Some churches might not be comfortable opening their sanctuary to the LGBTQ Community for the purpose of airing their grievances to law enforcement officers, but Pastor Paul Eknes-Tucker said members of the Holy Trinity Community Church were happy to provide the space for a Community Police Relations forum on Nov. 19.
“There was no resistance from my congregation at all to this event,” Tucker claimed. “We were thrilled that the police department wanted to have this kind of dialogue, and that we could play a part in making that happen.”
As a crowd of about 50 participants filtered into the warmth of the South Highland Street church on a chilly Tuesday evening, the mood was mostly somber. A few munched on sandwiches and refreshments offered in the rear of the church, but most quietly took their place in a pew, not sure of what the evening held in store.
Just after 6 p.m., Lt. Mike Embrey of the Memphis Police Department stood up to face the group along side Ellyhanna Hall, his transgender co-facilitator.
“What is shared here is not shared with other officers,” Embrey assured the audience, stressing that their remarks would be held in confidence.
Embrey said later that Playback Memphis was a great icebreaker at the CPR forums, and his observation seemed to hold true as the stories started to flow from participants frustrated by unpleasant encounters with local law enforcement.
A 45-year-old gay man, who said he frequently dressed as a female, claimed that he was regularly harassed and accused of prostitution just walking to a neighborhood bar.
Another described a backyard cocktail party that was unnecessarily interrupted by an excessive number of police responding to a noise complaint, who handcuffed and humiliated guests and hosts alike.
An automobile accident victim alleged that police officers laughed at the rainbow flag that adorned his car and openly mocked him, rather than showing concern for him and the other victims of the car crash they were called to investigate.
As each story unfolded, the Playback Memphis ensemble would listen intently. Conductor Virginia Murphy would speak just a word or two about what had been conveyed, and with a simple gesture turn to the four actors who would immediately portray the helplessness, anger and anxiety expressed by the audience member.
The group’s storytelling was accompanied by musician Ekpe Abioto, who alternated between flute and African drum. They claim that each performance is a unique collaboration that brings a high level of connectivity, communication and empathy.
After Playback Memphis finished their 20 minute set, Embrey asked participants to offer a one word response to what they had experience so far. The responses came back; “Unpredictable – misunderstood – intolerant!”
The lieutenant then invited the audience to count off and divide into four groups.
Although the selection process was random, each group seemed to accurately represent the diversity of those assembled – white to black, male to female, street people to young professionals. Also present in each group were law enforcement officers, all dressed in plain clothes with the exception of one sheriff’s deputy.
Once again, the breakout sessions presented an opportunity for personal storytelling. Tales of brutality and harassment were interspersed with general expressions of frustration. But this time the officers also shared their sense of feeling misunderstood and described the anxiety they brought home from the job.
When the entire group reassembled a half-hour later, Pastor Tucker said he noticed a dramatic change of mood.
“There was a discernible difference in the feel of the people gathered,” he said. “I hope they felt heard, listened to and valued. And I also hope the MPD and Shelby County Sheriff’s Office understood how grateful we are that they are part of this process.”
Melissa Miller-Monie, Organizing Coordinator for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, echoed the pastor’s observation.
“The comments I heart afterward were sincerely hopeful,” she said. “Many were not sure of what they were coming into, but their remarks reflected the hope for moving forward and building a continued dialogue.”
Embrey, who shares moderator duties with other police officers on a rotating basis, said the MPD has been involved with the CPR program since last June, along with the Sheriff’s Department.
“Focus groups identified areas of the community that we knew had strained relationships with police,” he explained. “Our first forum was in the Frayser community. Then we went to Soulsville, Orange Mound and Hickory Hill. We recently held a Latino forum and now the LGBTQ.”
He said that the largest hurdle law enforcement has been challenged to overcome is realizing that the problems exist, and that the hands-on approach, as painful as it sometimes is, addresses the issues and identifies solutions.
“Some participants can become very emotional and passionate with their story,” he observed. “We recognize that passion and have been trained to harness that energy into a positive solution.”
Embrey said the experience had been rewarding, and praised Police Director Toney Armstrong for recognizing that reconciliation is the key to successful crime fighting and reduction.
“No more of the us against them mentality,” the twenty-five year law enforcement veteran said. “We realize success is community driven.”
The host pastor agreed.
“Our congregation contains people from many vulnerable populations like LGBTQ people, poor and minorities,” Reverend Tucker said. “I live in this neighborhood and see every day the problems that plague my neighbors. I think the vast majority of us yearn to make Memphis a better place to live and I am grateful to be part of that process forward.”
As Embrey brought the forum to a close, he once again asked participants to share their one word evaluation of the evening.
“Hope – appreciation – educated – inspired – unity – improving ...” the words came back this time in a remarkably different tone.
“This is the first time I’ve had a chance to speak out,” said one man. “We’re all walking through life trying to make it. We’re all in this together.”