“No easy answers”

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Mayor Indya Kincannon during a recent interview. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Anthony Thompson Jr.,17.

But also Justin Taylor, 15. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16. Janaria Muhammad, 15. Jamarion Gillette, 15.

Eyes half-closed, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon recited the names by rote while seated on a couch in her office. 

Those are the names of the five Austin-East Magnet High School students who became homicide statistics this year.  All of them still children, carrying on their young shoulders the hopes and dreams of their families, friends and community.  All of them snuffed out by gunfire, one of them by a bullet that came from a police officer’s pistol.

The night before this interview, Kincannon and City Council members had faced off with dozens of protesters at a meeting held downstairs from her office in the City-County Building. Two of the protesters had been arrested for loudly accusing them of being complicit in the death of Thompson, who was gunned down during a fight with four Knoxville Police Department officers.

Referring to Thompson, protesters dared Kincannon and council members to “Say his name!”

The next morning, when she didn’t feel like she was being bullied into doing so by an angry crowd, Kincannon was more than willing to speak the names of the dead.

“I do say their names. I do think about them,” she said. “I do think of their families and their friends. My heart goes out to them, and I do think we have a problem with gun violence in our community.”

When asked if she had a message for the protesters, in fact, Kincannon said she’d like to see them focus their efforts on preventing further bloodshed. “Let’s get guns off the streets, get guns out of the hands of everybody,” she said. “But especially our young people.”

 Kincannon says that her heart also goes out to the officers who were involved in the shooting as well as their families.

“The police don’t want to hurt people, they want to protect the public,” she said. “Unfortunately he had a gun, his gun went off first, and they thought their lives were at risk.”

Kincannon’s stalwart support of KPD has confused and angered many of Knoxville’s liberal activists, especially younger ones who have come of age during the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

But Kincannon has always made it clear that providing public safety is one of the most important roles the government plays. In fact, she said, it’s traditionally been the main role of City government.

Kincannon maintains that she’s spoken to many people throughout the City and support for law enforcement is high, even in the areas that see the most violence.

“When they hear shots fired at night, they want to see police. A lot of people who are in high-crime areas see police as someone who is there to protect them,” Kincannon said. “And they are happy to see that, and our police are trying their best to keep people safe.”

Nonetheless, Kincannon is well aware that the problems facing the inner city can’t be solved by relying on law enforcement alone. As the leaders of the protest movement constantly point out, violent crime tends to go hand-in-hand with high poverty rates. 

Kincannon pointed out that her 2021-2022 budget includes millions of dollars being poured into violence prevention and affordable housing. “We are dealing with the root causes, but will that stop the violence tomorrow? No. Which is why we’re doing the violence interruption (programs).”

Still, it’s clear that Thompson’s death has struck a chord with the mayor, herself the mother of a 17-year-old child. While many of the details of Thompson’s life and death have been kept under wraps by authorities, Kincannon alluded to a less-than-stable childhood in which his needs weren’t consistently met.

“The outcome of what happened at Austin-East was tragic, but I think there was a whole host of shortcomings that happened to Anthony Thompson Jr. in his short life that began long before that final day where our officers were going to address an issue of domestic violence, trying to protect a girl who was at risk of being hurt more by somebody,” Kincannon said. “I believe that our officers did the best they could in a very challenging situation. My heart goes out to the family of Anthony Thompson Jr.”

She paused, clearly unsure of whether she wanted to continue. Finally, after drawing a deep breath, she added: “I don’t know what else to say. There are no easy answers.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com

Published on May 17, 2021