Simmering tensions over a deadly police-involved shooting last year may have sent emotions boiling over this week in Memphis, fueling Wednesday night’s melee between police and residents that left dozens injured.
The protest began shortly after US marshals shot and killed a man in the north Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, officials said. Demonstrators threw bricks at police and vandalized squad cars, leaving at least 36 officers and deputies injured, police said.
Three people were charged with disorderly conduct, and one of them was also charged with inciting a riot.
Hours before the shooting by US marshals, the Shelby County district attorney’s office announced no charges would be filed against a Memphis police lieutenant who shot and killed a man last year.
“That incident was just fresh in people’s minds,” said Martavius Jones, a Memphis City Council member whose district includes Frayser.
It didn’t matter that Memphis police officers were not involved in the shooting, Jones said. “It was still law enforcement and a person killed, a young black male killed,” he said.
Marshals shoot and kill 20-year-old during arrest
Marshals shot Brandon Webber, 20, as they tried to arrest him Wednesday on multiple warrants related to a June 3 incident in Hernando, Mississippi, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said.
Webber was spotted outside a house getting into a vehicle, and he “reportedly rammed his vehicle into the officers’ vehicles multiple times before exiting with a weapon,” the bureau said. “The officers fired striking and killing the individual. No officers were injured.”
Webber was wanted in the shooting of a man in Hernando, about 25 miles south of Memphis, and the theft of his car, officials said.
Webber had answered an ad on social media regarding a vehicle, John Champion, district attorney for Mississippi’s 17th Circuit Court, told reporters Thursday.
Webber and the man selling the car went on a test-drive June 3, and while they were switching places Webber shot the man five times, Champion said.
The car’s owner identified Webber in a photo lineup, and Mississippi authorities contacted marshals on June 8, asking them to make an arrest.
The Hernando warrants were for aggravated assault, armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery, Champion said.
Authorities said that Webber was driving a red Infiniti during Wednesday night’s incident — the same vehicle reportedly stolen in Hernando.
Hernando authorities said there is another suspect in the June 3 incident. That individual allegedly drove Webber to Memphis.
‘Bad luck and bad coincidence’
Wednesday night’s violence was the result of anger over police shootings of black men across the country and a “case of bad luck and bad coincidence,” said Jones, the City Council member.
Webber was shot on the day that many residents learned no charges would be filed against a Memphis officer who shot and killed Terrence Carlton, who was black, in April 2018.
Memphis police were investigating two shootings and spotted Carlton, who matched the description of a suspect, according to a letter from Shelby County District Attorney General Amy P. Weirich to Memphis police Director Michael Rallings.
Carlton ran but stumbled, and he didn’t comply with the officer’s orders to show his hands, the letter said. The officer said Carlton appeared to have something in his hand, according to the letter. Carlton also told the officer, “I’m going to kill you,” according to the latter’s account. The officer shot Carlton twice in the abdomen.
Neighborhood struggles with violence and poverty
Webber was a 2017 graduate of Central High School, which said it was deploying extra security and grief counselors across the school district.
“My heart is broken over the news regarding the death of Brandon Webber,” Central Principal Greg McCullough said. “I remember that he was a very talented art student. He seemed to really love his experience at Central High and he engaged well with others.”
Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer tweeted that she went to Frayser shortly after the shooting because “this is my district. I went because I stand with my people. People are hurting.”
“Don’t judge Frayser without asking a community how it feels to mourn their youth over and over again,” Sawyer tweeted. “What do people do with their pain and trauma when it gets to be too much, when a city has ignored them, when their loss is too great and they can no longer yell at the sky?”
Webber’s mother, Jaleta Clark, on Friday evening called for peace as a crowd gathered outside Webber’s home for a vigil.
“We are going to stay peaceful,” she told the crowd. “Have some music and some food for you all. I want you to be out here celebrating him all night if we want to. He was good. From a baby to a 20-year-old man. He was good.”
North of downtown Memphis, Frayser is a neighborhood beset with violence, poverty and high unemployment.
“Unemployment is very high in the Frayser area, but it still is a very prideful area, as are a lot of places in Memphis,” Jones said.
The council member and Memphis native recalled Firestone and International Harvester employed many Frayser residents in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“With those big employers moving out of the immediate neighborhood, you found limited employment opportunities,” Jones said. “With limited employment opportunities, you have greater pockets of poverty in that area than in some other areas of town.”
According to the US Census Bureau, the ZIP code that includes most of Frayser is roughly 80% black, and more than four in 10 residents live below the poverty line. The median income in the ZIP code that includes Frayser is $27,326, according to census figures.
Terrence Boyce, a youth basketball coach who lives in the neighborhood, said there are “a lot of intelligent, smart people in the community that want to do great things.”
“It’s hard to get out, so you pool your energy into the streets and gangs, and all the negative,” said Boyce, a candidate for mayor.
“The community needs to be heard. These children need outlets to do things. We need activities; we need programs.”
‘The neighborhood is victimized’
Rallings, the police director, and Mayor Jim Strickland lauded the Memphis officers for keeping their composure Wednesday night.
“I’m impressed by their professionalism and incredible restraint as they endured concrete rocks being thrown at them and people spitting at them,” Strickland said.
Rallings also praised protesters who remained peaceful or tried to quell the violence.
“I know that there are many individuals in the crowd that tried to assist in keeping everyone calm,” he said.
Rallings, who is black, said the police department welcomes peaceful protests. It’s when demonstrations turn violent that protesters end up hurting their own community, he said.
“When these (acts) of violence happen in a neighborhood, the neighborhood is victimized,” Rallings said.
“My message (Wednesday night) is we should all wait and make sure that we know what exactly happened before we spread misinformation, or we jump to conclusions. … We know there’s a lot (of rumors) out there, and often individuals do not have the facts. And I think that’s dangerous.”