Every summer in June, the Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta sponsors a South Memphis Block Party on McMillan Street in honor of a neighborhood youth named King Craddy that was killed a few years ago. It usually is a fun time for the kids, with a bounce house, and there is usually a DJ, plenty of good food and lots of dancing. This year, things took a turn for the worse when out of nowhere, a young man pulled out a gun and began shooting. I hadn’t even heard any arguing or confrontation leading up to it. We ended up having to get down, run to the back of the houses and then struggle through the underbrush and out the chain link fence on the other side on Ely Street. The gunshots continued from over on the other street before we finally heard the sirens of the police coming. We soon learned that a 3-year-old boy had been shot. There is absolutely nothing that can justify shooting into a crowd including women and children during a neighborhood block party. Nothing whatsoever.
West Point, Mississippi is the northern point of what is commonly called the Golden Triangle (the other two points are Starkville and Columbus), and not a place that people would usually associate with the blues. Nor would the average music fan associate bluesman Howlin’ Wolf with West Point, since he first came to prominence in and around the Memphis area while living in West Memphis, Arkansas. But it just so happens that Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born in West Point, and the city has decided to make the most of it, with a cool mural in the downtown area, and an annual festival named for him held out at the abandoned college campus. As for the rest of the town, it is sleepy and historic, although it wasn’t always so. West Point was extremely turbulent in the 1960’s, and had a considerable amount of racial conflict, including the murder of a civil rights leader in cold blood, and the firebombing of the Clay County Courthouse in 1970, but somehow everything has calmed down nowadays.
People walking home after the fights and shooting, Orange Mound Block Party, July 30, 2011. I will never understand why people would come to a recreational event in a mood to pick a fight with someone, or why anyone could think that it was ever justifiable to shoot a gun into a crowd of people. But the end result is that the city will prevent events like this from taking place, so all of us will be the losers because 6 or 7 people would rather fight and shoot than have a good time.
In the aftermath of the fights and shooting, the police cleared the park, and people began slowing walking back home, Orange Mound Block Party, July 30, 2011
Late in the afternoon at the Orange Mound Block Party, a string of fights developed. One young man that had been onstage with several of the acts was beaten unconscious and had to be carried back behind the stage, and then two girls got to fighting. Shortly after that, everyone broke into a full run at the sound of gunfire. We later learned that someone had fired a shotgun into the crowd, and a young woman was hit. The police quickly flooded the park, but I could hear gunfire continuing, now coming from the northwest corner of Park and Pendleton. The ambulances came, and police began clearing out the park.
A couple of weeks ago, on the first really warm Saturday of the year, I was driving back from the library down Tillman Street through Binghampton, through crowds of youths that were somewhere on the spectrum between a street carnival and something more ominous. The couple of hundred people or so were gathered around an incipient fight between two youths who were standing face to face. As I drove past, through the open window I heard someone yell “Hit that nigga!”, and when I looked into the rear-view mirror, the young men had begun fighting in earnest. Yesterday, however, the violence of the nearby Binghampton neighborhood invaded the halls of the Memphis Public Library itself, when three youths’ argument in the lobby turned into a full-scale brawl, frightening two older African-American women in the bookshop, who said to each other (and me) “What’s wrong with these kids?” The security guards separated them with some difficulty, and the police were called. By the time I decided to leave the library, the police had made the young men sit down on the sidewalk in front of the library as they took names and addresses. I wanted to yell at them “Where is all this rage coming from? Don’t you know how short life is? Don’t you know the sacrifices your ancestors made so you could have the opportunities you’re so casually throwing away?” But instead I walked past toward my car, overhearing one of the boys explaining to a police officer that one of the other youths had displayed a red “flag”, a bandana used to symbolize the Bloods gang. Apparently, the police believed there could be further trouble, because as I left the library, I noticed that a police cruiser was posted up at East High School down the street, and another to the west at Tillman and Walnut Grove. When something like this happens, and it’s big enough to make the news, the internet comments locally are full of blatant or implied racist comments, as if the young people’s Blackness was an explanation for the violence. But today at the library, it was easy to see the bewilderment on the faces of many Black adults as well, police, security guards, library employees and passers-by. They are just as confused by the behavior of inner-city young people today as are suburban whites. It is clear that something has to be done before Memphis reaps a terrible harvest of violence. And blaming people because of their skin-color or race does nobody any good.