Protesters arrested near Memphis jail before Martin Luther King anniversary


Police made at least eight arrests during protest against immigration detention, with more protests expected this week

Memphis police made at least eight arrests during a protest against immigration detention on Tuesday afternoon outside the city jail.

More than a dozen demonstrators in faux prison jumpsuits and shackles were crossing the street in a crosswalk when officers began making what appeared to be targeted arrests directed at well-known protesters in the city.

“They know who they’re looking for,” said Naomi Van Tol, a member of the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens (C3), which was involved in organizing the protest. “It’s obviously targeted.”

Police arrest Elizabeth Vega during a protest against treatment of immigrants in detention in front of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center on 3 April in Memphis, Tennessee. Photograph: Brandon Dill

The arrests came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in the Tennessee city, bringing national figures and media to the city for the week. C3 intended to use that attention to shine light on a battery of what they see as pressing issues of economic and racial justice in Memphis.

“This city needs help,” said a local activist, Hunter Demster. “We’re poorer than we were then; the entire city is nothing but low wage jobs.”

The police response outside the jail was nothing like the one that many of the same protesters met hours earlier when they briefly shut down a stretch of Memphis highway with a “rolling block party” protest. Around noon demonstrators managed to block traffic with vehicles and by standing in the way of oncoming cars while dancing and chanting in the intersection for about a half an hour.

The intergenerational, interracial and interfaith group of about 40 people staged themselves for the protest on a nearby dead-end block before pulling vehicles in to block the flow of cars on Tchulahoma Road. All the cars were tuned into a central radio transmitter that played a playlist of Public Enemy, Bob Marley and KRS-One as demonstrators toggled between livestreaming, chanting and dancing.

The location was chosen because it is an access route for the FedEx Memphis hub, which is the largest such hub in the world for the shipping giant. The location processes more than 1.3m parcels a day, according to FedEx.

A demonstration organizer, Keedran Franklin, stands in front of an employee entrance at the FedEx hub at Memphis international airport. Photograph: Brandon Dill

“Our whole motto is ‘if we can’t make money, then y’all can’t either’,” said Keedran Franklin, a well-known Memphis organizer and the first person police arrested at the second protest outside the jail.

Most vehicles stuck in the scrum waited for a few minutes before turning around and trying to find another route. Some honked; some waited patiently. One pickup truck tried to barrel through the activists as they were getting into place, drawing angry shouts.

Protesters managed to coax one man, a FedEx employee leaving the parking facility, out of his car for a quick dance before he got back in and was allowed to pass. “I appreciate every one of y’all,” the man said as he drove away.

Unlike at the second protest, police took a laid-back approach with demonstrators, giving a number of warnings to clear the roadway until finally growing impatient and telling Franklin to clear the roadway or face arrests.

Events are planned around the country on Wednesday, with a minute’s silence and a gala featuring the civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and John Lewis at the Lorraine motel, where King was killed, which is now a civil rights museum.

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