A Spark in a Dry Field

Commune

“Memphis is a dry field and all it needs is a spark.”

On June 12, officers with the US Marshals Service shot and killed Brandon Webber in Frayser, Tennessee, a predominantly black, working class suburb north of Memphis. After the shooting, people gathered at the scene and clashed with police officers and sheriff’s deputies, using stones and bottles to push them back. Over twenty police cruisers were vandalized. Only a few people were arrested in the confrontations.

Memphis is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, sparking the Holy Week Uprising, in which rioting spread to more than one hundred American cities. The years since then tell a familiar story of deindustrialization and economic deterioration. Frayser, with a lower median income, higher unemployment, and more dramatic demographic shifts than the rest of the metropolitan area, was particularly devasted. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the suburb transitioned from a white, middle-class area to a more racially diverse economically depressed area. Bounded on three sides by rivers, and one side by a railroad, Frayser is isolated from the rest of Memphis. In recent years Frayser and the area around it have experienced a long cycle of police killings. Tension has been steadily building up. As Hunter Dempster, the activist interviewed below, put it, “Memphis is a dry field and all it needs is a spark.” The situation has calmed down for now, but it will inevitably blow up again since conditions haven’t changed.

If Ferguson, Missouri shows us anything, it is that the deindustrializing suburbs surrounding American cities are becoming a hotbed of unrest. Ferguson also highlighted the contradictions small town police forces face in times of rapid demographic shifts. Much of the restructuring that city governments and police forces underwent in the wake of the 1967 unrest is completely absent in the suburban context, where poor and racialized workers displaced from gentrified urban centers now comprise a sizable population nationwide. Without substantial institutional mediation, there is no clear repressive plan for managing the coming rebellion and riots.

In the interview below, Commune speaks with Hunter Dempster, a community activist from Memphis, about the events surrounding the shooting and the context that lead to the spontaneous public response.

Commune: Where in the Memphis area do you live?

Hunter: I’m in Midtown Memphis, on the edge of north Memphis. I’m Memphis born and raised. I spent a few years in San Diego and a few years in Denver, but most of my life has been right here.

C: Where is that in relation to Frayser?

H: Frayser is north Memphis; a few miles away, I’d say. I’ve spent a lot of time in north Memphis and in the Frayser community.

C: Can you describe what happened to set off recent events around the shooting of Brandon Webber?

H: On June 11, the day before all of this happened, the district attorney Amy Weirich released the police body camera footage of an officer killing Terrence Carlton, a young black man, in an incident from last year. The video shows Carlton lying on the ground in a fetal position, unarmed. The footage makes it obvious that this was a murder, it was unnecessary. As usual, no charges were filed against the police officers. This happened the day before Brandon Webber was shot, so tensions were already running high. This is a pattern that’s taken place across the country and in Memphis in particular.

Being a community activist, I’ve gone to the scene of every officer-involved shooting I can. Just last year, four city blocks from where Brandon was killed, police shot Demond Tay Weatherford multiple times in his back. No charges were filed against the officers. So the community is a hotbed, a dry field that needs a spark.

On June 12, I got a call saying there’s been another officer-involved shooting. When I got there, I went live on Facebook. Walking up to the scene, there was already a line of 100 police officers, para-military style, literally surrounding me. There were forty or fifty community members and the majority of them had tears in their eyes. I mean … the pain. It was one of the saddest things you could ever see in your life. The community was scared and nobody was offering any answers, and that was all they were really looking for. I walked through the crowd and I looked at the police officers and – I can’t tell you how much this bothers me – they were literally laughing. They were laughing and joking with each other, while one of their own had just killed a man and the community was grieving in front of them.

C: Law enforcement kills more than a thousand people every year in the United States. After these shootings happen, sometimes it goes down and sometimes it doesn’t go down. Even though this is something I’ve tried to study, I’m never able to predict whether there’s going to be a major community response, what gets called a riot, in any particular instance. Clearly in this case there was a significant response. Do you have a sense of why this police killing in particular set off the response that it did?

H: About nine months ago, the cops pulled over a man named Martavias Banks. The reason they pulled him over, they said, is that they couldn’t confirm whether or not he had insurance. So they pulled him over. The situation ended with Martavias shot three times in the back. Before they shot Martavias, the police cut their body cameras, they cut their car cameras, they used unauthorized communications to talk to one another.

The next day, I was out supporting the family, and the cops targeted me and several other activists and community members, on private property, and they arrested us. You know, being a local activist, I get arrested a lot, and this was just the continuation of a long history of harassment by the police. Last year we had a federal trial with the ACLU against the city of Memphis. The police department was found guilty of intimidating and surveilling local activists. So there’s all kinds of mistrust that runs deep. And then, no charges were filed against the officers who shot Martavias.

So there’s been a series, a pattern, that appears across the country. In Memphis, it’s all coming to a head. The police are not held accountable at any level. The people who are speaking up are being targeted by the police, and it affects all social struggles. The local Fight for $15 movement has filed a lawsuit against the police because of their intimidation tactics. The mistrust is significant.

The past year in Frayser, community members have had to fend off a new landfill project, twice. There’s environmental racism. This is a community fighting for racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice. Frayser is a predominantly poor, black and brown neighborhood. That community feels like it’s been forgotten, over-policed and over-incarcerated. The community had to fight for more than a year to get a new library built. We have a mayor right now whose campaign slogan is “Memphis has momentum.” Momentum for who? You can find 200 million dollars at will to give to an oligarchic developer in this city, but the community in Frayser has to fight for over a damn year to get a library built.

C: Memphis stopped growing around 1970 and kind of maintained its population, but my understanding is that Frayser, during that period, shrunk in size and changed its demographically – so right now it’s about 74 percent African American. Maybe that’s not so exceptional given that Memphis is one of the great predominantly African American cities, but Frayser has relatively high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and such. What do residents of Frayser think about Memphis and their relationship to the city at large?

H: It’s the same as it ever was. The general feeling is that the wealthy white communities are getting everything they ask for, businesses are getting tax abatements left and right, developers are building high rises downtown. Now in Frayser, the only developments I can really think of – they had to fight tooth and nail to get them – are started by people from Frayser, who grew up in Frayser, and who work in Frayser doing those projects. There’s nobody outside of Frayser offering help, like they are to the predominantly white neighborhoods in Memphis.

C: Can you describe what went down after Brandon got killed, and if it was clear that there was going to be a community response?

H: The overwhelming sense and feeling was pain and frustration. A lot of tears. I would say that everybody just wanted some answers. Nobody knew what was going on. I never saw a single police officer or communications officer offer any type of answers or even basic communication. I never saw anybody try to de-escalate the situation. If anything, I saw efforts by the police department to escalate the situation.

C: What did that escalation look like?

H: Initially it was laughter in front of the community that was coming together to grieve. It wasn’t long before they started bringing in the riot shields and batons. In this line of a hundred officers, there were initially about ten riot shields spread throughout the line. Some of the officers continued laughing and that’s when someone threw a bottle. More people started throwing objects, so they brought in the riot gear. Every officer got a baton, and they started marching. They started taking one step at a time, yelling “Move!” at the top of their lungs.

C: That’s the training.

H: Right. And so they took half a block, pushing the crowd to the next intersection. At that point, the rocks started. There was a line of officers, and a Shelby County Deputy and a Memphis Police Department officer, and they were literally throwing up their arms trying to goad community members into a fight. One deputy repeatedly did the “Rambo fingers,” like “bring it.” That’s when things really stepped up. These police officers were goading people. So much of this would have been avoidable if the police even tried or cared.