“We all need you to lead”

An image of Anthony Thompson Jr. is projected onto a downtown building Wednesday night by protesters.

It’s been 18 days since Anthony Thompson Jr. was shot and killed by Knoxville Police Department officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School.

Most of those days have been marked by protests, and organizers have vowed they will continue until they have “justice” for the teen’s death, meaning that the officers involved are arrested and the City makes sweeping changes.

On Tuesday, nearly 200 of Thompson’s classmates at Austin-East staged a walkout and marched downtown to protest at the City-County Building.

Later that evening, activists’ views on Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas were further soured when Thomas refused to discuss the department’s use-of-force policies during a steering committee meeting for the school system.

Wednesday saw a group of demonstrators use a projector to cast giant images of a slideshow condemning Thompson’s death onto buildings downtown.

Protesters march out of Thursday’s meeting of City Council. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

But the real fireworks came Thursday during a City Council workshop on housing that was attended by dozens of activists. Other than a few jeers and fists in the air, things were relatively calm until a succession of protesters turned the public forum period into a furious half-hour attack on council members. 

Carrie Hopper, one of seven protesters arrested at an April 19 meeting of County Commission, said she grew up in West Knoxville and was taught that police officers existed to protect her and other citizens. She claimed that she later met people from different backgrounds and had a personal experience that changed her mind. 

Ever since bodycam videos of the shooting were released and the officers were cleared by the TBI and DA’s Office, protesters have insisted on a different interpretation of the footage. Hopper went on to describe to City Council what she and other activists see when they watch the videos.

Carrie Hopper addresses City Council. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

“We can see from one of the officers’ bodycam footage that as a KPD officer stuck his hand inside Anthony Thompson Jr.’s jacket pocket …. Anthony Thompson Jr. was clearly trying to get his own arm out of the jacket pocket to comply with the officers,” Hopper said. 

“During this struggle, the gun inside Anthony Thompson Jr.’s jacket pocket misfired, and KPD used that as justification to murder a 17-year-old inside a public high school bathroom,” she continued. “A student witness, Anthony Thompson Jr.’s friend, was then forced to the ground and handcuffed while screaming and begging for the officers to help save his friend’s life.  Instead, one officer went to the sink and washed his hands.”

Marie Essary, a Central High School student, reflected upon the trauma experienced by the students of Austin-East this semester. 

“A really traumatic thing happened to them. These students have laid five of their classmates to rest since the beginning of the semester. They are fighting for justice, burying their classmates and being shoved into state testing rooms all at the exact same time,” Essary said. 

“They have trauma and they need resources immediately. Way more immediately than the need to take a state test that doesn’t count for your class average. They need support. Austin-East needs support. I need support from Central High School. Knox County needs support. 

“We all need you to lead right now.”

Marie Essary speaks to City Council. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

David Hayes, an activist who recently announced his candidacy for City Council District 1, used his forum time to place the blame for the violence in the Austin-East community on the city government. 

“The death of Anthony Thompson Jr. is a part of the failure of every single one of you,” Hayes said. “All of you have blood on your hands not only for the death of him, but for the death of all five Austin-East students.”  

Hayes explained that he feels the city’s  elected representatives carry a burden of guilt due to a lack of investment and support for the community. Hayes cited as evidence of this culpability the city’s lack of affordable housing, the 60-million-dollar police budget in place of money being spent on programs to help youth and the council’s refusal to commit to funding Councilperson Seema Singh’s recent resolution to greatly increase funding for intervention and prevention programs. 

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

Published on April 30, 2021