MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The mayor of Memphis said Thursday that he shares the frustration of protesters angry with the death of a handcuffed black man during a confrontation with a white police officer in Minnesota.
But Mayor Jim Strickland said he wishes more people would have observed coronavirus-related social distancing at a demonstration at a police precinct.
"I wish last night's protesters would have all had on masks, been six feet apart, and gone through the proper channels to ensure everyone's safety," Strickland said in a statement Thursday. "By not doing so, protesters and our officers were unnecessarily put at risk."
A racially mixed group of more than 70 people gathered outside the precinct in Midtown Memphis then walked down Union Avenue on Wednesday night to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Police set up barricades and blocked the avenue, a main Memphis thoroughfare, and later donned riot gear as the situation became increasingly tense and raucous late into the night.
The protest lasted for about four hours. It ended with five arrests but no visible property damage or reports of injuries.
The Democratic Party in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, said it was officers who put lives in danger by placing them behind barricades and failing to stay 6 feet away from protesters and each other.
"The presence of COVID-19 does not weaken or destroy citizens' constitutional right to peacably assemble," said Michael Harris, chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party.
Protesters were voicing their anger over Floyd's death in Minneapolis. Four police officers have been fired and investigations are underway after a white police officer was seen on video kneeling against the neck of Floyd, who was handcuffed and complained that he could not breathe. The city's mayor has called for the officer to be criminally charged.
Floyd's death has led to violent protests in a Minneapolis neighborhood and demonstrations in other cities, including Los Angeles.
At the Memphis protest, one woman was arrested after she "physically assaulted" an officer, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said in a statement.
Four other people were arrested on charges including disorderly conduct, obstructing a highway and inciting a riot. A permit for the protest was never requested, city spokesman Dan Springer said.
In his statement, Strickland, who is white, said he and Rallings, who is black, are also frustrated with Floyd's death, as are "all the true police officers — men and women who put on the uniform every day to protect and serve."
Some protesters did not wear face coverings while standing close to each other, violating guidelines put in place by an order governing the city's response to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Protesters held signs and chanted the names of other unarmed black men who have died in confrontations with police officers in the U.S. in recent years, such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Police wearing protective masks stood in a line in the middle of the street in front of the precinct, facing the protesters. Behind the officers and another set of barricades, a white man held a sign that read "Police Lives Matter. Comply. Confederate 901."
The area code of Memphis is 901.
Protesters later moved across the street, closer to the precinct and officers. One man with a loudspeaker directed his words at a group of officers, saying "we're here for justice." They then walked away from the precinct, chanting "no justice, no peace."
Memphis saw its share of protests after the death of Darrius Stewart, a 19-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a white officer during a fight at a traffic stop in July 2015.
A large protest erupted in the Memphis neighborhood of Frayser last June after U.S. Marshals fatally shot 20-year-old Brandon Webber 16 times while trying to arrest him on charges that he shot a man and stole his car.
Gov. Bill Lee told reporters on Thursday said he talked to black leaders and police officials earlier that day, saying that "police brutality is not law enforcement."
"We all agree the situation there represents a very distributing trend across the country," Lee, a Republican, said.
Elsewhere in Tennessee, a police chief had strong words for any officer who supported the actions that led to Floyd's death.
"There is no need to put a knee on someone's neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don't have an issue with this ... turn it in," Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy posted on Twitter on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, WSMV-TV reported that a Greenbrier police officer was placed on unpaid administrative leave following a post on social media about Floyd's death that said "if he was begging ... then he was (blank) breathing. Stupid (blank) ... same old (blank) over and over and over."
The city is investigating, Greenbrier City Manager Rachel Slusser said in an email to News4.