Two Black men, at the center of Memphis mall ‘hoodie arrest,’ prepare for their day in court
The charges against Kevin McKenzie and Montavious Smith have not been dropped yet.
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Under the dark of night, 17-year old, Trayvon Martin was cloaked in a hoodie as he embarked from his father’s fiancée’s townhouse to get snacks at a local store in Sanford, Florida.
We know he never made it home, tragically losing his life because he was considered suspicious and dangerous. Since then, the hoodie has taken on a different meaning; a seemingly soft, comfortable, and classic pullover when worn by spiffy young, white men, but an ominous, secretive, and threatening cloak when worn by Black men of the same age. The hoodie has become one of the most politicized pieces of clothing in modern day fashion, coming under great scrutiny and debate on both sides of the racial line.
On a cold evening in early November, 22-year-old Montavious Smith was at Wolfchase Galleria Mall in Memphis, Tenn. with friends when they were reportedly stopped and told to remove their hooded sweatshirts and jackets based on a vague and non-existent policy that considers neither “appropriate attire” for the mall.
When the young men refused, the group were told to leave. Montavious Smith, however, returned to the mall because something did not sit well with him about the situation. He said the police’s actions felt racially targeted and he imagined this is what it felt like to be Black during the Civil Rights era.
“Things are still the same in spite of the things that happened in the past,” Smith said in an exclusive interview with theGrio. “…how is it that we’re still getting the same treatment?”
When he re-entered the mall, Montavious Smith was immediately arrested by Memphis police officers who were also working as mall security. The incident was caught on camera by 59-year old, retired journalist Kevin McKenzie who saw Smith being arrested and said the young men were treated like “criminals in waiting.”
“I am primed to stand up,” said Kevin McKenzie from his home in Memphis. “With the rise of Trump, the Alt-Right and an above board embrace of racism at the highest levels of this country…the power of video cameras [on a phones] have shown white America what Black America has always known. They can either believe or never believe, but with a video, the camera doesn’t lie.”
McKenzie was also arrested in the confrontation along with Smith and the two were charged with criminal trespassing; a class C misdemeanor.
In an exclusive statement provided to theGrio, Wolfchase Galleria, owned by Simon Property Group, expressed their sincere commitment “to providing a safe and welcoming environment” for patrons and explicitly stated that hoodies are not banned in their malls.
“We recognize now that the incident on November 3 has raised issues that we are addressing with input from leaders in the community. Wolfchase Galleria is a place for all to come together and we are committed to doing everything we can to make sure our community is inclusive for all.”
While the mall’s code of conduct is under review, the criminal charges have not been dropped against either man.
The Statement of What You Wear
The policing of clothing has reached beyond codes of conduct in public spaces and found its way into city ordinances that have disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx males. They are commonly also monitored and vilified for wearing sagging pants or bandanas.
Angela J. Davis, professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law and author of Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment, says policies and laws escalate interactions between police and people of color, ultimately funneling Black men into a criminal justice system that is inherently racist and dangerous.
“In too many cases, these incidents of racial profiling result in the deaths of innocent Black men and boys,” said Davis. “These young men were doing nothing illegal, nor were they in violation of the mall policy. This was clearly a case of racial profiling.”
A national study published in the Boston University Law Review researched trends in criminal misdemeanors over the last two decades. The study revealed that “states that had large minority populations and lower levels of income and education tended to have higher misdemeanor case-filing rates.”
As the second poorest metropolitan city in America, the actions of the Memphis Police are in direct correlation between the use of misdemeanors in policing and controlling people of color in public spaces.
Davis says the power to change such abuses begins with the community.
“The Memphis community deserves better and should hold the mall security officers and the Memphis Police Department accountable for their actions,” she said. “Cops have almost boundless power and discretion to stop, search, and harass individuals and they constantly abuse that power and discretion with Black men and boys.”
The study goes on to say how misdemeanor courts lack formality and Black defendants often do not have legal representation.
Fortunately for Smith, his case has been taken up by high profile attorney, Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, who has represented the likes of rock legend Mick Jagger, hip-hop icon Jay-Z, and NBA player Matt Barnes. Several of their charities have stood behind Smith.
In an exclusive phone interview with theGrio from his New York office, Spiro said he is confident that he will clear Smith’s case with a win despite being thrust into the national spotlight.
“He’s fortunate that people backed him and found him a lawyer, so he’s also not facing the normal cost of a legal battle,” said Spiro. “Obviously, the degradation of going through this process, the disruption of his life, the attendant media attention, it’s a distraction to his progress and growth and his ability to work.”
Overall, Spiro said that cases like this that garner national attention is just one way to stop the trend of policing Blacks who are just out living their daily lives.
“His case obviously stands on its own and he’ll be vindicated ultimately and that’s a good thing. But, the media attention and people paying attention to these issues…does change the system over time.”
A Watchful Eye
Smith has a tremendous amount of gratitude for McKenzie, a Black man who bore witness and shared in the trauma of the arrest. The two men continue to keep in touch after the arrest and recently sat down to talk about the impact of this unfortunately shared experience.
“He changed the way I felt about this situation. I thank him for doing that for me and [helping me recognize] that this is a case of racial profiling,” said Smith of his talks with Kevin McKenzie.
“I thank everybody behind me, my lawyer, Roc Nation, Yo Gotti, the NBA Foundation.”
Smith aspires to join the ranks of Memphis activists working to dismantle racial injustice and inequity by sharing his story with others.
He believes it’s up to the next generation to take a stand and join the front lines to the fight for justice.
“People my age need to stand up for ourselves, and if they feel like they have their rights, [then] they will feel like they have their freedom as well.”
Smith goes back to trial on January 11.
Melonee Gaines is the owner and lead maven of MPact Media Group, a digital media and public relations consulting firm and has worked as a freelance journalist with MLK50.com, The Crisis Magazine, and High Ground News. She has also worked in higher and secondary education for 12 years. Follow her food and travel exploits on IG @meloneedg.