On September 2, Eliza Fletcher, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher was on a morning run in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, when she was abducted and forced into a black SUV by career criminal Cleotha Abston. Hours later, the entire city was searching for her, only for her body to be found in the rear of an abandoned duplex four days later. From “CNN,” “Fox News,” “The New York Times,” to “USA Today,” this story received coverage all across the nation, and soon, even my family from across the globe had heard about how this cold-blooded man, already having spent 20 years of his 36-year life in prison, had struck again.
While this may seem like ordinary crime news to everyone else, this case has a special connection to me: Eliza Fletcher was a kindergarten teacher at my old school. Even though she never taught me, we were a close-knit community, only 60 people in a grade. I had been tracking the progress of this case and was heartbroken to hear of Ms. Fletcher’s tragic ending minutes after the police released the latest update. I could only relinquish my ongoing spark of false hope that perhaps she was still alive. Since then, two phases have taken place in my life in light of this crime: First, a realization of an ironic love I felt for Memphis, and second, a subsequent self-consolation with the positive outcomes that can ultimately stem from tragedy.
The notion of an “ironic” love had never crossed my mind. Yet, the case of Eliza Fletcher, which took place so emotionally and geographically close to me, made me aware of the rather complicated feelings I had for the city—a warm love existing in a statistically cold place. Having grown up there, I was bound to love the place. Memphis, home to country music, barbecue, whole streets of churches, and historical significance, is a city full of life. And yet, with a population of 1,348,509 and scores of 18,324 violent crimes and 327 total murders in 2020, Memphis is simultaneously deprived of life. A walk in my neighborhood at night could cost me everything.. This year, Memphis is also the city where I have lost my middle school friend, another classmate, my sixth grade math teacher, and now, a kindergarten teacher. I found myself continuing to love a place so filled with bitterness and fatality, a place whose inhabitants so often interact with death. I have no doubt that many in the larger Memphis community harbor this tangled love as well.
However, this double-sided coin presents us with an option. Instead of dwelling in fear, I think it is also important to realize that ironically, it is almost always through tragedy, whether natural or intentional, that humanity is accentuated.
Eliza’s life was taken in an egregious, inconceivably random act of homicide. She was simply running in the morning, practicing her usual routine, without any knowledge of what would happen that Monday. It only took Cleotha Abston an infinitesimal length of time to forever devastate the lives of so many.
Yet, rays of light shone in the dark. Even before Eliza’s passing was announced, I saw hundreds of videos being made of her on TikTok to raise awareness of this case under the hashtag “#ElizaFletcher.” When her news came into the light, I saw my friends, old teachers, and school come together to honor her life. Those days assembled tenderness from the entire community, a group of people collaboratively reacting to and recovering from tragedy.
Several positive outcomes of greater social significance resulted from Eliza Fletcher’s tragedy. First, on September 9 at 4:20 a.m.––the exact time one week after Eliza was abducted––hundreds of runners around the nation gathered to finish the run she could never finish. Cities such as Nashville, Huntsville, Jackson, Mt. Juliet, Memphis, and Pittsburgh took part in this memorial service, “Finish Liza’s Run.” The “Shine Blight” campaign was also ambitiously launched after her murder. Organized by Shelby County commissioner Britney Thornton, the campaign is a three-month-long project focusing on “shining light on blight properties” by identifying and cutting overgrown lawns. Thornton’s inspiration for this project is best encapsulated by a question she posed during an interview with “ActionNews5”: “I wonder, if there was not an abandoned house and overgrown grass in the case of Ms. Fletcher, could this story have been different?” These projects with unique motives demonstrate the capacity for compassion that all of us possess deep in our hearts, and, in this case, a light ironically only able to shine in the dark.
In terms of the city, much action is being taken to make Memphis a safer place to live. A “Safe Community Action Plan” was unveiled in February of 2022 and will span for five years. Instead of modifying property, this project aims at influencing minds and deterring individuals from committing crimes. I can only cross my fingers in hope that in the next decade, we can begin to see Memphis appear less and less on the “Most Dangerous U.S. Cities to Live In” lists.
Our world is like a never-ending game of tug-of-war: whenever one end seems to pull the rope toward one side, an equal but opposite, sometimes even greater, force pulls the rope back to equilibrium. How unfortunate it is that a single cold-blooded soul is more than enough to put the lives of an entire species in jeopardy—but how fortunate we are to have so many working to counter that disruption of equilibrium.