Memphis Unrest: Dozens injured after man is killed by marshals

On Thursday afternoon, scores of African-American residents were crowded on the lawn and in the driveway of the house where Webber had lived. The air was thick with anger. They shouted about their mistreatment at the hands of the police.

Memphis Unrest: Dozens injured after man is killed by marshals

On Thursday afternoon, scores of African-American residents were crowded on the lawn and in the driveway of the house where Webber had lived. The air was thick with anger. They shouted about their mistreatment at the hands of the police.

The violent clash between protesters and the police was an explosion of tensions in a city long troubled by poverty, crime and racism. It also unfolded at a moment when the city’s leaders have been trying to build momentum for Memphis by reviving its economy and investing in downtown.

The past week alone has shown how often Memphis, where about one-quarter of the roughly 650,000 residents live in poverty, can veer from hope to despair. On June 6, a developer detailed his plans for a project worth at least $190 million. The next night, a business executive was killed after he left a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the city’s preeminent institutions.

Then by sundown Wednesday, Webber was dead after another law enforcement shooting, the third in the city this year, and rumors quickly spread through Frayser, the North Memphis neighborhood where he was killed.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the inquiry into the shooting, said that the episode began when members of a U.S. Marshals Service task force found Webber, who had outstanding felony warrants, outside a Frayser home. When the marshals confronted him, Webber reportedly rammed his vehicle into the officers’ vehicles several times and brandished a weapon.

The marshals opened fire, killing Webber and drawing city police officers to the area. Over a matter of hours, according to police and local television stations that aired video of some of the chaos, protesters hurled bricks and rocks toward police, who made three arrests and used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said a business had been damaged when a concrete wall was torn down, and that windows at a nearby fire station had been broken. In one instance, a man repeatedly slammed a chair against a police car.

“We’ve been very supportive of protests, but we will not allow any acts of violence,” Police Director Michael Rallings said. “We will not allow destruction of property. We will not allow acts of vandalism to occur.”

Strickland told WREG-TV that “a violent response” to any police shooting was “absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated and should not be tolerated by anyone in the Memphis community.”

But the confrontation — although nowhere near as widespread, long-lasting or violent as the protests that roiled cities like Baltimore, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Ferguson, Missouri, over the past five years — revealed some of the frayed relations between police and residents in a city with endemic crime. (In a speech in January, Strickland prefaced an improvement in crime statistics by saying, “I know it doesn’t feel like crime is down.”)

In 2018, Memphis recorded 184 homicides, more than larger cities like Boston, Nashville, Phoenix and Seattle. So far this year, it has logged more than 80 homicides, including shootings involving the police and fatal hit-and-run episodes, according to The Commercial Appeal.

“There is unrest in this city, and a lot of it is systemic problems,” said Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, who argued that police officers were often blamed for policy failures that extended beyond law enforcement’s purview, such as education and the economy.

On Thursday, Williams insisted that the broad relationship between officers and the communities they policed was not toxic. But in some places, he said, officers encountered “a blatant disregard for law enforcement” that fueled turmoil.

Memphis police officers played no role in Wednesday’s shooting, but the history of tension between law enforcement and residents fueled the protest this week.

“You’re dealing with decades and decades and decades of mistrust,” said Bruce Kramer, a Memphis civil rights lawyer who has litigated against the police department since the 1970s. “Was I shocked? No. Was I disappointed? Yes.”

In part because of Kramer and his allies, Memphis police have been a subject of scrutiny and protest for decades. In 2016, demonstrators tied to the Black Lives Matter movement blockaded the Hernando de Soto Bridge, whose two arches lend the structure its “M Bridge” nickname.

In 2018, a federal judge ruled that the department, which patrols a city where about 2 in 3 residents are black, had violated a consent decree when it “conducted political intelligence” about Black Lives Matter.

On Wednesday night, and then into Thursday, Frayser was the epicenter of renewed debate about policing in Memphis.

“Don’t judge Frayser without asking a community how it feels to mourn their youth over and over again,” Tami Sawyer, a mayoral candidate and a member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, wrote on Twitter.

On Thursday afternoon, as the Memphis authorities canceled days off for police officers, Sawyer was not certain whether the night would bring another burst of public anger. The attacks on the police were wrong, she said, but she added that whatever the circumstances that had brought the marshals to Webber’s door, local officials needed to recognize the pain along Frayser’s streets.

“The issue is that there’s been very little acknowledgment of how deeply hurtful this loss is,” she said.

DeAndre Brown, executive director of LifeLine to Success, a group that helps ex-offenders re-enter society, said he had taught cultural diversity classes to Memphis officers who had been “very receptive.”

“The problem is the frustration is so deep,” he said, speaking of young black Memphians. “They don’t know how to direct their pain, and so it gets directed to the closest target.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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