“We want change now!” Interfaith coalition demands systemic reform in policing, education funding and more

Feature image: Hundreds gathered outside of Memphis City Hall for a demonstration organized by MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope) on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 to pressure local elected officials in leading the charge on systemic changes in the city. Photo by Johnathan Martin.

MICAH leaders’ Justice and Equity charter calls for police accountability, criminal justice reform, corporate responsibility and addressing systemic inequity

By F. Amanda Tugade and Wendi C. Thomas
Photos by Johnathan Martin and Brandon Dill, for MLK50

Leaders of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope had one message Tuesday morning for local elected officials: The time is up.

Hundreds gathered outside City Hall, as speaker after speaker called for systemic reform for Black and Brown residents in a community plagued by a plantation mentality, hampered by chronic disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods and poverty wages.

“We don’t want any more incremental transformation. We don’t want any more empty promises, no more photo ops, no more back door meetings,” said Rev. Stacy Spencer, pastor of New Direction Christian Church and president of MICAH, a coalition of more than 60 faith-based and community organizations which together represent more than 30,000 residents.

“We want change now. Somebody say change now!”

The gathering began with a silent 8 minute, 46-second tribute to honor the life of George Floyd, the Black man who was killed May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a White Minneapolis police officer, knelt on his neck. A viral video of Floyd’s death ignited weeks of protests in Memphis, across the nation and the world.

Members of the coalition stood against the backdrop of dozens of Black Lives Matter posters that were attached Monday night to the chain link fence that surrounds City Hall. To that fence, MICAH leaders added its new Justice and Equity Charter for Memphis and Shelby County, made up of four platforms, each with its own list of demands: police accountability, criminal justice reform, corporate responsibility and addressing systemic inequity.

Alexis Gwin-Miller, co-chair of MICAH’s education equity task force, spoke about offering more mental health services and social and emotional learning programs in public schools. Schools are long overdue for renovations, repairs and better technology, she said.

“We should not be the only municipality in Shelby County that does not contribute to the education of our youth,” Gwin-Miller said. “Memphis must make a significant investment in our K-12 education, as well as programs and services for our youth.”

“I was born and raised in Memphis. I was educated by the public school system,” she continued. “So, why does the landscape in Memphis still look like it looked when I was a student? As a parent with children ages 12 to 29, I’ve been a parent in this city for 20 years of public education. It should not look the same for my children, for my grandchildren or for yours.”

The burden doesn’t fall solely on the government, MICAH organizers said, asserting there needs to be a stronger partnership between businesses and communities.

Addressing wealth inequities created by predatory lending and investing in public transportation are some ways corporations can demonstrate a commitment to prosperity for all, organizers said. Samantha Bradshaw, co-chair of the economic equity task force, emphasized that workers need to earn a living wage with benefits, which includes paid sick leave, parental leave and vacation days. That, she said, should already be the standard for employees.

“Black Lives Matter” signs cover the fence in front of Memphis city hall on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 after they were placed by anonymous activists the night before. Photo by Brandon Dill.

According to 2018 Census data, median household income for Black families in Memphis was about half that of White families, $30,666 vs. $60,044.

Of the 24 bulleted demands, half were focused on the police accountability and criminal justice reform platforms, which span from creating a stronger civilian law enforcement review board, requiring law enforcement officers who police in Shelby County to live in Shelby County and eliminating cash bail.

What isn’t among the demands, however, is the often misunderstood phrase that has been adopted by reformers across the country — Defund the police. This is not a call to eliminate law enforcement, but to instead redirect portions of police funding toward social services.

What MICAH wants, Spencer said, is to use “the reallocation of funds for the purposes of educating our children and training officers to be community minded, and to use those monies for rehab, for people who don’t need to be in jail, but need medical help.”

“We’re not talking about defunding, we’re talking about the prioritization of our children.”

The next steps involve encouraging residents to write emails to elected officials, attend city council meetings or participate in demonstrations, interim executive director Meggan Kiel said. She also said leaders are currently working on trying to figure out how they will share the charter’s platforms with elected officials.

MICAH has also signed onto the open letter sent earlier this week to elected officials and business leaders, signed by more than 110 local nonprofit organizations. In the two-page letter, titled “Memphis Nonprofits Demand Action,” signatories called for many of the same actions that MICAH organizers demanded.

The nonprofit letter, however, noted a more personal connection to calls for nonviolent police response to peaceful protests; during a late May protest against police brutality, a Memphis police officer shoved the founder of the Collective, an Orange Mound-based arts nonprofit, to the ground. The incident was captured on video by Commercial Appeal reporter Desiree Stennett.

“Most recently, the law enforcement response to peaceful protests has been egregious,” the nonprofit letter said. “A fellow nonprofit Executive Director, Victoria Jones, was targeted and attacked with zero accountability for those actions by police.”

A May 31 article in The Commercial Appeal by Sam Hardiman described the incident thusly: “In the video, Jones is seen backing away from a marching line of law enforcement officers wearing riot gear. Law enforcement can be heard telling the crowd to move and seen pushing people back.”

The nonprofit letter ended: “Words are not enough. Commitments to meet or form a task force are not enough.

“Good intentions are meaningless when year after year we continue to have the same dismal outcomes. We believe deeply that the leadership in our city wants a city where all residents are treated with dignity and humanity and are provided opportunities to thrive.

“For us to get there, we ask that the leaders in government and business respond to these demands with clear commitments to ACTIONS…

“Four years ago, Memphians marched on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge and there were calls for change. Four years later, little has changed. We ask that we not let more lives be lost to violence, to poverty, and to systemic racism. It is our hope that in four years, rather than lamenting the same challenges, we are celebrating the results of these changes.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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