Sunday, April 8, 2018

'I came to Memphis, and all I got was this big bruise'

Elizabeth Vega waits outside Memphis courtroom 
And arrested.

It was astonishing that Elizabeth Vega of St. Louis could joke about it.

A veteran of four years in the Navy, a former journalist and an activist, Vega came to Memphis during MLK50 week. Unlike many wide-eyed, Beale Street-trekking, rib-munching tourists that the City of Memphis had spent millions to woo to town, Vega had a different idea.

Street theater actors call attention to abuses in ICE detention centers; Elizabeth Vega in light blue top
Vega took part in a street theater performance in front of the Shelby County Justice Center. Wearing scrubs to simulate prison garb and chained together with about 10 other women -- and led by an ICE agent male “actor” -- they were bringing attention to forced labor and other abuses in ICE detention centers. 

Vega displays her Memphis 'souvenir' 
“We have nothing to lose but our chains,” they chanted, highlighting the irony of MLK 50, that although society has progressed in some ways, in many ways things are the same or worse – such as poverty in Memphis and such as police spying on and suppressing organized protest.

“No change, 50 years. All these police,” Yuleiny Escobar shouted into a megaphone amid a massive presence of police tactical officers and equipment, including a surveillance van and officers filming the crowd with a DSLR camera.

Police pulled Vega down by her hair
Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50: Justice in Journalism
This was how “the people” honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. What would MLK do? Would he show up in the streets with these brave women, or would he be sitting at a luncheon or banquet among elected officials and “dignitaries?”

“Memphis police violated civil rights and lost their damn minds,” Vega said, awaiting her fate in court inside the very building where she had stood less than 24 hours earlier and only a handful of hours after she had been released from jail after getting bonded out.

Police try to wave away our camera as they handcuff Yuleiny Escobar
Vega and eight others were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway or passageway, which are charges police put on prostitutes who are not caught in the act but whom police want to sweep off the streets – and charges put on protesters who are not breaking any actual laws but whom police also want to sweep clean from the view of tourists.

“They grabbed Manuel (Duran), and he was a journalist,” Vega said. “As a former journalist, I take that very serious. I pointed out he was a journalist. I was like, Let him go.
Manuel Duran broadcasts live, moments before arrest

“Next thing I know they grabbed me by my hair. And then the rest is just sort of a blur. It was so brutal that I kind of checked out a little bit.  I didn’t really pass out; I think I just went into myself.  I’ve been arrested a lot of times for civil disobedience, and this is one of the most brutal encounters I have had with police. It was on another level.  And we hadn’t done anything.

“Part of it was they were targeting folks. There had been an incident the day before. They didn’t arrest me then. They came to the sidewalk and they threatened to arrest me for refusing to show my ID.”

At that encounter, citizens in a North Memphis neighborhood were handing out flyers urging others to boycott a small, corner store after a store clerk allegedly shot a 17-year-old for stealing an 89-cent watermelon wine cooler. The young man, Dorian Harris, died, but his body was not found until two days later.

“I don’t have to show you my ID,” Vega told police, who somehow decided to hassle her and local government watchdog Hunter Demster out of 30 or so persons standing on a sidewalk across the street from the store.

“And then they said that they were going to arrest me, and I sat down on the sidewalk and began to sing. Then they said that were going to get me, and I guess they kept their promise (the next day).

“I’m still not afraid, more resolved,” Vega said. “They are the ones who showed their inhumanity and disregard for everything that our country is supposed to represent."

“They do whatever the hell they want to do here in Memphis.  I’m surprised people are not rising up.

“I am a veteran, a grandmother, a former journalist. I do believe some of those patriotic things that we talk about. That’s why I fight so hard. I believe in that ideal.

“That’s how Memphis treats its women and veterans, and on the eve of the anniversary of MLK’s assassination. All the pomp and circumstance, and where have we gone; what have we accomplished 50 years later?

Officer yanks Zyanya Cruz by the arm
“How dare they put a Jumbotron in front of the Civil Rights Museum while they are violating peoples’ civil rights a few blocks away? The city should be ashamed of itself.”

Of the nine persons arrested, one pleaded no contest for “time served” – his one night in jail – and paid costs. Seven others saw their next court date set for later in April or May.

While local police seemed to be going after well-known and often spied-upon activists, the Multi-Agency Gang Unit and Organized Crime Unit detectives and officers seemed to have one more target: the Latino journalist. Although Duran was shooting video of the action and reporting – you know, doing his job and not stealing a bicycle or punching anyone’s nose -- he was grabbed off the sidewalk as Vega and other female “ICE prisoners” shouted to police, “He’s a reporter!”

Duran’s family paid his $100 cash bond at 9 that night, but he was not released like the others who had made bond and gotten out in the wee hours of April 4. A native of El Salvador, Duran allegedly was not a citizen or resident alien. Duran’s case was reset until the following day, April 5, and it was dismissed – nolle prosequi – with no costs.

Good news, right? Not so fast. It’s the Trump era.

Later, courthouse sources told us that Duran’s capture came from “the top” – meaning high up in the Trump administration. Sure enough, not only had Duran been targeted, two ICE agents were in the courtroom waiting for him. They did not grab him in front of media or supporters as some have reported. But after he was seized by ICE during jail release-processing out of the public eye, they skipped over two stages of detention – one temporary center in Memphis and one 30 miles away in Mason, Tennessee – and sent him directly to LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, about 350 miles away and the last stop before deportation.

The difficulty for Duran and other First Amendment practitioners was they were marching into a three-part, perfect storm of a police trap:

1—This was supposed to be Tourism Week, and like homeless people, demonstrators were not what City Hall wanted visitors to see. What a great idea if we just rounded up activists to get them off the streets?

Further, outside law enforcement, including the FBI, was in town. It is likely that the extra law enforcement presence, surveillance and tension heightened the likelihood of a confrontation. 

2—Activists had promoted on Facebook a “Rolling Block Party” to occur April 3, the day before the 50th anniversary of MLK’s murder in Memphis. The only time and location widely publicized on social media was 2:01 p.m. at 201 Poplar, the address of the county courthouse and jail. Since police and fusion centers now monitor social media of known activists, law enforcement was waiting for them en masse.

There were also limited posts on social media about the "Rolling Block Party" taking the fun to Graceland at 4:44 p.m. and the Hernando-DeSoto Bridge at 6:30 on April 3. 

Activists turn out at FedEx -- with purple airplane tails in the background

3—Earlier in the day, the “rolling block party” rolled into a four-lane street just outside the FedEx terminal and stopped their cars.  Partiers jumped out, danced to music coordinated on every car radio and held signs with messages like, “Things are not OK,” “Poorest City in the Nation,” and “Economic Apartheid: Profits to the Top, Misery to the Bottom.” 

The police showed up, but they stood back. They had never seen anything quite like this and were unsure what to do. In fact, they told organizers that they were waiting on command staff to show up.  Eventually, after they threatened to arrest the drivers, the block party rolled away.

Standing down was a wise move as there were no arrests, and no one got hurt. Motorists were inconvenienced – some were perturbed and some were amused -- for about 25 minutes.

Nonetheless, no doubt there was some sentiment among MPD command staff and maybe at City Hall that these people had made us look bad – at the edge of the city’s corporate crown jewel, with purple FedEx airplane tails in the background, and smack dab in the middle of MLK50 week. These activists, who were more aligned with MLK values than the politicians who waxed and waned over the civil rights martyr at banquets, had telegraphed their next blow, and it was at the epi-center of criminal justice, or injustice, in this city.

Vega (light blue top) watches police arrest an action marshal

Officers were waiting for them, and they were not going to get fooled again. In fact, it was not uniformed officers waiting in the street at 201 Poplar – it was officers in TACT gear, some or all part of a Multi-Agency Gang Unit which operates to disrupt concerted efforts in the community – which apparently includes First Amendment practitioners as well as Vice Lords, Ghost Mob and Gangster Disciples.

“What they did was absolutely egregious,” said Vega, who was able to press out a laugh amid the injustice and outrage over the seizing of a journalist. As she pushed up her sleeve to demonstrate:

“I came to Memphis, and all I got was this big bruise.”

Filmmaker Gary Moore operates the educational non-profit Citizens Media Resource and Moore Media Strategies consultancy.

No comments:

Post a Comment