"We Can't Wait": An Interview with Memphis Mayoral Candidate Tami Sawyer

In 2016 and 2017, educator, organizer, and Howard Law School Graduate Tami Sawyer was in her mid thirties, helping to lead #TakeEmDown901 — one of the most significant and successful organizations in the national push to remove public statues and landmarks commemorating Confederates and white supremacists, including Nathan Bedford Forrest. The organization quickly found itself taking on a historically white, male power structure in Memphis led in part by Mayor Jim Strickland. The success of #TakeEmDown901 to remove these statues in the face of a century of established state and local laws and organizations designed to protect them remains a remarkable achievement. Consistent media coverage of the struggle led to rumors of a Mayoral run by Sawyer to challenge Strickland. She quickly squashed these rumors, however, calling them a “political ploy” to make the organization’s work seem disingenuous or self-interested. She also noted the challenges she would face by low voter turnout.

But like much of the former Confederacy, Memphis is dominated by voters of color (63 percent Black) and women (52 percent), suggesting the potential of candidates like Sawyer to compete for the necessary 50 to 60 thousand votes needed to secure the Mayoral election. In 2018, Tami Sawyer shifted her focus to a different political office — County Commissioner — and was overwhelmingly elected by securing a whopping 81 percent of votes cast. A year later she is poised to challenge the incumbent Mayor Strickland to become the first woman ever to lead the city.

We caught up to the accomplished activist and County Commissioner to discuss her historic run and the challenge of feminist and anti-racist struggle in terrain of southern electoral politics.

William Armaline: How would you describe the greatest challenges facing the City of Memphis and why is there a clear message of urgency (“We Can’t Wait”) in your campaign. Who is the “we”? Tami Sawyer: Memphis is continuing to struggle with intergenerational poverty. Our city is widely known for BBQ, Blues, Elvis Presley, and for being the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated. And in the 51 years since Dr. King was assassinated here, our poverty levels for our children are the same as they were 51 years ago. That’s one of the biggest challenges — the impacts of intergenerational poverty and segregation.

Our schools and our communities have re-segregated. Our racial wealth gap is very wide, and Black families are just trying to make ends meet. Couple that with the fact that we have one of the fastest growing Latinx populations in the south. So we also have to figure out how to support our immigrant families — many of whom are undocumented in a city that has not figured out how to stand up for them and protect them.

Our “urgency” stems from the fact that we have leadership that does not address the issues that Memphians are facing, by any means. Up until 2 years ago, our Greater Memphis Business Chamber had listed on their website, “bring your business to Memphis, we pay the lowest wages in the country.” We’ve allowed for predatory businesses to pay less than a living wage, we have allowed for the highest amount of payday lenders in the state — all of these things show that very little has been done to protect the people of this city.

Most of the poverty and financial challenges stem directly from families that made it through slavery and Jim Crow. Because we won’t address these issues and we won’t address the racism — explicit and implicit, especially in our policies and how we spend money in our city — it’s only going to get worse if we don’t get honest about it now.

Armaline: You’re vocal about wanting to continue the legacies of Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King in your organizing and candidacy. What about your Mayoral platform best demonstrates a dedication to economic justice and anti-racism? How should we see Hamer and King in your platform?

Sawyer: I look at our educational system and our economic system and they are two things that have to be urgently redirected. Our economic equity platform addresses the number of businesses that can contract with the city and will attempt to have a percentage of minority and women business owners that more accurately reflect the makeup of Memphis. Memphis is about 63 percent Black and 52 percent women, but [Black and women-owned businesses] have yet to crack 20 percent. And when you think about how the numbers are broken down, only 10% of businesses working with the city are Black owned.

It’s important because when these businesses get city contracts they’re able to hire people who live where you live and people get more opportunities in their own communities. So one of the things that we’ve committed to at the campaign is a 30% minimum Minority and Women Business Enterprise investment… [and] initiatives to support more small business development, knowing that Black women open and close businesses quicker than any other demographic, and Black businesses especially struggle to make it through their first year.

How do we use city dollars to invigorate and incubate Black businesses — especially those who want to open in economically distressed parts of our city — so that we’re not only helping businesses grow, but they’re growing in a way where those dollars directly impact the revitalization of neighborhoods naturally without giving way to displacement or gentrification?

Armaline: While it is both notable and impressive that you are vying to be the first woman elected Mayor in the city of Memphis, how do you plan to fight for the rights and livelihoods of women and girls in your city as women in states all over the country face incredible challenges to their sexual reproductive and economic rights?

Sawyer: Even though women have been in leadership in different ways, a woman elected to office making history in a time such as ours is a first step for women and girls in Memphis. It gives them something to look up to and a story that they can hold on to — that we can break barriers. I’m told every day that I shouldn’t be running for Mayor: “There are better men.” “There are older women.” “Go have a family first — then come back when you’re 50.”

Armaline: A little patriarchy sprinkled in there for you. Sawyer: [laughing] VERY patriarchal. I mean, this race has unleashed all kinds of patriarchy and misogyny. As a commissioner I experience it, but… People have more access to be able to say anything, and they say it in a serious way: “I’m trying to help you.” You know? And they believe that. Culturally it’s still the South, and even as the South gets more liberal and more progressive and younger, you still have barriers to break that will exist for a long time. There are girls and young women younger than me who are entering into non-profit work and entering into politics, and they’re asking me, “How do I overcome this patriarchy? I want to go back to DC or New York.” Seeing someone they know have the opportunity to do those things stay and fight.

If I don’t stay and fight, they don’t stay and fight. And if they don’t stay and fight, everyone who can will start to leave. We’re changing the narrative by saying we’re not going to accept this.

But then on your larger point — we have been complicit in our silence and in our acceptance of reproductive rights in our state. In Tennessee, it’s illegal to teach any sexual education except for abstinence-based education. But Memphis has the highest rate of new HIV cases in the state — we’re constantly at high rates of HIV infection and teen pregnancy. It comes down to a lack of education. If, for generations, that kind of information has not been provided or advocated for, then your parents can’t teach you if they don’t know either. So one thing we’re talking about doing is increasing the reproductive health information available to young girls and boys.

Schools can’t teach it, but that doesn’t mean that a city can’t launch a campaign to make sure that families — including their children — are educated about sexual and reproductive health. We have a huge opportunity as a city to educate everyone to reduce the amount of infections and teen pregnancies.

But, we also don’t hand out tampons at schools because we’re afraid kids are going to play with them instead of use them. It’s back to that patriarchy. We can’t give girls pads in their bathrooms because they might stick ‘em on lockers. But how many girls [1 in 5 in the US] stay out of school because they don’t have sanitary napkins or something like that? That’s another part of my platform — getting girls and women what they need to go to school or to go to work. If you elect a woman who is on the right side of these issues — at least from my point of view — you get the opportunity to advocate for them. Everything’s not about making a law, but we don’t have a Mayor right now that’s going to talk about menstruating or access to those products. But I’m a sitting Commissioner who has a cycle every month in a building that does not have these products.

As the highest ranking Black woman in this county, I still have to make sure I can find my own products — and I can advocate for that. Breaking barriers allows these conversations to be had and addressed.

We don’t get to talk about this. This is a very rare opportunity. When I DO talk about misogyny and patriarchy, it’s framed as if, “poor little Tami running for Mayor, she has to deal with the men.” One of my opponents actually told me, “You gotta put your big girl panties on — this is a real race.” I responded by saying, “This conversation is over.” Had I popped off, I then become “loud, radical, emotional, irrational… unable to have a reasonable discourse.”

Armaline: How will you, as Mayor, continue to struggle against white supremacy and racist police violence? Will your relationship to law enforcement as Mayor limit your ability to embody and enact more radical reforms?

Sawyer: That’s hard. We enter into these systems and we want to change them. I came in [as Commissioner] and I asked to be chair of law enforcement. I thought that I would have the chance to be this radical Chairman and change everything. I got a few things done, but most of the time I was approving appropriations. It’s funny because now there are some people showing appropriations as if that means I’m colluding with police and white supremacy because my name is on an appropriations bill for bullets or bullet proof vests — which I have no responsibility for.

It’s not my budget — I’m just the [Committee] Chair. Long story short, it’s interesting what happens when you’ve been on the outside and you come into the inside and your hands get dirty. I never thought my name would be on a bullet appropriation. What I thought I’d be able to do is reduce the cost of phone calls [for the incarcerated], change the fact that we’re arresting people for dime bags. Things like that.

As Mayor I will have the same struggle, but as Mayor I build the coalition. I decide who the police chief is. There are police chiefs across the country who have made statements and are leading their police department in new and different ways. If they’re not willing to do that, they shouldn’t be our police chief here in Memphis.

Community-oriented policing, the Campaign Zero model, many other models — whether tested or theoretical — I think that the people of Memphis deserve for us to try a new way of policing. Does that mean that there won’t be any more police-involved shootings with me as Mayor? No.

But it does mean is that if there is one you know that, number one, I will have the decency to say that person’s name — especially a 19-year-old. Unlike our current mayor, who did not say [Brandon Weber’s] name for three days, and only under pressure. Second, Memphis has yet to charge a police officer for a police-involved shooting. Even when they’re put on leave, when there’s an investigation it’s leave with pay. One of the first cases that I ever led any type of movement work on was the Darrius Stewart case, and the officer who killed him was on leave with pay. Then, eventually, they let him go with a severance package.

I think that the difference is — again — how do you advocate [as Mayor]? You put in people who are also committed to the same changes. We want to reduce crime in Memphis. I want people to be safe in Memphis. I also believe that [crime] is from a lack of educational access and high rates of poverty. I want to address those problems — and I don’t want our police officers pulling in people for broken windows policing. Our current Mayor is advised by Ray Kelly, and rich white people put money together to pay for Kelly’s fees. How do we make sure that every voice is at the table?

Armaline: What is your current strategy to get that done? What is needed to break the historical hold of white power over a largely non-white population in your region? Sawyer: What we do have is a people powered campaign. We’ve been knocking on doors since April.

We’re the only campaign doing coordinated outreach weekly. We’re knocking doors three times a week. As of last week we hit 10,000 doors of the 50,000 we need to win, but we’re planning to reach 80,000 doors — so that will pick up as we get into the last 60 days. We have resources locally and around the country. The Mayor tweeted today that his support is 93 percent from Memphis or Shelby County. They’re doing this to frame the conversation as me being put up to this by those “pesky negro outsiders.” But we’re going to use those resources, because if I live in a city where 51 percent of Black youth are under the poverty line and 40 percent of people in our city are making less than a living wage, we’re not going to crack a million dollars from the people who want systemic change. So knowing that this movement is bigger than Memphis, we’ve been able to plug in with the people doing this work across the country. Asking, “Can the Black Lives Matter Bus spend some time in Memphis?”

We are almost like a petri dish for the intersection of poverty, blackness, and southern-ness with politics. So I think that the more people pay attention to this race, this is a test case for how we can take back these strongholds. Memphis should not be beholden to rich, conservative, white males — yet we are. They deem what is politically correct. They keep people quiet.

About the Author

William Armaline is the founding director of the Human Rights Program and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San José State University. As an interdisciplinary scholar and public intellectual, Armaline’s interests, applied work, and scholarly publications address social problems as they relate to political economy, environmental sustainability, racism and anti-racist action, critical pedagogy and transformative education, inequality and youth, mass incarceration, and drug policy reform.