SXSW 2009 was one of the high points of my life, so I was thrilled to be asked to be a panel moderator at this year’s SXSW. Based on the assumption that a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’m going to just give a final overview of this year’s event, and then post lots of pictures. HIGH POINTS-The Keeping It Real Hip-Hop Panel, the Where They At bounce music exhibit at the Birdland Gallery, the Louisiana Music tent performances, great food everywhere, but especially at the Omelettry, 24 Diner, Pappadeaux, Texas Land and Cattle, Kerbey Lane Cafe and the Hut Hamburgers, spending way too much money at Waterloo Records, getting to see Billy Bragg live at Prague, the Nappy Roots show at ND, the lakefront Texas NARAS reception, running into lots of friends, including Matt Sonzala, Michael “5000” Watts, Kazy D, Ms. Tee, DJ Jubilee, Big Sid, Quietus Khan, Pete Johnson from Select-O-Hits, Partners-N-Crime, Skipp Coon, Truth Universal and Cameron Mann from the Memphis Music Foundation, and the Austin Record Show in the convention center. LOW POINTS-The death of Alex Chilton (who was supposed to be the honoree at this year’s SXSW), parking and congestion problems, particularly in East Austin, the lack of shuttles to SXSW events, the unexpected cold snap Saturday morning which also ruined the Sunday softball event for me, extremely crowded venues everywhere, many standing room only, and some where you could not see the performers on stage for the crowds, and losing my leather iPhone case while running underneath I-35 toward the Music Gym. I spent way too much money, and wore myself out, but I had a great time, conducted some business, hopefully educated some young artists and can’t wait to go back next year, Lord willing.
A couple of weeks ago, on the first really warm Saturday of the year, I was driving back from the library down Tillman Street through Binghampton, through crowds of youths that were somewhere on the spectrum between a street carnival and something more ominous. The couple of hundred people or so were gathered around an incipient fight between two youths who were standing face to face. As I drove past, through the open window I heard someone yell “Hit that nigga!”, and when I looked into the rear-view mirror, the young men had begun fighting in earnest. Yesterday, however, the violence of the nearby Binghampton neighborhood invaded the halls of the Memphis Public Library itself, when three youths’ argument in the lobby turned into a full-scale brawl, frightening two older African-American women in the bookshop, who said to each other (and me) “What’s wrong with these kids?” The security guards separated them with some difficulty, and the police were called. By the time I decided to leave the library, the police had made the young men sit down on the sidewalk in front of the library as they took names and addresses. I wanted to yell at them “Where is all this rage coming from? Don’t you know how short life is? Don’t you know the sacrifices your ancestors made so you could have the opportunities you’re so casually throwing away?” But instead I walked past toward my car, overhearing one of the boys explaining to a police officer that one of the other youths had displayed a red “flag”, a bandana used to symbolize the Bloods gang. Apparently, the police believed there could be further trouble, because as I left the library, I noticed that a police cruiser was posted up at East High School down the street, and another to the west at Tillman and Walnut Grove. When something like this happens, and it’s big enough to make the news, the internet comments locally are full of blatant or implied racist comments, as if the young people’s Blackness was an explanation for the violence. But today at the library, it was easy to see the bewilderment on the faces of many Black adults as well, police, security guards, library employees and passers-by. They are just as confused by the behavior of inner-city young people today as are suburban whites. It is clear that something has to be done before Memphis reaps a terrible harvest of violence. And blaming people because of their skin-color or race does nobody any good.
Yesterday, Bartlett police officers ventured into North Memphis to serve a drug warrant, and ended up killing 43-year-old Malcolm Shaw, who may or may not have been the person being served with the warrant. The killing immediately stirred up a firestorm of controversy, as well as a rebellious crowd of hundreds in the neighborhood. Most of the defense of the Bartlett police online has centered around the dead man being a criminal who pulled a gun on police and thus deserved to die (although I always thought warrants were served to bring people to court for trial, and that, until convicted, a suspect is not a criminal), and that the Bartlett police legally do have the right to serve warrants in Memphis under Tennessee law. However, as a resident and taxpayer of Bartlett, I am not concerned with whether it is legal for Bartlett police to serve warrants in Memphis, or whether they followed proper procedure. I believe it is in the best interests of Bartlett and its citizens to restrict Bartlett police to working within the city limits of Bartlett only. Here are my reasons:
#1. Safety of the citizens of Bartlett: No one can argue that there is no alternative to Bartlett police serving warrants on people in other jurisdictions. Memphis police or Shelby County sheriff’s deputies are available and willing to do this for Bartlett. While Bartlett officers are out in another jurisdiction serving warrants, there are fewer officers inside of Bartlett keeping us safe. Our officers should stay here protecting Bartlett, which they are paid to do, and leave the serving of warrants to the duly-constituted law enforcement agencies of the jurisdiction where the suspect lives.
#2. Liability: The city of Bartlett (and thus its taxpayers) is legally responsible for the actions of its police officers. Thus, if someone is killed while the officers are outside the jurisdiction of Bartlett, and the officers’ actions are found to be negligent, the taxpayers will be stuck with paying out a large settlement to the victim’s survivors.
#3. Safety of the officers themselves: Defenders of the Bartlett policemen’s actions yesterday keep pointing out that the incident could have ended the other way, with the suspect shooting and killing the officers. Although Bartlett police face this risk within the city of Bartlett also, they face a greater risk when taken into other jurisdictions where they have less familiarity with the surroundings and less experience. It cannot be argues that policing Bartlett and policing North Memphis are the same. Clearly, Memphis police would better know the neighborhood, and have a better chance of serving the warrant with everyone coming out alive.
#4. Avoiding negative publicity and controversy: The Memphis metropolitan area has a problem with racial conflict and racism. It annoys most of us, but there seems to be no easy way to solve it. For better or for worse, the Bartlett police (like other suburban districts) have developed a reputation for being racist. It ultimately does not matter whether that reputation is deserved or not, since it is the opinion of most Black Memphians that I know. If the Bartlett police go into Memphis and kill a suspect, the incident immediately takes on racial overtones that it would not if a sheriff’s deputy or Memphis policeman had to kill a suspect, even if it happened while serving a warrant for Bartlett.
Given the above argument, I think that those of us who live in Bartlett should ask Mayor McDonald to order a change in the BPD’s warrant policy. It will ultimately be in the best interests of everyone involved.
The tragic shooting death of Malcolm Shaw in North Memphis this morning might be Exhibit A in the case for consolidation of city and county government. Letting the poorly-trained, often racist, trigger-happy cowboys from suburbs like Collierville, Bartlett and Millington come into Memphis to serve warrants was asking for trouble, and now we all have it, bigtime. There are some rumors that the officers came to the wrong house, and that the unfortunate man may have been awakened by what he thought were robbers. Grabbing his gun, which would be understandable given the circumstances, got him killed. The issue is not whether Bartlett police had the legal right to come into Memphis and serve the warrant (which apparently they do, at least in certain circumstances), or whether they followed protocols and procedures, which they claim they did. The issue is, rather, why create the needless provocation of bringing police from the white-flight suburban towns into Memphis when MPD officers or Shelby County deputies could have just as easily served the warrant with perhaps a better outcome? And even if deadly force had proved to be unavoidable, at least the incident would not have been so fraught with racial overtones as it will be now. And I’ll close by saying that usually I am annoyed at how everything that happens in Memphis turns into a racial issue, but in this case, I’m convinced that race is involved. It is observable that officers are far quicker to use deadly force when dealing with Black people, and it is useless for them to deny what everyone can see. At the very least, outside officers should be denied the right to serve warrants in Memphis. Mayor Wharton and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin have the right to request this of all other jurisdictions. In the long run, a metropolitan police force should be established for all of Shelby County, and the small-town forces of Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, Arlington and Millington should be dissolved. This will insure uniform training, eliminate jurisdictional disputes, reduce taxpayer costs and hopefully prevent a tragedy like the one this morning.