“Say his name!”

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Protesters disrupt an April 19 work session of County Commission. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

“Say his name!”

It’s the rallying cry for Knoxville’s homegrown police reform movement. It’s what agitators scream at elected officials when they show up to public meetings. It’s the mantra that protesters chant as they march down city streets, daring anyone to forget for even a second that a child was killed at school by a City police officer.

It’s not the only phrase they use, of course. “No Justice, no Peace!” is still the classic refrain of anti-police activists across the nation. “Fuck me, help him!” is also used locally, being the words screamed at police by a friend of Thompson’s as the teen lay bleeding to death on the floor of an Austin-East Magnet High School restroom.

For weeks now, the grassroots movement triggered by Thompson’s death on April 12 has staged numerous protests across town, mostly concentrated around the school and where local government bodies conduct their business downtown. There have been demonstrations, marches and motorcades; they’ve picketed homes they identified (wrongly, in at least one case) as belonging to local elected officials; they’ve blocked traffic, pumped their fists and shouted until their voices were hoarse and broken.

Their actions have been decidedly nonviolent thus far, although their willingness to use confrontational tactics has led to a total of nine arrests for disrupting public meetings. 

It’s impossible to tell now much of an impact, if any, they’ve actually had on public opinion. Although the City tends to skew to the Left (especially in comparison with the unincorporated areas of Knox County) voters in Knoxville have traditionally supported their police department. 

It remains an open question whether the average Knoxville resident even knows who is involved in the protest movement or what it is they want.

First, there are no official leaders in the movement. Second, the movement includes people from every corner of Knox County and is by no means made up primarily of Black residents (some actions have seen as many white faces as Black ones). Third, while they are united by outrage over Thompson’s death, their long-term goals run far deeper than merely wanting to see the cops who were involved punished.

Again, there are no official leaders of the movement …. but that doesn’t mean there are no leaders in their ranks.

Here are three of them.

Rev. Calvin Skinner

Reverend Calvin Taylor Skinner doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing Knoxville in the wake of Anthony Thompson Jr.’s death.

“Knoxville is at a boiling point,” Skinner said during an interview last week. “We have seen numerous ways in which Knoxville has not been consistent or steadfast in acknowledging people’s humanity, especially in the Black community. Anthony Thompson Jr.’s murder really encapsulates what we know has been happening…. Austin-East and the community Austin-East sits in has been ignored for many decades or even generations.”

The first glimpse that many white Knoxvillians had of Skinner came last month when he was one of seven protesters arrested at a County Commission meeting. He was arrested a second time at a City Council meeting after leading Thompson’s parents and other relatives into the room and loudly proclaiming that the City’s leadership had blood on their hands.

Rev. Calvin Skinner

Skinner, a graduate of both the University of Tennessee and Palmer Seminary of Eastern University, was ordained at Mount Zion Baptist Church in East Knoxville where his father, Dr. Johnnie William Skinner Sr., is pastor. 

“I embrace the Black church prophetic tradition which is rooted in speaking truth to power,” explained Skinner. “It’s not only our role and job to understand the times and to discern the times,  but we are also empowered to create the reality, the community, that we know we desire and deserve.”

The “community” Skinner refers to is, perhaps, as easy to describe as it is difficult to create. “Essentially everybody should acknowledge and embrace everyone’s humanity,  and everyone should be treated justly,” Skinner said. 

This is a point where Black churches have diverged from mainstream white denominations, which often draw a line between the kind of Christian charity that may feed a family and attacking the socioeconomic structures that allow families to go hungry in the first place.

“There is is this sort of separation, this belief that the Justice work has got nothing to do with the Faith work, but they go hand-in-hand,” Skinner said. “Therefore there is a moral call for those folks who embrace Faith to step up. If not, unfortunately not only will this crisis intensify but the window is closing fast for our city to be the  model for transformation and healing. This   nation needs that model city and Knoxville has the opportunity to be that city, but that window is closing fairly rapidly.”

The protest movement that has coalesced around Thompson has several demands, including a thorough investigation of Thompson’s death by an independent agency — one that Skinner and his fellow demonstrators would like to end with the arrests of the KPD officers who were involved in the teen’s death.

He’s well aware, of course, that the TBI and District Attorney General Charme Allen have already cleared the officers of criminal responsibility at the state level. He also knows that many people in the community support the officers, pointing to the fact that Thompson was armed when he was confronted by the four officers and the first shot was fired from his gun.

“If people want to only focus on Anthony Thomson having a gun, then we’re always going to be shortsighted,” Skinner said. “The real issue is the policing, the consistent ways our community has been overpoliced.”

According to Skinner, this semester’s shooting deaths of the four Austin-East students who were killed before Thompson should have prompted more of an alarm across Knox County.

“That was the loud sounding of an alarm that we cannot go about as business as usual,” he said. “If this happened in any other community (in Knox) I’d say there would be a whole different posture, a whole different approach to see what we can do to mitigate this.”

The Rev. Calvin Skinner is led from an April 19 County Commission work session after he and dozens of other protesters disrupted the meeting. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

Skinner said there have been instances of suicides and drug overdoses at other, predominantly white, schools that prompted entirely different reactions. 

“Drug abuse and other issues are treated a health crisis elsewhere,” he said. “There have been considerable resources and attention given to these matters. There is this feeling deep within the Black community that we’ve got outsiders saying this is the Black community’s responsibility,  but what’s needed is a collective effort. 

“Many of the victims and the families of the victims of gun violence are not treated with care. To outsiders, it’s a ‘they’ problem, not a ‘we’ problem.”

Constance Every

For those who follow East Knoxville politics and community activism, Constance Every is a familiar face.

An East Knoxville native who says she ended up graduating from Gibbs High School instead of Austin-East due to zoning issues that arose from desegregation policies, Every joined the U.S. Army at age 19 and wound up serving two tours in Afghanistan supporting the U.S. Marine Corps in Helmand Province.

“When I came back, I went through some struggles,” Every said. “I ended up homeless.”

Every used her life’s experiences to found two nonprofits, Sleeves for Needs and Black Coffee Justice. Her hard-won lessons from the very bottom rungs of society’s ladder inform her beliefs to this day, and she’s not shy about letting the world know it. 

Even before Thompson was killed at Austin-East, Every was known for crashing press conferences and public events with a bullhorn to make sure her message of fighting racial inequality was heard loud and clear.

Constance Every

Since the shooting, she has allowed herself to be arrested twice for disrupting public meetings along with Skinner.

“Poverty is criminalized, and that penalizes the African American community in Knoxville that has a 42 percent poverty rate,” Every said. “I want to make politicians aware that their policies are destructive.”

At the top of the list of politicians in her proverbial crosshairs is Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, whom Every wants to see recalled. But most of City Council, County Commission and other elected bodies have also earned her ire, as has newly elected President Joe Biden.

None of them truly have the best interests of the Black community at heart, she said.

“It’s time for white Americans to take a seat and let Black people lead the way,” she said.

Thompson’s death pushed Every into the spotlight in a new way. To her, Thompson is “Knoxville’s front-door access” to the issues that have divided other American communities in recent years. 

“Anthony points out the repeating cycle in America,” she said. “Before Anthony it was George (Floyd), before George it was Breonna (Taylor)….Yes, Anthony is the focus of the movement, but at the same time he’s more like a shining light that’s illuminating the issues of the African American community.”

Every believes the biggest problem faced by Blacks in Knoxville is simple: a lack of access to economic opportunity. “Anthony Thompson Jr. was preventable, if Knoxville had been dealing with this 42 percent poverty rate,” she said.

The solution, according to Every, is also simple. 

“Give $50 million to the Roots Collective run by Tanika Harper, she’s been in business for many years,” she said. “I would think her track record makes her credible. Just give us the money so we can do what is necessary.”

She continued: “White people need to understand that we don’t need you telling us what we need to do. We don’t need you coming in here with your studies, figuring out what needs to be done. We need you to listen to what the hell we say and do what we say, and the biggest obstacle we face in our community is the lack of economic accessibility.”

Another key reform that Every wants to see is the undoing of the complex knot of laws, policies and court rulings that make it difficult to keep police officers from being prosecuted or sued.

“We want the cops arrested who murdered Anthony,” she said. “We are not going to let that go quietly.” 

Constance Every being arrested at a recent City Council meeting. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

To that end, Every said that she’s been urging people across the country through her social media accounts to send letters to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for a civil rights investigation. “We’ve got to put political pressure on them. It’s how this works,” she said.

A federal investigation would be far from unprecedented. Federal prosecutors and the FBI  have often investigated allegations of police brutality in other cities after high-profile incidents, sometimes at the request of community groups or the media.

Hard Knox Wire first began inquiring as to whether federal authorities were investigating the case in late April. 

FBI spokesman Darrell DeBusk referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Rachelle Barnes, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said: “Our Office does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”

David Hayes

David Hayes, the son of a preacher, said he first entered “the fight for justice” as a youth through the Christian Church. He got further into activism while attending the University of Tennessee and ultimately became involved with various local movements.

Hayes has announced his candidacy for the 1st District City Council seat currently held by Tommy Smith. He ran unsuccessfully for a City Council At-Large seat in 2019.

“I was a business major at UT, but I came to realize that I was learning about capitalism and perpetuating the things that I was wanting to fight against, so I did not finish,” Hayes said. “Being a business major is not a good fit for organizers and revolutionaries. Had I majored in something else, I might have stuck with it.” 

David Hayes

He’s been pleased with the turnout that organizers have gotten when they asked the community to join them in demonstrating against local officials.

“These protests are some of the largest and longest lasting that Knoxville has seen. Also, the participation of the Black community and the original approaches being used are inspiring. This is the first time that events combining foot marches with a car caravan behind it spanning for blocks have been seen in this area,” he said.

When asked about the purpose for the movement, Hayes said it’s a reaction not just to Thompson’s death but to all the youths who have been killed recently on Knoxville’s streets.

“There is a lot of trauma boiling over,” Hayes said. “People are hurting and angry and needing an outlet for that. This is also about finding targets. Every part of the (government) structure was in some way responsible: the police department, the schools, the district attorney’s office, City and County governments.  

He continued: “Anthony was killed by City employees. This is a part of the culture of the schools with the cops there to enforce the school-to-prison pipeline. This is both about reactionary justice and obtaining accountability for the cops who killed Anthony Thompson Jr. and the DA’s office for not pressing charges, but it is also about changing the system and making it so that systemic racism is done away with and no longer creating an environment where things like this will occur.”

When asked what his ultimate goals are, Hayes said he wants to see “systemic change with our demands being met.”

“That is also why I am running for office,” he said. “I don’t want to discount accountability. We want to see alternative first responders that are not loyal to powerful institutions and have accountability beyond just to those with money. I also want to see systemic change within the schools with parents becoming involved in the schools again. Parents used to be able to come have lunch with their kids.Things like that aren’t happening anymore.”

Hayes knows that many people don’t see the death of Thompson as being directly related to race. After all, the officer who shot him was also Black.    

“This is institutionalized racism,” he said. “The disparities that currently exist are inherently racist. Even if a Black officer is holding the gun, they are still enforcing a racist system.  All of this comes out of a racist history going back to the slave catching origins of police. It doesn’t matter who is holding the whip.”

David Hayes

When asked if he’d like to add anything to his responses, Hayes replied that he wants for more people to get involved. 

“If people see something that should be done, they should make plans and take action,” Hayes said. “The more people stepping up and taking leadership the better. I’d encourage them to communicate with the groups already taking action such as Black Coffee Justice and work together alongside existing leaders. However, there is more work needing to be done than what can be done by those who are currently the ones doing it.”

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

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 17, 2021