While you and your family were enjoying the Thanksgiving weekend, hundreds of people wrongly spent the holiday at Shelby County jail, literally lost in the system, due to a new, malfunctioning computer records program.
Just City, a Memphis nonprofit group concerned with improving our criminal justice system, filed suit against Sheriff Bill Oldham on behalf of an inmate who spent 11 days in jail after being picked up on a traffic stop. The inmate was not informed of the charges against him, and it took nearly two weeks to get him out.
Many other inmates were kept in jail unlawfully, even after they'd posted bail, due to failures in the new system. Without Just City's efforts to shine a light on the problem, most of us would never have known about it.
And while most of us were enjoying an evening out or a night at home watching the Grizzlies last week, a couple dozen citizens met at the Abe Goodman Clubhouse in Overton Park to discuss ways to fight the Tennessee Valley Authority's plans to drill wells in our pristine Memphis Sand aquifer. TVA's original plans called for using wastewater to cool its new plant. The change of plans to instead tap our aquifer for that purpose were made without public input. Without the Sierra Club raising the alarm, most of us would have never known of the problem, and TVA would have quietly drilled wells into our fresh water.
These are just two examples that demonstrate the power that can be wielded by activist, concerned citizens. Another, of course, was the Save the Greensward movement, which, after a prolonged battle, ultimately resolved the long-festering issue of Memphis Zoo parking on public parkland.
I could list dozens more examples of citizen involvement in tackling the many issues we face — endemic poverty, lack of legal representation, animal services, public transportation (see this week's cover story), literacy, women's rights, education. You name the issue, and there is probably a group of concerned citizens working to improve the situation.
We owe them all our thanks. These are folks who recognize that change — real change — only comes from a commitment to volunteer one's time, effort, and money. Governments, at any level, can only do so much. And it looks like for the next few years our state and federal governments are going to be run by folks who don't believe government can do much of anything, except cut taxes and privatize government services to siphon taxpayer money to corporate interests.
And to make it worse, we have a president-elect who appears to spend most of his spare time watching television and reacting to it on Twitter. In the past few days, he's spent every spare moment criticizing the media, insulting individual reporters, and baselessly claiming that millions of votes were cast illegally. And this is the man who won the election.
At some point, the grownups in the GOP are going to have to acknowledge that a horrible mistake has been made. We've elected a man who bypasses daily intelligence briefings but doesn't miss a night (or morning) of CNN or Fox News, a man whose byzantine world-wide business connections will present daily conflict-of-interest potential, and a man whose mental stability is clearly questionable.
Though I truly hope I'm wrong, I fear we are in for a chaotic near future. Which is why organizations like Just City, the Sierra Club, MIFA, Mid-South Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Literacy Mid-South, and countless others I could name are more important now than ever before. An involved, organized citizenry can mobilize more quickly to speak truth to power and stand up to injustice and government overreach.
I believe power will need to be spoken to — loudly and vociferously — in the year to come. Stay woke.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...