Knoxville City Council’s first in-person regular meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic turned at points into a battle of wills between Mayor Indya Kincannon and dozens of protesters Tuesday.
The most contentious item on the official agenda may have been the Mayor’s proposed budget, but the 40 or so protesters made sure their agenda was never far from being the center of attention.
That agenda was easily summed up in the chant they repeated, over and over again, the same chant that’s echoed in parks, churches and downtown streets for weeks: “Say his name!Arrest the cops that killed Anthony Thompson Jr.! Say his name!”
Thompson, 17, was shot and killed in a confrontation with Knoxville Police Department officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School on April 12. Although the officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the TBI and District Attorney Charme Allen, many Knoxville residents were enraged by the ruling and have staged protests on an almost daily basis.
Tuesday was no exception. A little more than 40 minutes after the meeting’s start, Thompson’s family marched silently into the room and stood with the protesters there. Reverend Calvin Skinner of Mount Zion Baptist Church and Constance Every, a political activist, then announced their presence with a torrent of impassioned rhetoric.
They demanded that Kincannon and the Council look at Thompson’s family. Skinner screamed that the elected officials were complicit in the boy’s death and would be held accountable. Every called them murderers.
Kincannon, clearly exasperated, declared a ten-minute recess. Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas signaled for police officers to begin converging on the group, and within a minute she personally had taken Skinner’s arm in her hand and began leading him from the room. Every was brought out right behind him, bellowing that no one had a right to touch her body.
They were both charged with disrupting a public meeting, according to a KPD spokesperson.
After the arrests, the dead teen’s family (including his parents, Chanada Dawn Robinson and Anthony Thompson Sr.) stood silently with other protesters as the recess expired. Councilperson Amelia Parker and Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie joined the protesters in observing a moment of silence while Mayor Kincannon and other Council members left the room.
When the recess was over, Thompson’s family exited the meeting along with the protesters. Outside of the city county building, protesters circled around Thompson’s family in a show of solidarity. Robinson, standing alongside other family members, tearfully expressed her gratitude to the protesters for their dedication in pursuing justice for her son and said the efforts had been giving the family strength during their time of trial. When the family was ready to leave, they received hugs from tearful protesters and then walked away.
David Hayes, a political activist and candidate for the City Council District 1 seat, exhorted his fellow protesters to return to the meeting to finish what they’d started. For the rest of the meeting, the crowd occasionally heckled officials or cheered on members of their group when they took part in public comment periods.
There was a lot to discuss.
Kincannon’s proposed 2021-22 budget contains millions of dollars to go toward affordable housing and permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. It also commits the City to funding affordable housing at a minimum rate of $5 million a year.
Two million dollars has also been earmarked to go toward community-based violence interruption strategies in response to the past year’s surge in homicide levels, particularly the shooting deaths of five Austin-East students since January, including Thompson.
“I am proud of this budget,” Kincannon said.
Kincannon pointed out the City was trying to move forward in the areas targeted by the protesters such as housing and violent crime. Many of the budget’s opponents said that not enough money was being invested in the right places although the City had committed to funding more than it ever had before.
“We’re moving forward now,” she said. “We’re moving forward in an evidence-based way…It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Kincannon also pointed out that there was, as always, a finite amount of money to work with. “I’m not proposing a tax increase, so we have to work within our means,” she said.
Some Council members expressed concerns over the budget process in general rather than individual budget items.
Council member Seema Singh, for instance, said she had problems with the lack of checks-and-balances under the City’s charter and City Council’s lack of power relative to the mayor. She pointed out that the Council can’t kill a budget or even make significant changes.
“This is about the process,” she said. “The basic idea is we’re having a vote that doesn’t matter.”
Parker agreed and suggested crafting a Charter Amendment addressing the issue in time for the next election.
Hayes attacked the large amounts of money budgeted to KPD, including millions that have gone to fund initiatives or projects that directly benefit the department but weren’t included in the official $60 million departmental budget.
“That’s almost as disrespectful as this budget,” he quipped. “You give $81 million to the police for killing us, and only $8 million for affordable housing?”
He also discussed the lack of economic opportunities in East Knoxville and the grim futures faced by many neighborhoods if current trends continue.
“Austin Homes uses to be East Knoxville, but now it’s downtown? That’s gentrification,” he said. “We’ve got fight for more than crumbs.”
Perhaps the most memorable performance of the evening, however, came from Tyler Givens, an engineer from the Norwood neighborhood who has become something of a gadfly at public meetings in recent months.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Givens strode up to the podium to speak on almost every topic. Over and over again, he found a way to tie almost every subject into a larger narrative about systemic racism and institutional inequality.
At one point, for instance, council members found themselves discussing a particularly vexing request to rezone a piece of vacant property on North Broadway in Fountain City. The property’s owners have sought for months to turn it into a car repair shop but their plans couldn’t be implemented without Council changing the property’s zoning status.
Givens, however, turned the discussion away from setbacks and walkability by announcing his intention to read aloud from an essay on the history of zoning dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Kincannon interrupted to insist that his comments should be about the specific measure before the Council, triggering boos from the demonstrations packed in the rear of the room. “Try to make it relevant to the issue at hand,” Kincannon finally relented..
Givens proceeded to describe how early land use restrictions were meant to “slow the spread of slums into better neighborhoods” and later helped cities in the southern U.S. enforce segregation. He then said that if the current request would reduce the number of pedestrians who use the sidewalk then it was an example of “systemic racism” and concluded his remarks with the same shouted exhortation he ended each of his turns with: “Arrest the cops that killed Anthony Thompson Jr. Say his name!”
Later, while discussing Kincannon’s proposed budget, he said: “This is where you ask us to pay for the tear gas and rubber bullets you stockpile to use against us on the streets …. More money is going to the agency that killed Anthony Thompson Jr. Tanks, guns, tear gas, armored cars and murder are what you are funding.”
Several audience members, however, spoke out in favor of the mayor’s budget.
Elizabeth Johnson, co-president of Justice Knox, said that more than 1,150 had turned up at an event the night before to support the new affordable housing fund.
“This is a victory for families struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “This fund is a victory for the man we know who lived in a tent while working as an assistant manager in a restaurant …. This won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a great, solid start.”
The budget ended up passing with only Singh and Parker opposed. Next up are public meetings to go over the budget before Council votes on it a second time.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on May 5, 2021