People hate Memphis. People that live here hate it; people that visit here hate it. People trash talk Memphis. People vow to move away from Memphis. Aside from a very few devotees, this city just can’t catch a break. That’s not to say there aren't good reasons for the animosity.
Memphis is a big, dirty city with a low education threshold, highly impoverished population, and a government that ranges from inept to corrupt. Violence runs rampant through our streets; with even the smallest of disagreements leading to gunplay. Racial divides segregate our citizens in every possible way. It seems that this is a city of lost hope.
On July fourth, my friends and I went to the South Bluffs to watch the annual fireworks show above Mud Island. The sky was initially cloudy, though it eventually gave way to a brilliant sunset. Families lay on blankets, or sat in their folding chairs. A few people had portable grill, and were cooking hamburgers and hot dogs. Children ran around, waving their neon lit necklaces, swords, and toy guns that were on sale. For a while, everyone seemed to be having a great time.
The first sign of trouble came from young teenagers who were throwing firecrackers. For a laugh, they would light them up, and toss them into a group of people. Screams would be heard, people would jump away, and then…laughter. It was a juvenile, and somewhat dangerous, stunt, but no one was hurt.
From our position, we could see the river, the M shaped bridge, and the recently completed Beale Street Landing. Built into the bluffs, the Landing is a modern building which houses restrooms, drink machines, and food vendors. People were huddled around the space as rain trickled for a few minutes. Others, used the restroom facilities, or stood on the grass above the building. The scene was so beautiful, that I even took a couple of photographs to post on social media sites. Once the rain stopped, I was beginning to enjoy myself. And then, people started running.
Just as the sun was setting, scores of people came running out of the Landing building. There were yells and screams; everyone camped out on the Bluffs stood to watch the commotion. Was it firecrackers? Was it a gun? Within minutes, the police arrived and closed the Landing.
“What a perfect use of taxpayer money,” I muttered to my girlfriend. “We spend all this money on something that will be shut down every time a group of people get together near it.”
Though I didn’t know it at the moment, it soon became apparent how dangerous the situation was becoming. Loud gossip about firecrackers slowly became quiet whispers about a shooting. As the police pushed everyone away from the Landing, and back up towards the bluff, a horde of young teens (13-17 year olds) burst through the crowds of families.
One kid ran as dozens of others chased him. Parents dropped to the ground, and shielded their children from possible gunfire. Everyone was screaming “Get down!” Children, who had been oblivious to all but their toys, were suddenly whisked behind trash cans. Their cries of terror rose above the horrified gasps of their parents.
The teens caught up to their target and started attacking him. The mob seized upon him, kicking and punching. The entirety of the police presences was located at the bottom of the hill, still attempting to close off the Landing. People ran to the edge and yelled for the police to come up. After a few moments, they did. The kids instantly broke up and ran towards the back alleys not far away. At the same time, we learned that someone had been shot in front of the Landing. The ambulance arrived to take him away as police searched the streets for possible suspects.
By now, it was fully dark. Many of the families packed up their chairs and blankets and left. Those of us who stayed were looking over our shoulders, watching teenagers who moving slowly through the crowd. There were suspicious glances, and hushed speculation about which of them were carrying guns in the back of their pants. The tension was palpable. Many tried to deflect the fear with humor; however the laughter was nervous and self-conscious.
We were finding out that there had been three possible shootings in the area. The one by the Landing may, or may not, have been connected to two others in the streets surrounding the bluffs, as well as the fight that had just occurred. Though we wouldn't find out until later, the victim at the bottom of the hill had been a 13 year old boy. (Luckily, he was taken away in “non-serious” condition.)
With the entire crowd on edge, and police patrolling the area, many people began to wonder if the fireworks were even going to be happening. Local news stations had posted that the show would be starting just after sundown. Other sites listed the time as 9:45.
At this point, I was tired, had a headache, and was ready to just go home. I was wet with rain, and fed up with the entire situation. I have never been much a fan of Independence Day, anyway. Being dragged into an unruly downtown crowd was not helping matters, at all. We pondered packing all of our stuff up as well, when suddenly….the fireworks started.
High above our heads, bursts of colors formed spherical shapes. They exploded into heavenly bodies; the actual sound followed a split second behind. The blasts followed one after the other. Without warning, bright towers of light spewed from below, showering the sky with pinpoints of sparkles.
The children in the audience stared at the sky; each laughing and clapping. The crowd “oooohed” and “awwwed” at the same time. Rounds of applause punctuated the particularly brilliant parts of the show. For a moment, I looked around. I noticed that the entire group was looking up. No one was watching the person next to them. No one was scanning the teenagers for weapons. Even the police lights and sirens had seemed to vanish. Perhaps, like the fireworks themselves, it was just an illusion, but it was a beautiful one.
Behind our group, I could hear a child who was especially enjoying the show. He would make wondrous comments to his family, and go nuts for each explosion. Then, in a statement that carried more weight than he could ever know, he yelled “I love you, fireworks!”
Though this kid had been near a shooting, witnessed a beating, and possibly been shielded by a trash can or parent, his attention was on the beauty in front of him. Maybe he would grow up to hate Memphis. Maybe he would trash talk it, or lament the bloodshed later as an adult. However, in that moment, he decided to love his city, and remember the spectacle before his eyes. At that moment, I think most of us in my group did, too.