Protesting While White: My Graceland Reflection

Protesting While White: My Graceland Reflection August 17, 2016

God says BLMTo raise awareness to issues of police brutality, economic injustices, and other community concerns, on Monday evening August 15, 2016, the Memphis Coalition of Concern Citizens led a demonstration at Graceland during Elvis Week in Memphis, Tennessee. Below is a reflection from one of the protesters from that evening. 

by Edie Love

I went to Graceland last night. Why is this noteworthy, you may ask? I, along with many others, had been planning for a few weeks now to protest at Graceland on this day. The chosen date, time and location were highly significant. Elvis Presley Enterprises is both a symbolic and a literal representation of how economic development comes to benefit the white wealthy power structure of this city. Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of Elvis’s death, and it is celebrated in Memphis every year with a candlelight vigil, attended by thousands of people.

So I drove to Elvis Presley Boulevard, parked in a neighborhood nearby, and walked through an official police barricade, where I observed a tank, dozens of police in riot gear, horses and police dogs. I later found out that there were also snipers on the roof of the gift shop. I proceeded up a full block to the gates of Elvis’s home. As the police had been notified well in advance of our plans to protest, most of the protesters had been separated behind a fence in a ‘free speech area,’ about one block away from the area of the vigil.

So, as a white woman wearing a clerical collar, I sailed into the heart of the festivities for the vigil. I spoke to several of the attendees. A security guard talked to me about what faith I represented, and her beliefs. One lady thanked me for being there, because she said she was afraid of the protesters turning violent. I told her I was sorry she was scared, but I was pretty sure the protesters were not violent people, that there was nothing to be afraid of. Another group of ladies spoke to me about their recently deceased friend. They were legitimately grieving, and I expressed sorrow for their loss. The friend passed away just weeks ago. This vigil used to be their yearly ritual.

I connected with other (white) protesters who also made it inside police barricades, and a few who were white-looking or of advanced age enough to pass as non-threatening. I do not think any dark-skinned African-American protesters were able to get in, and no black males under perhaps the age of fifty. It seems to me, racial profiling was definitely used in determining who gained entry to the vigil and who did not.

As the night went on, rain came, and various plans were discussed and then discarded by those of us on the inside. Most of the protesters who were inside the vigil left our area and joined the segregated group. Finally, I decided to try to get on live TV coverage at 9 pm. I, along with another woman, stood in a torrential downpour waiting near channel 24 news. I had to remove my glasses due to the heavy rain. I put them into my purse. I am legally blind without them. I thought the news crew was going live and I pulled my sign out from under my dress. I held it up behind the newscaster. I suspect that it did not make it onto TV at all, but I tried.

Then, several women walked with me to try to get fox 13’s reporters to talk to us. They were not interested. Funny, it seems they didn’t want to talk to us at all. I had heard from my friends in Ferguson how the news coverage was deliberately skewed against them. Last night, I experienced that firsthand, media blackout on the real news. Thousands of fans at an annual event aren’t nearly as newsworthy, in my opinion, as the myriad unarmed people of color who are dying at the hands of an unchecked and brutal police system. Many of those deaths have been right here in Memphis. Have you ever heard of Darrius Stewart, Steven Askew? Or the child killed by police in West Memphis, D’Aunta Farrow? How about the horrific beating of Duanna Johnson?

After trying and failing to get any interest from the reporters, (isn’t that interesting?) my friends and I decided to march from the gates of Graceland, down the line past the people holding candles, shouting, “No justice, no peace.”

The three of us linked arms and marched quickly, shouting as loud as we could. I was on the right side of the three of us. The rain was still coming down heavily. Police came running up towards us, and then police on horses got behind us, a definite intimidation tactic. As we came closer to the police barricade, I felt my companions being pulled from me. I still could not see clearly further than a few feet from my face.

I stumbled through the police barricade, but the two women who had marched with me were somehow still inside. I heard one of them shouting that a police officer was shoving her. “He put his hands on me!” she shouted. That makes sense, I thought, as I felt the push and her arm was dragged away from mine. But at the time, I was confused and quite honestly scared, as well as unable to see. I now wish I had been able to stay closer to her to offer what I could in protection. My friend asked for the name and badge number, and the officer refused to give it. Of the three of us, she was the only woman of color and the only one the police put hands on. I do not think this is a coincidence.

I got quite an education last night. I learned a lot about my own privilege, and how the system works to shut people out in a protest situation, which is not unlike how the system also works in a larger sense. People of color and their sympathizers often lack access to where real change happens. If you don’t ‘pass,’ you are shut out. And so the white power structure and the economic exploitation, the prison-industrial complex, the castes we like to call race, all continue on their merry way.

The question on my mind this morning is, what are we going to do about it?

Edie Love is a candidate for ministry in the Unitarian Universalist faith. A lifelong Memphian, she believes God has called her to work for racial justice.

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