Lawsuit filed claims Beale Street Bucks is racist

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A particularly violent year on Beale Street saw some reprieve last summer when a cover charge of sorts was added to the street.

However, Beale Street Bucks did not come without controversy and now it's at the center of a lawsuit.

Safety is top of mind with 356 crimes on Beale in 2016.

WMC Action News 5 obtained records that reveal crimes committed almost every day--from weapons getting inside safety barriers to terrifying stampedes.

Out of last year's crimes on Beale, 115 of those crimes targeted  ' physical person and/or property along the two-block entertainment district.

Out of those committed, 27 were violent crimes that included murder, kidnapping, and forcible rape.

"In a growing world that is consistently uncertain, we've had to face some challenges with security," Ken Taylor, a spokesperson for the Beale Street Merchant's Association, said.

With 74 percent of violent crimes on Beale Street last year happening between midnight and 5 a.m., Taylor said the association's answer was Beale Street Bucks.

"We had to come up with a situation where we could thin crowds out," he said.

Visitors paid $10 dollars to enter Beale on Saturdays between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. the next morning. In return, they received a $7 dollar voucher to spend on the street. Three dollars went to administrative costs to run the program.

Police said crime on Beale Street dropped 30 percent. However, Beale Street Bucks has its critics.

"It's just unfair to the citizens of Memphis to have to pay to come on a street they have already paid for," Lucille Catron said.

Catron, a representative for the Beale Street Development Corporation, said one specific demographic frequents the street during those late night hours on Saturdays.

"To me, it's targeting African-Americans," Catron said.

She calls Beale Street Bucks racist and is now suing the merchants and other downtown entities for what she says is double taxation.

"If you're going to charge, why not charge all day? You wait until 10 o'clock at night and basically that's African-Americans," she said. "That's when they come."

Attorney Carol Chumney is representing Catron, Beale Street visitors who were asked to pay, and others in a federal class action lawsuit.

"You have the right to walk down a public street in America," Catron said. "That's part of the First Amendment."

The lawsuit also alleges violation of due process and that any money collected should be turned over to the public. The merchants have been tight-lipped about the lawsuit until now.

"When people come to Beale Street, we ask them two questions 'Do you have a weapon' and 'Are you over the age of 18'," Taylor said. "There are other entities owned by the city and state that actually charge a fee. So, with that being said, it's not a racist program at all."

Beale Street Bucks will soon be reinstated.

"We drove crime down by 30 percent. That's unheard of and really allows us to be seen as a national model for other entertainment districts around the country," Taylor said. "That absolutely cannot be ignored and is something that will make us look at that program again as we move into our event season coming up again in the spring and summer."

As the various stakeholders battle it out, the police director says he will continue his focus on safety--working with other law enforcement agencies to put more boots on the ground and stay the course.

"If it makes our citizens safe, I don't care what they call it," MPD Director Mike Rallings said. "My priority is to keep people safe."

Rallings said if anyone has another suggestion and a better way, he is all ears.

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