I write this with all due respect for the CURRENT Memphis Police Department. I sincerely believe that they generally do their best to serve and protect. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, "serve and protect" did not include most hippies or African-Americans.
I was present at a police riot on the Highland Strip in the early 1970s. I don't know if it was one of the incidents described in the Memphis Flyer article. I call it a police riot because the Memphis Police came marching down the sidewalk in a line, swinging their nightsticks before them as they marched. As soon as they reached any civilian WHATSOEVER, including bystanders and especially people with cameras, they would proceed to beat the living daylights out of the individual, regardless of whether male or female, oppositional or cooperative, Afro- or Caucasian, etc.
I had been working as short-order cook and dishwasher in the T.H.E. Cafe (its actual name) when the riot started. I had not really seen the beginning of the riot, so I was not aware of any fights or arrests prior to the attack by the police. I went out on the sidewalk to watch and ended up taking the side of the hippies. I was sober as sober could be.
I had previously participated in organized demonstrations and marches against war and racism. I had also been beaten silly by the MPD for the crime of chanting a Buddhist chant to a tree. Still got a scar on the back of my head where they had to stitch me up. There was nothing organized about this riot on Highland except the police.
The line of police was herding us south down Highland toward the railroad tracks where there were no night lights. I was herded with them. The police were already beating several people bloody, and I realized that there would be no limit to what they could do to us once they got us down by the RR tracks where it was dark.
Across the street, where onlookers stood peacefully watching, the police began to single out people with cameras and beat them. There was one really beautiful blond chick in a tanktop with a camera. I had admired her from a distance for quite some time. Four officers had her on the ground, beating her because she had a camera. I wondered what they would do to me, a demonstrator, if they did that to her, a bystander.
It was a good damn thing I didn't have a camera with me.
I turned and ran like Chicken Little. Yes, I had felt the nightstick before and had no desire to feel it again, especially in such a pointless melee. One of the officers beating the blonde turned away from her and grabbed at me, but I dodged and ran. I didn't stop until I reached Philsdale, maybe a mile or more from the Strip. It was pouring down rain by that time, for which I was grateful.
I found out later that my two friends, Fleebus and Catfish actually had been arrested and taken to jail. They had been onlookers, and they tried to comply with the police when everyone was ordered to leave. But one of the officers saw that Catfish had a camera. They dragged the two of them out of Fleebus' car and were about to dash Catfish's camera against the sidewalk, but Catfish talked them into letting him expose the film himself. It was an expensive camera.
Thirty years later, Catfish and Fleebus told me what the police had said about me as they drove the two of them to jail. "We gonna give him a John Gaston Turban," they said. That was a nickname for a broken skullbone.
In contrast, I had an experience some three years later that was quite different. I was working as a Psychiatric Technician at Tennessee Psychiatric (TPH&I, later named MMHI) on Poplar Ave. Catfish and I were sitting in my apartment, smoking and joking, playing the radio quite loud. There came a knock at the door. When I opened it, a young man in a clean blue uniform (as opposed to the sloppy khaki ones they'd worn a few years earlier) tipped his hat and said, politely, "Excuse me, sir, but we have a complaint that your radio is a bit loud. Would you be so kind as to turn it down?"
I was so relieved, I almost jumped for joy. I practicall fell over my own feet as I ran to turn the radio all the way down. I invited them in for a drink, but they said they were on duty.
"Thank you very much and have a good night, sir."
"You're quite welcome, officer. Hope you have a nice night, also."
So that's my take on it. Longer comment than I had planned.
By Toby Sells
download this issue
click here to see more »