Anti-Israel group shuts down I-40 bridge over Miss. River in Memphis

Anti-Israel activists shut down the only link between Memphis and Arkansas on Feb. 3, calling for an immediate ceasefire and defunding of Israel.

Memphis Voices for Palestine had been rallying at City Hall, and around 3 p.m. walked to the Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40. Because the Interstate 55 bridge is closed for repairs, this was the only bridge connecting Memphis to Arkansas.

The blockage lasted for an hour and a half. Arkansas State Police reported that a woman with a medical emergency was stuck in the traffic, and the troopers were able to get an ambulance to her and had to airlift her to Memphis.

Memphis police arrived around 3:45 p.m. and informed the organizers that they were engaged in an unlawful assembly, and they would need to leave. The protestors said they would have to be forced off the bridge, but as more police arrived around 4:30 p.m., most protestors started to leave. The demonstration ended by 5 p.m.

Organizers had an online fundraiser for bail money in anticipation, but no arrests were made.

Most of those marching onto the bridge were behind a large banner that read “U.S. stop funding Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”

There were chants of “No justice, no peace” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Also chanted was “Resistance is justified when people are occupied,” commonly interpreted as justifying the Hamas invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, where 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed and over 240 abducted into Gaza. About 130 are still in captivity.

The demonstration was livestreamed on memphisvoicesforpalestine. At one point, a person doing the filming confronted an angry motorist, calling her an “ugly a– b—” and suggested she jump off the bridge, then immediately apologized to the online viewers for saying that, explaining that she was hyper and “that was the devil coming out of me.”

Cortney McKee tweeted that a woman on the bridge was trying to get to her baby in the NICU but was stuck on the bridge, which prompted an activist to respond “maybe you should think about the babies that have their limbs removed without anesthesia in Gaza too or is your outrage just selective and performative.”

McKee, who is running for the Arkansas Senate, responded that she supports the ceasefire, saying Netanyahu has been “terrorizing Palestinians unprovoked” and “I sure as hell don’t support the slaughter of innocent men, women and children.”

The group organizing the demonstration also recently posted that the “Memphis Police Department’s oppression of Black Memphians and Israel’s genocide of Palestinians go hand in hand,” citing the “deadly exchange” between the “Israel Occupation Forces” and American police.

The “deadly exchange” was heavily promoted by the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace, which later distanced itself from the campaign, saying it led to antisemitic responses. Activists charge that Israel trains American police forces in techniques to subdue people of color.

The actual police exchanges consist of American officials going to Israel to learn best practices for responding to large-scale catastrophic events, positive relations in diverse communities, and in fighting terrorism. Those collaborations are with Israeli police, not the Israel Defense Forces, which anti-Israel groups refer to as the Israel Occupation Forces.

As for the ceasefire the demonstrators were advocating, on Feb. 4 Hamas rejected the ceasefire deal that was discussed in Paris this week.

On Jan. 23, before this demonstration, Rep. Jody Barrett and Sen. Brent Taylor introduced bills in the Tennessee Legislature that would increase the penalty for intentionally obstructing a highway, street, or other place used for the passage of vehicles or conveyances from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony; and allow a person who suffers loss or injury as a result of such an offense to bring a cause of action against the offender to recover compensatory damages from the loss or injury. “This activity causes financial hardship and creates many potential dangers for the citizenry,” Barrett said.

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders thanked Arkansas law enforcement “for clearing the pro-Hamas protestors blocking one of our state’s busiest bridges.”

She added, “You have a right to free speech. But if you break the law and endanger others, you will go to jail. Arkansas stands with Israel.”

On Jan. 8, anti-Israel activists in New York City shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge and the Holland Tunnel, and 325 were arrested.