Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Protest in Nashville and the conflict avoiders

It has been an eventful 24 hours on the social protest front. 170 organized protests occurred across the United States in the wake of the grand jury acquittal of Ferguson, MO cop Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown, a teenager.

I-24 shutdown. Photo credit:
Ferguson Grand Jury Candlelight Vigil
One of those protests happened here in Nashville, generated by a Facebook group and expanded after 200 were gathered at the downtown police station last night. How a Tennessean reporter interpreted the next sequence of events:

Then, at Commerce Street and 5th Avenue, around 8:47 p.m., the demonstrators talked among themselves and decided to lie down for the first time. By this time, people were walking from various side streets to join the protesters.

In the middle of one intersection, one woman turned to the protesters, raised her hand and asked: "Are you ready to lay down for Michael Brown? Are you brave enough to lay down for him?"

This scene played out at several intersections along the city, but no instance of protesters moving toward a high-traffic thoroughfare was more dramatic than when protesters left the intersection of Woodland Street and Interstate Drive and started up the entrance ramp to Interstate 24.

The reporter also wrote that the police did not attempt to suppress the demonstrations, but did try to talk protesters out of going on to the interstate to no avail. I-24 was blocked for awhile. Protesters eventually left on their own. Police restraint and nonmilitarism drew the predictable hail of ire from local conservative social media.

So, Metro Police deserve credit for showing protesters respect. Will they continue to do so if protests here reoccur with what will inevitably result in rising pressure from business special interests and red-state conservatives to crack down?

Compare last night's protests and shutdowns to a letter published two days ago by Nashville Unites leader Bishop Joseph Walker, III. I do not see how this letter calls anyone in Nashville--beyond people most likely to take to the streets in protest--accountable for making our city a better place to live. Instead, it seems to single out the protesters and it gives movers and shakers the benefit of the doubt:

A Grand Jury in St. Louis County, Missouri has made its decision. Ferguson Police Office Darren Wilson will not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown. I know this will pain and anger many in America, particularly African Americans. But I implore you to think and pray before you react.

Today, we must reach out, not strike back. Turn your anger into productive energy. Speak up and speak out, but don¹t scream. The physical and verbal violence has got to stop. We have the power to end it by starting substantive conversations in our communities.

Today, think about Jesus's message of peace and understanding. Then put His message into a modern context. Move from the street to the sanctuary ­and bring the entire community with you. Wherever you are in America right now, go to your churches and invite others whom you perceive to be the other to join you. Invite law enforcement in. Invite a broad spectrum of community leaders in ....

We have begun this process in Nashville by forming Nashville Unites. It encourages ongoing dialogue between communities, law enforcement, educational institutions, and governmental and non-governmental organizations. It aims to establish and promote shared goals for a better city. Nashville Unites represents organized momentum towards understanding.

Let today¹s decision out of Ferguson be the day we stop the useless posturing and finger-pointing on all sides. The time has come to reach out and invite each other in.

Unless you have a broad definition of "sanctuary," you would have to confess that last night protesters in Nashville did not heed Bishop Walker's call to bring it into church. Protesters essentially invited police into dangerous roadways to block traffic and temporarily halt commerce, transit and entertainment in the city (not the first time this has happened in Nashville).

And who can blame them? Nashville Unites was formed several months ago. Instead of getting out ahead and being a drum major, that organization has been incremental at best, quiet at worst about police militarization and brutality. It is street-level invisible. Why should protesters feel any need to heed such a letter? They pushed the limits of the possible last night and exercised some power.

Preaching peace where there is no justice is offering sedatives to those who would otherwise organize to claim their place at the table. They have been cut off from opportunities and equal rights. They need leaders who will help them focus anger and frustration in empowering ways rather than deadening the bounce. The Nashville way of politics seems to be: "Let's all act like we get along, collaborate and pretend there are no problems. Those dissenters? Ignore them and they'll stop. Nothing to see here. Move on." Speaking truth to power is highly risky in a city that strives to shield its power networks of patronage with a window-dressing of popular togetherness.

For the first time in a long time, Metro Nashville is starting to get tested by popular protest. It should have been tested by the local Occupy Wall Street movement, but that protest failed to challenge the Courthouse and Chamber of Commerce. I am curious to see whether these demonstrators can keep it up and how the police decide to deal with future shutdowns.

As long as I am ending this post with conflict avoiders, it is worth pointing out that the 2015 mayoral candidates continue to run silent on this question. What will it take for them to come out of hiding?

UPDATE: During an interview with reporters on last week's Nashville Ferguson protest the police chief said that if Nashvillians want to express their thoughts in a public forum "even if it against the government," their 1st Amendment rights will be protected and "be treated fairly by the police officers involved." Asked if Metro Police would "be more assertive" in cracking down on future protests, the chief said that they evaluate each situation individually and "have the most appropriate response possible."  Here is the entire interview:

It is worth noting that the reporters' questions were bent toward assumptions that protesters should be controlled above all else, and they asked no questions about militarization or when police would consider it necessary to use military-style weaponry on nonviolent protesters. It is clear to me that the local news media is bent more toward law and order over justice and protection of rights. They constitute one more source leveraging cops to misbehave and crack down on dissent and on organized interruption of business-as-usual.

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