Picking Up the Pieces
By Jackson Baker
JANUARY 26, 1998: Okay, I went to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse. The devil didnt make me do it. Mayor Willie Herenton did.
I was peacefully auditing a Democratic campaign workshop Saturday when Herenton rushed in as a special luncheon speaker irresistibly coaxed, he said, by his good friend Mark Yates (the Shelby County Democratic chairman as well as chief of staff for U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr., a sometime political rival and frequent thorn in the mayors side).
The mayor quickly let it be known that he couldnt tarry and would have to head back downtown, where, he said, he had major problems. Ive got the Klan to deal with, Ive got skinheads, Ive got gang bangers. All these groups were converging on the county courthouse at Adams and Third, and things had got to the point, said the mayor, of requiring his hands-on attention.
Up to this point, quite frankly, I had regarded the influx of a few Ku Klux Klan crackpots from out of state as a fairly minor annoyance, a breach of manners and taste as much as anything else, since these losers had chosen the Martin Luther King holiday weekend for their intrusion. A teapot tempest. Thats how much I knew.
But Mayor Herenton had communicated a sense of urgency that whetted my interest. Fact is, I had already been struck by several of his previous statements concerning the pending visit of Indiana Klansmen to the city. People dont lose their constitutional rights when they come to Memphis, he had said of his determination to afford police protection to the Klan rally on the courthouse steps. And he had let it be known that he was looking as much to brothers in the inner city as a source of trouble as he was to the hooded provocateurs themselves.
This mayor has an underrated capacity for defining a situations narrative character in advance, casting roles for himself and others in it, and then acting out the drama and/or letting it unfold. In a sense, thats what he had done with the Chapter 98 controversy. And it was clear that, both as actor and as critic, he had a scenario in mind for the situation Saturday.
To cut to the chase, I had lunch with the Democrats and then went downtown to see this movie for myself.
At about one oclock, the Klan rally had already started, and the police, clad in riot gear, were deployed strategically at all of the surrounding intersections to prevent any further expansion of the crowd of anti-Klan protesters and rubberneckers, already numbering several hundred in the couple of blocks west of the courthouse. Here and there the cops were being baited sometimes crudely and accused of sympathizing with the Klansmen whose rally, true to the mayors commitment to Constitutional guarantees, they were protecting.
But at this stage there was still an element of good humor to the situation. At one of the impromptu barricades, an angry young black man ceased taunting the police long enough to ask with mock-innocence, Say, how many of you are getting time and a half for this? The grim-looking policemen, standing guard with their billyclubs, couldnt help cracking smiles.
Free-lance photographer John Haley and I and several other latecomers with media credentials were eventually admitted into the crowd scene proper at the intersection of Main and Adams. Inside was a jumble of types: ranging from peace-and-love pacifists to street dudes looking for somebody to holler insults at. That turned out to be either the police, engaged in providing a cordon between the Klan rally and its protesters, or the behooded ones themselves, who were alternating various rants (hard to discern at that middle distance, but apparently employing the n-word with some frequency) with goofy-looking left-armed Nazi-style salutes. These were answered with one-fingered salutes from the protesters.
In retrospect, there were only two plainly visible events that could have been pretexts for the chaos that followed. At one point, to chants of Burn that shit, some protesters set fire to a Confederate flag. (That symbolism, together with the panoply of rebel standards so prominent on the courthouse steps, surely put a certain hard-core Ole Miss emblem at further short-term risk.)
The other precursor event was more ominous. A skinhead type in the middle of the predominantly African-American crowd donned a Klan armband and was soon being pummeled on all sides. The crowd parted like a wave as he and his pursuers made their way up to Main Street where he fell to the pavement bleeding, and the police, before picking him up and hauling him off to one of several waiting paddy wagons, stood guard around him.
Some five minutes later, with 15 minutes left to go before the Klansmen were due to finish up with their mischief, board their buses, and go, and with there having been literally no warning, verbal or otherwise, tear-gas canisters were suddenly fired into the crowd, and the police simultaneously charged, clearly determined to clear out our own little Memphis-style version of Tiananmen Square. Astonishment at the enforced stampede for safety was fairly general, with several people, weeping from the effects of the gas, pausing to point angrily at the still visible and still undisturbed Klansmen. This is our city. We have a right to be here. They dont! someone shouted.
Two men bearing red-and-black flags had a different attitude. Checking out a second wave of police emitting gas from what are now locally famous as leaf-blower guns, these self-professed anarchists grinned, and one of them said, Hey, those guns are cool!
What wasnt cool to those who got in the way, of course, was the contents of those weapons. Tear gas and pepper gas, both of which were apparently put into play, do have an unpleasant and highly conspicuous effect on those of your glands northward of the neck. Having sampled both varieties, I am now prepared to become the Fredric Koeppel of crowd control toxins.
At one point, seeing a TV crew some further into the vacated zone and deciding to try to join them, I flashed my press card to an intervening officer named L. Hamilton, who informed me, Youre trying to start a riot! Me, the gassee? Not him, the gassor?
Well, who was at fault? Mayor Herenton would hold a press conference on Tuesday at which he professed gratitude that no serious injury or loss of life occurred. He commended those citizens who had chosen to ignore the Klan rally and condemned the young bucks whom he adjudged to have been prominent in the counterdemonstration.
The mayor asked not to be second-guessed and said, We should avoid blaming and begin to demonstrate that Memphis is not a city torn by prejudice and racial violence. Herenton defended his actions and those of the police and pointedly had city attorney Robert Spence cite a portion of the Constitution guaranteeing Americans the right of assembly.
If the mayor was nursing a consciousness of any ironies involved in this final act, this post-mortem on the weekends dramatics, he kept it to himself.
For the record, he played it straight.
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