Teen’s death leads to numerous protests

Protesters march down Gay Street on Friday night demanding the release of video showing what happened to Anthony Thompson Jr. All photos by Jennifer Stambaugh.

Over the weekend, hundreds of East Knoxville residents — backed by sympathizers from every corner of the city —  gathered to vent their fury at the death of a Black teenager during a confrontation with Knoxville Police Department officers. 

They rallied outside KPD headquarters, they marched downtown, they prayed in parks and they chanted “No justice, no peace!” in parking lots.

No one was injured and no arrests were made during the protests.

The death of Anthony Thompson Jr., 17, in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School on April 12 (a week ago today) is threatening to fan long-smoldering resentments into flames.  

“It’s tiring watching people your age and younger being slaughtered in the streets for existing,” said Caity Southall, a 21-year-old Pellissippi State Community College student who took the microphone at a Friday protest at KPD. “We as a community need to come together to figure it out. We have a limited amount of time to make justice happen.  It’s not fair to explain self-explanatory things, to explain when your child goes to school they should not have to worry about being unjustly murdered.”

Caity Southall speaks in front of KPD headquarters Friday.

At issue, of course, is what happened in the restroom that led to Thompson being shot to death and the school’s student resource officer (SRO) being hospitalized with a bullet wound that apparently came from a police officer’s gun. 

A potential legal battle over the public release of bodycam videos of the incident is brewing, with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration seeking a way around District Attorney General Charme Allen. Kincannon — along with KPD Chief Eve Thomas and three of the four officers identified as being involved in the shooting — have asked that the footage be made public immediately, while Allen argues the pursuit of justice requires they be kept under wraps until the TBI has finished its probe.

Since the incident happened, KPD officials have either declined to comment or deferred questions  to the TBI with the exception of Chief Thomas’s request that the video be released.

Thompson’s death was only the most recent tragedy in a series of heartbreaking incidents that have claimed the lives of five Austin-East students this semester. Resentment against KPD and a history of economic neglect by the rest of the City was already a factor in discussions over how to handle the spate of killings, with KPD taking heat both for not making enough progress in the murder investigations and for intensifying its patrols in an effort to deter criminals. 

Protesters practiced linking arms in order to resist arrest in case police interfered with Friday’s protests. There were no arrests or injuries.

Thompson’s death changed the topic and the tone of the debate. The TBI initially accused the teen of shooting SRO Adam Willson but later recanted that statement and said Willson’s wound apparently came from a police firearm.

The community’s reaction shifted from shock and grief to anger and suspicion. 

In the absence of an account of the shooting that residents considered trustworthy, rumors and conflicting stories have filled the void and led some protesters to accuse KPD of murdering the child.  

“We want the tapes,” Southall demanded Friday. “Be honest ….Thoughts and prayers do not help me sleep at night.  They don’t help the parents.  What helps is knowing it is not going to happen again.”

 Also at Friday’s rally — which concluded with a march through downtown — Allison Rose of Knoxville said that white Knoxvillians should support the Black community. 

“This has got to stop,” she said. “We have got to stand side-by-side in total solidarity and tell the cops, ‘You will not come into our schools in our communities and kill our Black children.’  We have to do more…. Teach your children that we will not do this anymore. Racism dies now.  It dies here.  The sickness and the denial is so deep it hurts.  I’m so tired of watching people cry, watching people bury their children. What happened shall not happen again.”

Allison Rose speaks in front of KPD during Friday’s protest.

A police spotter was visible on the roof of KPD’s headquarters and another officer could be seen taking photographs of protesters and vehicles from the nearby Knoxville Station Transit Center.

While participants in that event were still marching down Gay Street, a more intimate memorial vigil was held for Thompson’s family at Fern Street Missionary Baptist Church. 

The protests continued into Saturday with a youth rally and march that started at Dr. Walter Hardy Park on Martin Luther King Avenue. Speakers remembered loved ones who were killed by street violence and discussed how to prevent such deaths in the future.

One of the Austin-East students to lose their lives to gun violence this year was Justin Taylor, 15. His older sister and several young cousins took the stage and described the pain his loss has caused.

 “I feel for all the children who have lost loved ones,” his sister said. “We should not be forced to be going through the things that we are going through right now. These are just children. These are just students trying to make better for themselves and their families.  

Protesters walk by the federal courthouse Friday.

“We’re losing kids to gun violence for nothing.  These are good kids, kids who went to school every day,  kids that played sports, kids that were gonna have a better life.  Kids that were gonna’ make it out.  Kids that were not in gangs and we have to say goodbye to them way too soon.”

Charlene Roberts talked about the loss of her 25-year-old daughter, Jessie Roberts, who was killed two years ago by a stray bullet while she was going through the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant on Broadway.

“This pain is real.  I’m just now getting to where I don’t cry all day, every day.,” Roberts said. “These babies are our future.  That baby that just got killed at the school — that’s so unacceptable.” 

Like other men and women over the past week, Roberts said parents shouldn’t let their children return to Austin-East this year. “There is no way that a child is going to go back into a building with increased security. We don’t even trust security right now. Security went into AE and killed a student. That is unacceptable. The whole community needs to come forward and say, ‘We refuse to put our kids back in AE this year. Let’s give our kids time to heal.’”

The crowd at Saturday’s rally prays before the first of several speakers takes the stage.

Another rally was held Sunday afternoon at Chilhowee Park, this one focused on giving youths directly affected by violence a chance to voice their concerns, organizers said.  “We have to remember what we’re fighting for and we’re fighting for the kids. We’re fighting for a whole generation of people who truly really want to be heard and they deserve that,” said London Warrington, who described herself as a concerned mother.

Activists said that protests and rallies will continue through the week or until the tapes are released and the community’s questions answered.  One such protest is planned to start at 6 p.m. today in front of the City County Building. 

Protesters carry a Black Lives Matter banner Friday near downtown Knoxville.

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on April 19, 2021.