Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Klan Victory

By Phil Campbell

JANUARY 26, 1998:  The Ku Klux Klan won, and most Memphians couldn’t even get close enough to see them in their sheets, screaming their racial epithets.

The American Knights of the KKK won because they accomplished exactly what they had set out to do. As police shot canisters of “Clear Out” tear gas into a growing crowd of anti-Klan protesters, Memphis Police Director Walter Winfrey had the white supremacists escorted from the courthouse steps to their cars more than a block away.

And, as anti-Klan protesters – some gang members, most not – ran through the streets of downtown chased by police, Klan members were able to set their VCRs so they could watch themselves on the evening news. The Klan had gotten the media attention they wanted, both locally and nationally, without so much as stubbing a toe in the process. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which city officials had hoped to celebrate with dignity and some pomp, was mostly forgotten. King’s renowned philosophy of nonviolence became a mere hypothesis, vanishing faster than the tear-gas fogs that stung people’s eyes and temporarily cut off their breathing.

But what really happened Saturday afternoon? From one perspective, the entire incident seemed completely inevitable. But, looking back at the rally and the days preceding it, one has to wonder if city officials couldn’t have prevented the near-riot.


Divided Opinions

In the year that would mark the 30th anniversary of his assassination, city leaders were planning more events than usual in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s January 15th birthday. Mayor Willie Herenton had formed a committee in 1997 to ensure proper tribute for King. The committee was composed of some of Memphis’ most visible business leaders, including AutoZone’s Pitt Hyde and Marc Jordan of the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.

On Thursday before the Klan rally, Herenton called a press conference to talk about “Memphis Remembers Martin,” but reporters’ questions instead focused on the Klan. Why was the mayor allowing them to rally? “The government works for all people and all groups,” Herenton explained. “I have every expectation that this will be a peaceful event. … This whole event is something of minor importance.”

The mayor may have seen an opportunity to show people that, while he could make Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan an honorary Memphian in 1992, he could also let the Ku Klux Klan rant for a few hours on the courthouse steps.

While he spoke, Herenton stood directly across from a portrait of Henry Loeb, the mayor three decades earlier, when King led the march supporting striking sanitation workers. A young Herenton was one of the marchers. He would refer to the ’68 march several times before the weekend was complete.

In the weeks leading up to the rally, civil-rights activists and religious leaders had urged Memphians to ignore the Klan. With the NAACP, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the Downtown Churches Association, and the local National Organization for Women avoiding counterdemonstrations, it seemed that no organized resistance would emerge. Eventually, however, two groups did announce protest plans.

PHOTO BY DAVID SPARKMAN

The Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, operated by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of India’s legendary leader of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi, has operated quietly on the campus of Christian Brothers University for the past six years. Gandhi and his wife, Sununda, would be out of town on business during the rally, but before Gandhi left, he spoke to television reporters: “If we [Memphians] don’t come out and make a nonviolent, peaceful statement, we will be branded for life, and we don’t want that,” Gandhi said.

Laura Pietrangelo, the soft-spoken 28-year-old executive director of the institute, would organize the group’s nonviolent protest. “Personally, I don’t think there will be violence,” Sununda Gandhi said, “for the same reason that hate begets hate, prejudice begets prejudice. If you are nonviolent, that [other] person sees that.”

The second group, a loose coalition of liberal organizations calling itself Memphis Against Racism, was led by Thom Holcomb, a local free-lance writer and graphics designer. The group may have been given its impetus by The Memphis Flyer, when it published a commentary identifying Holcomb and publishing his phone number. Holcomb says that he received between 30 and 40 phone calls a day after the commentary ran. He was called by reporters from The Commercial Appeal, as well as most of the local television news stations. He went on the radio talk shows in the days before the rally.

Memphis Against Racism evolved into a loose-knit coalitition from groups like Holcomb’s Memphis Poetry Slam and Free Radio Memphis, an unlicensed radio station. Most seemed to know each other beforehand. At the largest of three meetings, about 50 people attended. Approximately half were college students, most not much older. Only three black people came.


Police Plans Revealed

In the meantime, the police organized. Major Ernest Dobbins, a 22-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, was put in charge of security. The commander of the department’s TACT unit, Dobbins has handled security for visits from Vice President Al Gore and hosts of other dignitaries. The Klan rally, he said, would be his biggest security challenge yet.

The media began hounding Dobbins the week before the KKK arrived. Dobbins answered them all. No, the Klan didn’t need a permit if they were going to walk to the National Civil Rights Museum; they’re still citizens. “Just to take 10 or 15 of my buddies down the sidewalk, I don’t have to have a permit.”

Yes, the police would have riot gear, as well as tear gas and guns. “We’re armed with everything that we’re trained to deal with.”

Yes, he had studied what had transpired at other Klan rallies, mostly by calling police chiefs in cities like Detroit and Charlotte, North Carolina. “I also read up on a lot of this stuff,” he said.

He was “preparing for the worst and praying for the best,” Dobbins said. The unofficial police estimate on the crowd size? “At this point, 200 to 300 from the anti-Klan side, and 100 to 200 on the Klan side.” He came to this estimate after talking with MAR’s Holcomb, who was apparently combining his numbers with those of expected nonviolent protesters from the Gandhi Institute (Holcomb later denied this. He said he had told Dobbins he expected anywhere from 100 to 500 people.) Holcomb was the only demonstrator Dobbins spoke with. During one conversation, which Dobbins repeated to the media on Friday, Holcomb had assured the TACT commander that he would be able to get his demonstrators out of the area if any violence began.

The police made one significant change in plans before the rally. Director Winfrey made the decision. The anti-Klan demonstrators initially were supposed to hold their protest on the south side of the courthouse, while the Klan members were to be placed on the north side. That way, the two sides would be unable to see each other.

When Holcomb was told about this, he complained to Dobbins, who relayed the complaint to Winfrey, who allowed the protesters to be placed at the corner of Second and Adams. The Klan would be placed on the courthouse steps at Third and Adams. It was only fair, Winfrey explained.

This was how Thom Holcomb became, in the eyes of the police, the voice of the anti-Klan protesters. It was a mistake that would not become clear until Saturday.


An Early Warning

Mark Potok is the director of publications at the Southern Poverty Center’s Klanwatch in Montgomery, Alabama. He has a file on the Klan group that came to Memphis. A day before the rally, he spoke to a Flyer reporter about the group run by Klan “Reverend” Jeffrey Berry.

“The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is clearly the fastest-growing and most heavily recruiting and aggressive [Klan] organization in the country,” Potok said.

In the estimated 73 Klan chapters around the country, there are just under 6,000 members, according to Klanwatch. Potok said Berry’s group is growing at a fast clip, with at least 19 state chapters. Berry claims to have 36 state chapters.

Potok said the Klan rally was about recruiting. “Coming to Memphis on Martin Luther King’s holiday is a golden opportunity to create a confrontation. They use it to recruit from the most extreme racist fringe of American society,” Potok said. “And Berry’s group has incited violence in at least two Klan rallies in the past year and a half, one in Asheville, North Carolina, and one in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Historically, most violence comes from counterdemonstrators,” Potok warned on Friday. “It’s not because these counter-demonstrators are bad people. But the Klan is very adept at manipulating them into violence. It makes the Klan look good and will ensure that the event will get a lot of press, which is what they’re seeking.”


The Klan Arrives

The Klan parked their Chevy Cavaliers and Ford trucks around noon in a small lot at the northwest corner of Fourth and Adams. Upon arrival, they broke out the familiar costumes. Berry was in charge, but Mike McQueeney, a bearded, hefty Grand Dragon of the sect’s Wisconsin chapter, did all the talking. He was drill sergeant for the day. “Shields out!” he screamed, and six Klansman jumped forward with round wooden shields.

“What about the niggers out there with their rocks?” one tall dark-haired Klansman asked. The question was flush with twangy, hysterical concern.

“Chill out, Robert,” another Klansman responded.

Preparations were simple. Just put on the sheets – white, green, red, black, and purple – and go. But the cops weren’t ready for them and the sound-system technician hadn’t set up yet, so the Klansmen milled around, playing with their hoods, making idle conversation while music blared from the back of a beat-up truck. At one point a song compared blacks to donkeys.

It was a rag-tag crew. They looked like classic rednecks, fulfilling all manner of stereotypes, including mustaches, sideburns, wild hair matted under dirty baseball hats, Harley-Davidson T-shirts, and Confederate paraphernalia. In person, Berry and his band of racist hate-mongers seem like any other bunch of undereducated good ole boys out to drink cheap beer, chew tobacco, and talk about trucks.

“This is history,” insisted one black man excitedly. The Memphian, who did not give his name, had come with a videocamera and was taking in everything with an unblinking lens. He smiled as he stood about 35 feet from a group of people who openly wished that they could own slaves. “I’m really more curious than anything,” he says. “I’ve been here 39 years and I never have seen [the Klan] before.”

This parking lot was the only place where the 45 Klan members interacted with Klan protesters. Fortunately, few knew the location of the Klan’s arrival, because for at least 20 minutes, there were only a handful of cops on the scene. While the Klan dressed up and psyched up, a growing crowd lined up along Fourth.

Curiosity, not tension, marked this part of the afternoon, and jeering made the scene seem more like a carnival than anything else. After one verbal exchange, the same black-haired Klansman who had wondered about getting hit with a rock suddenly took five steps toward the street and screamed, “Show it with your fists, faggot! We’ll see how bad you are!”

“I love you, man,” a white twenty-something sitting on a parking barrier cooed back. The Klan had lost that round.

Then someone in the Klan got into an argument with a white spectator, a private citizen with an expensive camera and zoom lens. He was obviously a member of the “Jewish-owned media,” one Klansman said. Then they derided him as being gay. The man tried to argue back, but he was shouted down. “You admit you’re a homosexual,” they told him. The citizen-photographer walked off. The mood at this point among the Klan watchers shifted from casually sarcastic to slightly unsettled.

There were still only six or seven police officers near the Klan, none between the two groups. Police Director Winfrey later admitted that this was a mistake, that he and other officials hadn’t anticipated anyone gathering here. This was the first indication that the police hadn’t brought enough officers to handle the situation. As the day wore on, more and more officers would be called in to fill positions throughout downtown.

Yet Grand Dragon McQueeney played the voice of reason. Don’t argue now, he cautioned his people. He wanted maximum attention, not an early fight. “Their power is no power compared to the power of the mike and the power of the megaphone,” he instructed, loud enough for all to hear.

The Sheriff’s Department and MPD now had a stronger presence. Moments before, a Klansman had been quickly escorted to a squad car. Police had found a stone the size of a golf ball in his possession. He was hustled away with rapid efficiency. One of the officers on the scene said he would probably just be held until after the rally.

A Flyer reporter stood by as KKK members lined up to pass through metal detectors and to get into formation for the short march to the courthouse. “So, are you all from out of town?” the reporter asked cordially. The question was directed at a blonde Klanswoman in black and red sheets.

She was disappointed with the turnout. “The weather got us,” she said, convinced that dozens more Klan supporters would have shown up if it hadn’t been for Thursday night’s flash ice storm. Some of the Klan members, the reporter was assured, are from around here.

Jeers and screams lapped over everyone in sporadic waves as the Klan started moving, under protection of the sheriff’s deputies. To the left of the Klan parade, another anti-Klan crowd, numbering in the dozens and growing, had formed. This counterdemonstration group was standing on neighboring Jefferson Avenue, separated from the Klan by an empty parking lot. Here was another place where the police hadn’t expected counterdem-onstrators to appear.

“It’s about time we heard something,” McQueeney hooted. He pointed. “Look! That sign says, ‘Fuck the KKK.’ That’s the kinds of things they’re playing. We’re peaceful and they do that.”


The Organized Gather

Some members of MAR gathered at Precious Cargo on North Main to go over final plans. Green armbands were passed around to assigned “peacekeepers,” people who would keep track of other members of MAR – who would be handed purple armbands – and organize a safe retreat in the event that anything happened. About 50 people showed up at the downtown coffeehouse for a last-minute “pre-rally,” Holcomb said.

When the MAR group had passed through the metal detectors to the Second and Adams anti-rally site, police were holding protesters at the intersection. That placed them nearly a city block from the courthouse steps where the Klan would soon appear. Holcomb pushed closer to the front. The crowd was swelling. “We’re gonna be stomped if people freak out,” Holcomb said. Just as he uttered these concerns, though, police let the crowd through, and people rushed up Adams to find themselves nose to nose with a line of cops in riot gear as well as the horses of mounted police. When asked later why this was allowed, Winfrey explained: “You always put your perimeter back further than where you need it.”

Now, however, with an hour still left in the Klan’s rally, the protesters had no place to go if trouble occurred.

Tucked in the northeast corner of Adams and Second stood the 18 or so protesters from the Gandhi Institute. They stood out in the crowd because they weren’t doing anything. They each stood silent and smiling. The all-white Gandhi contingent carried professional-looking signs that didn’t mention the Klan but instead professed generic love-thy-neighbor messages. Laura Pietrangelo had coached them, reinforcing her verbal instructions with a small handout. Don’t chant, sing, move, or express anger. Demonstrate your displeasure with the Klan merely by your presence.

Pietrangelo was confident that nothing more than a lot of yelling would occur. “Everybody reacts differently,” she said. “Some people are reacting with anger, some people are ignoring it. I know some people were in churches already this morning, praying.” Just as she was saying this, people behind the Gandhi group started shouting. An officer walked past, ordering Pietrangelo and her group off the sidewalk.


Confident Officials

Things on the Klan side of the courthouse were dull and getting duller. The police had changed its mind about allowing anyone on that side of the barrier bus; only the media were allowed. Most reporters had listened to McQueeney’s practiced diatribes about gays, blacks, and white supremacy before his public address. The Klan’s litany of hate was provoking, but it was also clichéd and contradictory.

Mayor Herenton dropped by briefly, wearing a smart pair of sunglasses and towering over even the riot cops. Law enforcement, the mayor remarked, was handling things extremely well. He repeated earlier comments that the Klan had a constitutional right to assemble in public, just as he and other black activists had a right to march 30 years before. As for the anti-Klan protesters, they were “boisterous and expressive,” he allowed, then laughed. The mayor had been booed when he showed up on the south side of Adams. “It seems like a lot of hostilities are directed at me for granting [the Klan] their request,” Herenton volunteered.

Winfrey, who was found accompanying the mayor, was also in good spirits. As for personal feelings about the Klan, he had set them aside today. Still, Winfrey couldn’t help but feel some pleasure at the irony of his situation. “They were very polite,” the black director noted about Klan members. He had had a 45-minute meeting with three of them in his office the day before. “I thought [the meeting] was historical. They came by my office and called me ‘Sir’ and ‘Mister.’”

On the other side of the barrier bus, the anti-Klan crowd groaned.


In the Pen

Members of MAR and a few others had persuaded the police to let them up the south courthouse steps, where they could see both the Klan on the opposite side of the bus barrier, and the crowd below them. They had the power of a bullhorn, and somebody had set up a small P.A. system.

Holcomb sent mixed messages through his megaphone. “Jesus was a man of color!” he shouted. But he also urged the crowd to “divide and conquer.” As the 1 p.m. hour wore on, Holcomb replaced messages of peace with snap remarks like, “Fuck the police,” and, “Are you [police] here to provoke or protect us?”

The first use of tear gas at the rally occurred on the southeast corner of Second and Adams. It was an isolated incident, but it foreshadowed things to come. Several people had climbed small trees to get a better view. The police didn’t approve. Using a device that sounds and looks like an oversized leaf-blower, they sprayed tear gas into the trees. About three minutes later, three canisters of tear gas were shot into the crowd, pushing the crowd back before it surged forward again. It’s unclear how much conversation took place between demonstrators and police before gas was used. The tear-gas story made its way to the Klan side, where Winfrey spent much of his time. The director denied the report.

From the south courthouse steps, it was possible to get a better sense of the Adams and Second Street crowd. It was packed in tightly, and as it grew it compressed people together. The crowd ebbed and flowed as people pushed, jostled, and nudged. Some claustrophobes tried to get out, but most tried to get closer, to see the Klan, to see hate and racism personified. Other times, the crowd seemed perfectly still, a victim of its own density.

The crowd was never quiet. Radios blared, activists yelled, spontaneous chants and songs erupted and died, people laughed and cracked jokes. Most of the people couldn’t hear what the Klan was saying. The event was, all at once, a spectacle, a significant moment in history, an insult the mayor should have prevented, a sign that racism is dying in America, an indication that Memphis had been set back 30 years, a chance to express nonviolent protest, a potential opportunity to cause trouble. It was a moment of unity and another example of our divided society. Whites clustered together with whites and chanted left-wing ideology while blacks stayed with other blacks, played Tupac Shakur and danced a hip-hop of protest.

The crowd at Second and Adams wasn’t the only anti-Klan crowd. People were also lining Jefferson Avenue, and many stayed at Fourth and Adams, waiting for the white supremacists to march back to their cars. Estimates of the crowd size were made difficult because of these three separate groups. By 1:30 p.m., one high-ranking police official gave an estimate as high as 1,200, but The Commercial Appeal would ultimately report it as being above 500. Whatever the real number was, the situation was exacerbated because the separate crowds had a specific set of goals: to see the Klan, to hear the Klan, and to be angered by the Klan.


Chaos

What would have happened had the police, knowing that things were getting out of hand, decided to quickly escort the Klan out of the area and open up all the physical barriers surrounding counterdemonstrators? It might have meant admitting that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly aren’t an absolute in a democracy, and that order is sometimes the greater necessity. But it would have robbed the anti-Klan crowd of their emotional target as well as their physical discomfort. If the police in riot gear had then stepped back and let everyone wander aimlessly, there might not have been an incident downtown.

PHOTO BY JOHN HALEY

But that’s not what happened, and the Klan rally had to end abruptly, anyway. The packed crowd buckled and swayed. Seeing the Klan (those who could) with a microphone was frustrating. Seeing such a large contingent of cops in riot gear was disconcerting. Seeing officers on horses so close to the edge of the crowd was a disturbing sight for many. And everything was happening in an area too small for people not content to remain in one place.

Shortly before the canisters fell, a man wearing a Confederate T-shirt rushed through the crowd, beaten as he ran. He had been trying to hand out racist literature. Police had to wade into the mob to rescue him.

Then, according to witnesses, several people near the bus barrier were either pushed or surged ahead of their own accord. According to Winfrey days later, the mob moved forward uncontrollably. Other incidents may have occurred, but, shortly after some individuals broke through the police line, officers began shooting tear gas.

The next 30 minutes were a morass of running people, sprinting cops, flying bricks, falling tear-gas canisters, and breaking glass.

Klan members were herded out of the area unscathed. A riot-gear escort surrounded them and marched them back to their cars. Police fired tear gas into the Fourth and Adams crowd as they advanced. The escort parted for the Klan before it reached the intersection. Hoods off, sheets flowing, the white supremacists ran, clinging to the side of a nearby building to minimize public exposure. They were planning a cross burning that night, but there was just no time for formal media invitations. Squad cars both led and followed them out.

At the south courthouse steps, the MAR organizer got separated from his group. The green-armbanded “peacekeepers” had fled like everybody else. “I retreated,” Holcomb said. “I tried to get people to come back. I got hit in the head with a canister before it exploded. It hit me in the ear and knocked my glasses off.

“I was screaming. I was screaming at all the people around me. They had to tell me to calm down.”

At that moment, Holcomb came face to face with a cop. Instead of moving away, however, the MAR organizer thought he’d ask the officer a question.

“Are you in the Klan, Officer Gray?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Are you in the Klan, Officer Gray?” A second time.

“You need to learn how to read,” the officer responded.

Holcomb looked more closely at the badge. “Oh, I’m sorry. Are you in the Klan, Officer Gary?”

Though others were getting arrested for similar confrontations, the activist claims both he and the police officer backed away from each other. Holcomb then wandered off to find the other MAR members.

When the tear-gas canisters hit Adams, the protesters from the Gandhi Institute held their ground. Almost everybody else was running, dropping signs, and tripping over themselves to get out of the way, but these nonviolent protesters stayed in place. The police tear-gassed them, too. Pietrangelo maintained a sense of calm, even though everyone was choking from the gas. A bottle landed and broke two feet from her. “Let’s go!” she said, almost shouting. “This way – let’s go!” Pietrangelo marched her protesters down to Main Street, up the steps next to the Shelby County government building, and away.


Official Explanation

In all, 26 people were arrested on a variety of charges, mostly vandalism and disturbing the peace. Dozens of businesses downtown experienced property damage, especially broken glass. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

“It got to the point where [officers] couldn’t control it,” Winfrey said. “And that’s the decision that they had to make.” Then he added, “We lost it, for whatever reason.”

After 20 minutes had passed, Winfrey began to pin the blame for the disturbance on gang members in the crowd. “We knew that there were going to be gang members, but they had a right to come,” the director said. “They were the ones that started all the disorder.”

The following Tuesday morning, in a press conference with Mayor Herenton, the director said he had reviewed the police videotape of the scene. Fifteen gang bangers, he confirmed, were to blame in an already unruly atmosphere.

Major Dobbins couldn’t answer questions at first because he was busy trying to control the post-rally mob. When he did respond to questions, he was walking fast and talking quickly. “They were getting out of hand. They were getting ready to tip over cars, and we couldn’t let them do that.”

Herenton made his initial remarks at the Civil Rights Museum shortly after the disturbance; he would repeat the comments at Tuesday’s press conference. The city, he said, must work together to achieve a greater degree of tolerance, and the Klan must be allowed to march when they want to. Again, he compared it to King’s ’68 march downtown. That demonstration also had been broken up.

As for the police, Herenton added, “I have nothing but admiration for the Memphis Police Department. I think the officers used a great deal of restraint.”

A young black man in the crowd asked Herenton why the KKK got so much police protection. Herenton didn’t respond. He turned his back and got into a waiting limousine while the man and his friends yelled after him.


A Klan Victory

by Jacqueline Marino

After the bricks were thrown, the windows were broken, and the people had finally coughed the tear gas out of their lungs, I marched up to a group of young people with fury in their eyes.

“Fuck peace!” one young man yelled. He was looking up at a handful of people watching the dissipating crowd from the top of a tall building on Third Street.

They were white, probably in their early twenties. As far as I could tell, they weren’t throwing anything off the building, shouting, or causing any other kind of disturbance.

But someone felt sure they were Klan members and announced it to the agitated crowd.

Afterwards, every time a tiny, white head peeped over the roof, the people on the street would yell obscenities and threats.

Within seconds the yelling got louder. The police got closer. And then everyone started running. The group of police in riot gear ducked behind their cars. Some dropped to their knees and aimed their guns.

Like everyone around me, I ran. Then we stopped. Then we ran again.

Someone said a gun went off.

But what I heard in my head sounded more like an alarm. I awoke from my adrenalin-charged funk and realized I knew these people. I recognized them from the grainy films of protests in the Sixties. I remembered them from the television footage from the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict.

Like the Klan, their influence is not consistent with their numbers. They take advantage of potentially volatile situations, riding waves of emotionalism, wreaking havoc and chaos, and harming anyone in their wake.

I can ask them questions and write what they say down in my notebook. But we do not understand each other.

I look at five people standing peacefully atop a building during a riot and think they must be harmless observers. They look at the same five and think they must be the KKK.

I look at the KKK’s appearance in Memphis as free speech. They look at it as disrespect.

I look at police in riot gear grabbing young black men out of the crowd for mouthing off and think of it as overreaction that must be tolerated under the circumstances. They look at the same thing and think of it as oppression that must be resisted at all costs.

A young father steering his two stonefaced young sons through the crowd reminds me of our differences. As the police herd us through the city streets, I ask him how he feels about the way the police handled the situation. He stares at me in disbelief.

“What do you think?” he asks confrontationally.

I say I think it was a little rough.

He says it is racism in action. It is injustice. It’s the same as the riots in the Sixties, right down to the clueless white reporters. The KKK gets first-rate protection while the black people get gassed and thrown off the public streets.

“If this were a different situation,” he says. “If we would have been able to carry guns, you wouldn’t be here right now.”

“You’re that angry?” I ask.

“What do you think?”

I think so. I think I’m angry too. And scared.

After the smashed windows and the tear gas, I walked up to a group of people with fury in their eyes. When I walked away, I took some of it with me.


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