrogating each other about how I’d gotten in.
The officers pinned me to the backside of a patrol car parked in front of the gate. They attempted to pull my bag off of me. They pulled back my thumbs and twisted my arm trying to get me to release my bag — it felt very much like they were trying to break my bones. They said they’d stop twisting my arms if I’d just let the bag go. They gave up and cut my bag off of me with a knife and proceeded to search through my stuff.
At this point, a white woman officer showed up and shoved her forearm into my back, mocked me and told me to shut up. I’m one person, I reminded them, and didn’t need four armed officers holding me in place.
An Elvis impersonator walked past the car and thanked the officers for what they were doing. “Fuck You!” I shouted.
The grippy white male officer swept his leg beneath mine and threw me to the ground. “Say it again! Say it again,” he shouted as he threw me down. Still cuffed with my hands behind my back, my shoulder hit the wet pavement first. Then my head slammed on the asphalt. Soaked and heavy with rain, my pants had slid down. The white cop stepped on the back of my neck and the back of my head and dared me to keep talking — searching for a silence that was surrender, an admission that he had the physical power in this scenario.
Seconds after he threw me down, the white cop yelled at me to get back up. I noticed then that Elvis continued to sing in the background. They pulled me up and I struggled against the two officers again jabbed into my back as they pushed me against their car. I went limp.
The white cop yelled at me to stand back up. I refused. I won’t hesitate to drag you, he said. Two other officers heard him and came over to pick up my feet. Still limp and cuffed behind my back, I was thrown into the back of a squad car on my arms. They left me that way for a minute until someone came to try to get me to sit up. My eyes were closed and I refused to speak. They called paramedics over to take my vitals — which were strong. Since I refuse to speak or open my eyes, they decide that I’d need to be transported to The Med. There’s a medical vehicle already on site but I overhear folks talking about how that one’s reserved for big problems and not little ones.
The paramedics moved me from the squad car to a stretcher. The police uncuffed me and cuffed my right arm to the stretcher. The a/c was on blast in the ambulance and I was still soaking wet and shaking. One paramedic — a white woman — spent the ride talking about how dumb protestors are: “Don’t you know that Elvis fans don’t come here to hear about your issues? They care about Elvis They don’t CARE about your ISSUES!” Then she said something about how she moved out of the city to feel safer. “You just can’t say anything to Black people anymore.” The Black male paramedic in the back grunted in approval.
In the hospital I was still surrounded by police officers and those two paramedics. Triage tried to get me to respond by doing sternum rubs (where they push their knuckles into your chest), pulling back my fingernails, and pushing very hard into the base of my nose where my nose and upper lip meet. At this point I’m trying very hard to keep my eyes closed and not respond. I could still hear officers. I’m afraid of them and don’t want them anywhere near me.
The emergency room staff let me know that if I don’t respond, they’ll need to intubate me and that intubation would be very invasive. A scare tactic, perhaps. They were successful. After they pushed me into another room, I started speaking. A physician gave us some private space to talk. She recognized that I was afraid. She asked if I was assaulted. “Yes,” I told her. My face, my back, my thumbs, my wrists, my arms, all hurt, yes, of course, obviously. “I was assaulted by the police.”
I explain what happened and that the back of my head ached from hitting the road. She noted the abrasions on my face and shoulder and wrists, the swollen joints on my thumbs. She wanted to send me for a head CT and imaging for my hands to make sure I didn’t have a concussion or any broken bones. I didn’t want to go through all that. I was afraid of the cost. I signed a form saying I was releasing myself from the hospital against the medical advice of physicians on staff. I was glad that she’d seen my injuries. During my exam, I pled with her to send a text to my partner, my friends, who had no idea where I was. She told me that she couldn’t do it. I could make all the calls I wanted from Jail East, the police told the doctor.
Once I’d signed the paperwork, a new pair of officers — two Black guys — uncuffed me from the stretcher and recuffed me behind my back. They walked me out past the oil painting of Elvis hanging just before the sliding glass doors to the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center. They sat me in the back of their squad car and put my bag in the trunk.
We headed to the county jail at 201 Poplar where they needed to pick up my ticket before they could transport me to Jail East, the women’s detention center. At 201, one of the officers got out and the other made a phone call. He told the person on the other end that he had a Black Lives Matter Protestor in the back. He bragged about the overtime. He said something like, “People in Memphis are just followers. They’re dumb. They’ll do whatever is said and follow along. Protesting isn’t cool anymore. Pretty soon no one will be doing it anymore.”
After about fifteen minutes, the officer returned with the paperwork and we took the longest scariest drive out east. I’d been kidnapped at this point for over an hour but it was the drive out east with my arms behind my back that made me feel most abducted and terrified. It wasn’t until later that I learned that my partner and some very dear friends were frantically looking for me back at Graceland. They had approached who I think might have been the white male officer who threw me on the ground and said that they were scared, that I was missing. The officer said he didn’t know anything about it. Another officer — a black cop — approached and asked if they were looking for the light skinned woman. “We have her,” he said. “She’s fine.” They wouldn’t say where I was. They wouldn’t say what I was arrested for. They’d said that they’d be able to speak with me in about 8 to 10 hours.
I arrived at Jail East and got processed. Picture taken, fingerprints, bag checked again and all belongings checked in. It was here that I first learned my charges — Criminal Trespass, Disorderly Conduct, and Inciting a Riot. They entered me into the system under the heading, “New Criminal.” The four hours in jail is it’s own story and right now I’m tired and stressed out and traumatized — so maybe I’ll write that part later. Four am they release me, Chris comes to pick me up, I apologize to him for being alone and so bad with communication all night, we hug like we weren’t certain we’d ever have seen one another again — because it was really possible we wouldn’t. We head home.
Today my thumbs are still numb and swollen. The back of my head still hurts. The scrape on my face is forming a thick scab. My muscles are stiff. In the days since, I keep hearing stories about how MPD kept the Graceland vigil and protest peaceful. There’s nothing peaceful about profiling and segregation or tanks and riot gear or threatening to break someone’s arms or throwing them on the ground or stealing them from their family. THEY made the vigil violent. I’m tired. I’m angry. And I’m not alone.