Riff on MLK's Poor People's Campaign leads to local civil disobedience and arrests
Fifty years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., led thousands to participate in a Poor People’s Campaign to garner economic justice in America, hundreds more are answering the same call in Tennessee. Local activists say their involvement has come at a cost of being arrested and in some cases, hurt by law enforcement officers, a charge denied by the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Beth Foster, one of the Tennessee campaign’s co-chairs and a member of the Tennessee Coordinating Committee for the Poor People's Campaign, says that participants have been working on the initiative for about four years. Six weeks of activism launched in May and capped with a march in Washington, D.C. on June 23.
“The reason this is the campaign I’ve chosen to put my energy into is there were no big name politicians or celebrities at the rallies,” Foster says. “The speakers were workers and directly affected people. The campaign is about lifting from the bottom.”
The current Poor People’s Campaign is a recently launched national effort to bring about “moral revival.” Demands include ensuring the wealthy and corporations pay their “fair share” of “urgent social needs;” protecting voting rights and prohibiting “racist gerrymandering, hiring, policing and sentencing policies;” end military aggression, banning the proliferation of guns and demilitarizing our communities on the border; and ensuring the right to a healthy environment and increased public investment in a transition to a green economy.
Foster, who has participated in many of the recent Nashville demonstrations, says that in the next phase of the campaign, participants will continue to march and participate in civil disobedience to make their voices heard.
“I think we’ll see much of the same thing aimed at lifting up these issues and saying, ‘We are going to fight against these issues until there’s change,’” she says.
Foster says the very injustices that the campaign is fighting against can be seen through the response to acts of civil disobedience. “The arrests and the response to the demonstrations highlight what we are saying is the problem,” Foster says. “This is particularly true of systemic racism.”
Martin Hurley of Memphis, Tenn., says he was singled out due to his race. Hurley, who is black, was charged with resisting arrest twice during the campaign’s first 40 days.
“He did nothing more than anybody else,” Foster says. “But, because he was a black man, they threw resisting arrest at him.”
On June 18, during the final week of the Tennessee campaign, Hurley joined others for a protest at Legislative Plaza. The participants gathered outside the War Memorial Building to burn ceremonial fires in three pits, which is illegal on the site. Protesters, including Hurley, then formed a circle around the fires, linking arms. Tennessee Highway Patrol officers then responded to the situation. Hurley and Foster claim that the troopers used unnecessary force during the protest.
Hurley was arrested for resisting arrest for the second time in as many months. He claims that when the THP officers arrived to break up the protest and put the fires out, one of the officers immediately buried his elbow in Hurley’s back. The officers formed a barrier around the protesters’ circle.
One of the officers then placed a pressure-point hold on Hurley, in which the officer covered Hurley’s nostrils with two of his fingers and applied pressure. Hurley says that there were around 15 other people in the circle, and he believes that officers chose to take him down due to his race.
“Why would I be targeted to break the circle?” Hurley says. “For me to have my hand up saying, ‘I don’t resist,’ they had at least five officers ordered to take me down, hitting me on my knees.”
THP representatives, however, say that the officers did not act out of line.
“There were blatant disregards for legal, lawful orders given by our troopers,” says Bill Miller, a THP public information officer. “No one can have any type of fire on the Memorial Plaza. Those orders were repeatedly disobeyed and disregarded by protesters. That puts people at risk.”
Miller says that the officers were attempting to break through the circle to put the fires out and that the “infraorbital hold” is used by law enforcement across the country. Miller says this type of hold was warranted during the protest on the Legislative Plaza. He explained that the officer applied pressure to the nerve underneath Hurley’s nose, causing no permanent damage.
“In those circumstances, officers have to take appropriate action, and that was the least intrusive method the officer could have used,” Miller says.
Tennessee Poor People’s Campaign Documentarian Megan Hollenbeck, an independent filmmaker from Chattanooga, says interviewing participants and capturing campaign events on film has opened her eyes to their struggles.
“It’s been interesting going on this journey and talking to people,” Hollenbeck says. “Organizing statewide isn’t really something we’ve done in Tennessee before … It’s been interesting to bring people together and to try to allow people to feel vulnerable and share their story.”
“The campaign’s been trying to really lift up these stories and lift up the people who really are having a hard time,” Hollenbeck says. “In a way, I think that’s empowering for us all.” Foster adds, “The march in D.C. certainly wasn’t the end.”