EDITORIAL: An open letter to DA Charme Allen

Knox County DA Charme Allen


Until today, Hard Knox Wire hasn’t taken an editorial position on any of the issues that we cover. 

The recent shooting death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. has, however, forced our hand.

The following is an open letter to Charme Allen, the Knox County District Attorney General:

General Allen,

When I took on the responsibility of editing a news publication a couple of months ago, I knew that I would eventually have to make some tough ethical decisions on what to cover and how to do it. I had no idea that I’d have to make so many, so quickly, with so much potential for harm.

I can only imagine how you must feel, with the weight of an entire community’s hopes, prayers and sins thrust upon your shoulders. It must be an awful burden to carry on the best of days, and these days are surely among the darkest you’ve known.

I am, as you surely know, one of the many journalists who have asked that the bodycam footage from Austin-East be released. I cited the state’s Public Records law when doing so and, as expected, the request was turned down. 

I’m going to try a different tactic now, person-to-person, citizen-to-citizen — I’m going to beg. 

That’s right. I’m going to throw dignity to the wind, and beg you to reconsider. After all, my dignity is by far the least valuable thing at issue right now. As is yours, for the record.

Our dignity is as nothing compared to the lives, or the deaths, of children.

I don’t know you, General Allen. I don’t think we’ve spoken, except once during a Zoom interview. From what I’ve observed, however, I imagine it’s terribly difficult for you to even contemplate doing something that you believe is contrary to the Law. I respect that position, even when I don’t agree with it. The Law is vital to our functioning as a society, and it’s often the only way that an ideal like “Justice” can be said to exist in this world. 

Often, but not always.

There is surely a temptation here. We all sometimes want to dig in our heels and proclaim, “Upon this hill I stand and die.” Our culture romanticizes absolute stands like that; it lauds heroes who refuse to bend, and it despises those who compromise, no matter how principled. 

Don’t make your stand upon this hill, I beg you.

It’s true that the relationship between KPD and the Black community isn’t great these days. But — prior to Monday’s incident — it was far, far better than it was in the 1980s or, God forbid, the dark days of late 1997. KPD has made truly immense strides toward transparency and reducing the amount of violence that occurs between its officers and the citizens of Knoxville. It has made things better. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much better, but I had the honor of researching and writing a series of articles several years ago that tried to do exactly that. KPD — like any human institution— will never be perfect, but please trust me when I say the progress made by KPD has been, to say the least, impressive. To some of us who can remember the KPD of our youth, in fact, it seems almost miraculous.

Please, trust me when I say that all of that progress is in imminent danger of being destroyed.

You could, of course, ignore this plea. You could reason — as some prosecutors and judges do — that whatever the Law seems to say at the moment is more important than all other considerations. 

You could continue to hold on to the videos. After all, if the Law says that it’s okay for a community that’s been trod upon for generations to lose what little faith they have in the system, who are you to question it? If the Law says that it’s okay for Knoxville to be torn apart like Minneapolis and other cities where the trust between the community and law enforcement was allowed to rot until it collapsed under the weight of mutual loathing, who are you to stop it?

 Or you could remember something from an equally venerable tradition which teaches that morality is all about Love, and ask yourself whether Love would ever allow such outcomes for the sake of the Law.

After all, according to this other tradition, the Law is cursed. But Love is not.

I beg you to act now from Love, and not from obedience to words that change every time the Legislature or the Supreme Court meets. I know you’re concerned about tainting evidence, but I can’t recall a case in Tennessee where a police video was ruled inadmissible just because it was shown to the public before trial. I think you’re selling yourself a bit short. I’m quite confident that an attorney of your skill can, if you try hard enough, come up with an argument to support releasing the videos that you can make in good faith.

Think of where we, as a community, have been in the past, where we are today, and where we could be going tomorrow. 

I beg you, please act from Love. Please listen to our police chief.  Please listen to the officers she leads. Please listen to the residents of not only East Knoxville, but all of Knoxville. Our community just paid out $5 million for just this contingency, to ensure that our community would not be torn apart by rumor because the facts should now be plain for everyone to see. 

Please, Ms. Allen. I beg you. 

Act from Love, and release the footage.

J.J. Stambaugh, editor 

Hard Knox Wire

April 16, 2021