I Choose 901, but Does 901 Choose Me?

September 1st is known in Memphis as 901 Day. It is a day for Memphians to come together and celebrate our city under the header of the one thing we all have in common, our area code. Anyone who follows me on social media can tell you that I went all in for 901 Day. I attended every event. I wore three different Memphis shirts. I supported vendors and food trucks. I greeted every person I saw with a big smile and a “HAPPY 901 DAY!”. It was a great day. The night ended with me standing on the top floor of the Toyota Plaza garage watching fireworks explode over Autozone Park and telling my friends, “I love our city.” For all its flaws, I truly found myself full of love for Memphis, TN AKA the 901.

What I did not know, as I stood full of love and affinity for my hometown, was that the day before, our newly appointed police director, Michael Rallings, had stated that Black Lives Matter protests had “emboldened criminals.”

Rallings said he thinks the “Black Lives Matter” protests in Memphis and across the country against police brutality have “emboldened” people who commit violent crimes. — David Waters, Commercial Appeal, August 30, 2016

I was stunned when I woke up on September 2, still in love with the promise of Memphis, the city that I chose to return to in adulthood, the city I fight for on a daily basis, the city to which I contribute blood, sweat and tears to ensure its growth is equitable and inclusive. Stunned to be reading the words of Director Rallings, who was named the official police director on the campaign of people who thought he would work alongside activists and community leaders to build police-community relations. Stunned that less than thirty days after his official appointment, Director Rallings had turned his back on the so-called Memphis Model, which touts peaceful protests and community policing as its success story, and began dangerous finger pointing at the Black Lives Matter movement.

“You have labeled me a criminal and a conspirator” is what my text to Mayor Jim Strickland and Director Rallings read. “This is a dangerous line of thinking,” is what I told them both. I felt defeated. I had gone from being a full fledged resident, celebrating my city, to having to be engarde and defensive. The work that I and my fellow organizers, activists and advocates do in the community is not easy nor safe. We are attacked constantly for daring to speak up against the injustices that people in our community face and now we had the head of our police department, justify the vitriol and threats that we receive daily.

I didn’t find myself feeling any better when later that day, news broke that Raymond Kelly had been hired by the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission to advise on tactics to solve for crime in the 901. Bill Gibbons, Executive Director, Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission, touted Kelly’s performance during his tenure as New York City’s Police Commissioner as the main reason for the awarding of this six-figure contract.

I think New York City is probably the №1 success story in the nation in terms of combating crime. A lot of that happened during the time period that he (Kelly) was Commissioner of the New York Police Department, and I think he can really bring us some insight into approaches that can be taken. — Bill Gibbons, Commercial Appeal, September 2, 2016

Raymond Kelly. Raymond Kelly served as Police Commissioner from 2002–2013. He spent 11 years as New York’s top cop and during that time he became known for stop-and-frisk and broken windows policing. In one year, 2011, Raymond Kelly’s NYPD was responsible for 700,000 pedestrian detentions. Of those 700,000, 90% were found to be without merit. Of those 700,000, 82% of the people stopped were people of color. Stop-and-frisk allows cops to profile pedestrians and stop them for “fitting the profile.” They do not have to be in the process of committing any crime. They can be stopped for speaking Spanish, smoking a cigarette, kissing their significant other, laughing, playing music too loud, walking, talking on the phone, handing a friend a newspaper, dropping their bookbag, wearing a hijab, skateboarding, whistling, walking their dog, jogging and any number of daily normal actions one could perform on the streets of New York City. Stop-and-frisk was found to be unconstitutional in 2013 in New York federal court. Yet, in 2016, government officials through the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission have decided that Raymond Kelly should bring those practices to our city.

The Memphis Model that was lauded after the Hernando DeSoto Bridge shutdown on July 10, 2016, talked of forward thinking community-police relations. Director Rallings, solidified his appointment as police director by walking onto the bridge, talking with protesters, praying with protesters and eventually walking off the bridge arm-in-arm protesters. Yet, again, less than 60 days after this event, Director Rallings had blamed protesters for increased crime and now the city had hired the nation’s most virulent profiler to recommend solutions for crime in Memphis.

Interim (at the time) Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings prays with protesters on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge before marching off the bridge with them.

Initially, when asked about stop-and-frisk and the hire of Raymond Kelly, Director Rallings, stated that all avenues were being examined, a statement from which he later backtracked.

After the Raymond Kelly announcement, I felt even more disconnected from Memphis. Will the leadership of this city allow me and people who look like me to be profiled? Will they take an aggressive approach to crime that ignores the social and systematic issues of which crime is a symptom? Will they seek to incarcerate more people of color in an effort to “clean up the streets”? Will I be safe choosing 901?

If Raymond Kelly had been Memphis’ Police Director on 901 Day, statistically I would have been stopped while waiting for the Uber to take me to Loflin Yard, while drinking a grapefruit gin & tonic outside Loflin Yard, while walking from my Lyft to the front of Autozone park, while crossing the street from Autozone park to the Peabody Hotel, while dancing on the top floor of the Toyota Plaza, while waiting for AAA to arrive to start my friend’s battery, while driving home. I would not have enjoyed my 901 Day. I might not have made it through the end of the day without arrest at all.

Less than two weeks after 901 Day, on September 14, 2016, Director Michael Rallings insinuated a connection between protests and terrorism. Three days after 9/11, he spoke publicly and stated that police presence protects people from those with weapons and “nefarious” plans. Again, Director Rallings further discredited and placed in harm’s way those who choose to speak out against continued injustice in Memphis.

“I hope you fall off the bridge,” is a message I received on July 10th. I wasn’t on the Hernando-DeSoto Bridge, but someone heard my voice on the news and decided because I supported the protesters, I deserved to die. This was not the first time I’ve been threatened with bodily harm. It is a story that is true for many of my friends in the movement. We’ve been arrested or threatened with arrest. We’ve received death threats and threats of bodily harm. People have threatened to get us fired from our jobs. If anything has been emboldened, its the voices of those who speak out against the movement and they’ve been emboldened by leaders like Director Rallings and Raymond Kelly, who have labeled us as silly, criminal, terrorists. These bold people have told us, if we don’t like the 901, then we can leave it. Again, I ask. Does 901 choose me?

This summer, I shared news of local restaurant, Onix, opening a new location in Midtown Memphis. Onix is a black owned restaurant. On this post, dozens of people replied with the same excitement, that there would now be a place in Midtown that fully welcomed them. Friends and strangers alike shared stories of discrimination from the numerous bars and restaurants in Midtown. From Cooper Young to Overton Square (both parts of Midtown), restaurants had stains on their service record as people of color wrote of prejudicial treatment by these businesses. “We need a list of safe spaces,” someone wrote. Again, I ask. Does 901 choose me?

Today, September 21, 2016, I shared with my social network, the words of the owner of a popular establishment.

Please unfriend me if you find yourself in support of sitting during our national song.

This status received much support from the owner’s friends and they praised him for standing up for his country. They also ripped Colin Kaepernick for sitting/kneeling for black people. They used racial, homophobic and ableist slurs to express why their friend was so right. So, I made a request. Unfriend the owner and his business. He doesn’t need our friendship or our money. His business sits in the heart of downtown and he has used his words to say “Hey, black people. I don’t need you.” Over 300 people have shared the status and promised not to patronize the place anymore. On the various shares and statuses, we have been attacked for speaking out against the lack of empathy and understanding shown by this business owner. A man who said black people have nothing to complain about because we receive affirmative action. A man who intoned that every dollar we give his establishment was given to us by someone else. Well, I and my lazy dollars won’t patronize his business anymore. My welfare dollars will go elsewhere. But again, I ask you…does 901 choose me?

I want people to think about the impact of their words. What are you saying and to whom are you saying it? Over the past three months, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in the ways which I, personally, have been told I am not the person 901 chooses. Fair disclaimer, I also have my fair share of awards and accolades, but they cannot erase the continuous microaggressions by those who choose not to listen to the people of color, the women, the LGBTQ, the poor, the homeless, the children of Memphis. With all of this, I continue to choose 901. I continue to fight and speak out until the day when 901 also chooses me.

FYI: Here is a compiled list (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1iMjabcBnz9vYlnBm7SMrURYuhbXVsGFvTv1e4v0ik_8) of a few places that have been reported by patrons NOT to choose black people in Memphis. I hope Memphians will choose not to support until these concerns are addressed.