Memphis police, demonstrators got it right Sunday night

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Memphis police, demonstrators got it right Sunday night

The horrendous week where we all became witnesses to police shooting suspects in Baton Rouge and St. Paul and then a mad man gunning down police in Dallas provided the backdrop for Sunday night’s tense confrontation between Memphis law enforcement officers and followers of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And both sides got it right.

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Regardless of one’s feelings about whether the cause is right or wrong, the tactic is effective. Shutting down a major interstate artery through a metropolitan area will get attention. And most the people of the Black Lives Matter movement are young and social-media savvy, giving them the capability to mobilize on short notice.

That left Memphis law enforcement leadership with the dilemma of clearing the roadway and allowing traffic flow to resume. The restrained, cautious approach that they used, at times moving one or two steps at a time as Memphis interim Police Director Mike Stalling’s outstretched arms kept any in the parallel line of officers from surging ahead and accidentally provoking contact, was a major contributor to the peaceful outcome. Stallings occasionally stopped the line to talk with demonstrators and at one time even linked arms with them as the martial line stood behind them.

An equally important contribution to Sunday night’s peaceful outcome in Memphis was the spontaneous counseling that Black Lives Matter demonstrators offered each other. If one demonstrator began to show signs of aggression toward the line of police slowly moving forward, one or two other demonstrators would get between him or her and the officers and talk them down, and encourage them to move away slowly. 

The tension in the air on that bridge was palpable. Even watching it on television it was obvious that one bad move by anyone there could have triggered a violent, ugly brawl among police and protesters. But it didn’t happen.

For almost 50 years, Memphis has borne the stigma of the city where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. It struggles with crime, white flight, poverty and myriad social and economic problems similar to many metropolitan areas.

But on Sunday night they got it right, and getting it right under those tense circumstances should convince that city — its police, political, social and economic leaders and the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement — can do it again.