My love letter to Memphis: How a city can capture beauty, pain and grief all at once | Opinion
Memphis, I believe in you. Your tenacity, grit, and grind are just a few reasons I love you.
Published 6:01 a.m. CT Feb. 8, 2023
You and I go way back. I know you so well. I admit, writing you this letter is challenging. Where to begin?
I'll start by saying that I love you. I love your people. Your music. Your food. Your soul. I love your flavor and authenticity. I love that you march to the rhythm of your own drum. I am 10 toes down Memphis.
At the same time, I am incredibly disappointed. Dr. King, gunned down here so many years ago, famously said, "there can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love." So, true.
Like the entire world, I was appalled by the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by your police department. Tyre was an active father of a young boy, and loving son to his committed parents. For you, Memphis, Tyre was a photographic genius of your beauty and uniqueness. Above all this, Tyre was a man who believed in equality and respect, like the sanitation workers did in 1968.
Tyre’s killing happened within walking distance of my house, and I drive past that corner daily. When I was Tyre’s age, I, too, was stopped and harassed by a Memphis police officer near that exact location as I was rushing my visibly pregnant and actively in-labor wife to the hospital. In my case, a single black officer came with his own inexplicable and excessive force, throwing me into the back of his patrol car while my wife's contractions were just a minute apart.
While this was just one of the more than fifty times police have stopped me, I will never forget this particular officer’s cruelty and lack of compassion and empathy. I'll never forget how he lied after I filed my complaint, just like the officers lied about Tyre nearly twenty years later. I thank God I lived to actively raise my daughters when so many others like Tyre will not.
But this letter is not about me, nor is it about Black officers.
It's about you, Memphis.
I commend you for acting swiftly with the terminations and indictments of the first five officers involved and for being responsive to Tyre’s family. But, at the same time, Memphis, I condemn you for the structural problems that long fostered a culture of bad behavior amongst the police in the first place.
Memphis, for too long, you have responded to your real crime problems by investing top dollar in over-policing.
Over-policing includes aggressively responding to minor offenses, the SCORPION unit, and other task forces that have shown themselves time and again to be little more than taxpayer-funded gangs. Your insatiable urge for more policing resulted in lowering the criteria to become a police officer. You earmarked nearly 40% of your operating budget for police services. You have some 2,000 officers, while the larger city of Nashville-Davidson County has just over 1,300 officers to address their significant crime problem, where they spend just 21% of their budget on policing.
It’s time that you heeded Dr. King’s message, that the environmental factors of poverty and ignorance breed crime, regardless of race. Too many politicians run their campaigns on platforms of fighting crime. Why can’t they realize your crime, my beloved city, is the result of an underinvestment in people? By definition, poverty is not having enough money for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health care. Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, information, understanding, or education. Crime here remains amongst the highest in the nation because these issues are not directly addressed and enough investments to reduce poverty and ignorance don’t exist.
Instead of working to build a thriving Black middle class and generational wealth, you have established generational poverty and all the attitudes, institutions, and disinvestment that comes with it.
I, and many others, are doing what we can to help
My contribution is through CodeCrew, a nonprofit that teaches coding and computer science to kids and adults, especially those from underrepresented groups. Adults get the education needed to be productive software engineers who often get paid more than four times what they were making previously. Our K-12 programs encourage kids to pursue college, careers, and entrepreneurship in tech. And our advocacy work has resulted in computer science education now being required statewide in all schools by 2024. Combating poverty and ignorance is in our DNA. While CodeCrew and others are making an impact, you, Memphis, are not doing enough in helping us help you more.
And I know, my love, that it’s not just you. These problems are pervasive around the country. While America missed an opportunity to pass the George Floyd Act, you must campaign for it. You can turn the tragedy of Tyre’s death into the type of real change needed to make a true difference that activists and social scientists have long called for. Start by developing better policing at ALL levels.
Memphis, you can lead the charge for every major city and state to pass all of the priorities of the #8CantWait campaign by first doing so locally and joining the national movement. Remove police from traffic enforcement altogether and campaign to end qualified immunity. Give your Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board real teeth to help ensure accountability.
Memphis, I believe in you. Your tenacity, grit, and grind are just a few reasons I love you. Through his lens, Tyre left us with gifts of your beauty. You owe it to him and all of us to make necessary changes and bring the leadership we so desperately need and deserve.
With all my love,
Meka Egwuekwe is Executive Director of CodeCrew, a non-profit that empowers youth and adults in Memphis from underrepresented communities to be tech innovators.
Check out the Commercial Appeal article here