Friday, August 22, 2014

Recap of last night's North Nashville town hall meeting on concerns about police after Ferguson

Last night I left my daughter's school orientation events early to attend the "town hall" meeting at Mount Zion Baptist Church on Jeff St. I arrived 30 minutes before it was supposed to start. That was a good thing because the pews of the sanctuary were nearly full by 7:15. They had an overflow crowd in their fellowship hall in the basement to watch a video feed.

There was a panel of African American community leaders and Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson. Those are the folks who did most of the speaking. Police commanders and other cops filled the choir loft while the candidates for mayor and other elected officials not on the program sat in audience at the front.

Meeting organizer, Bishop Joseph Walker, told the audience that the Mt. Zion meeting is the first time in the US that the protests over Michael Brown's death have moved out of the street and into a building for discussion with police and other leaders.

I sat next to a woman from South Nashville who told me that the event had been announced in church at Mt. Zion last Sunday. As far as I know, the mainstream news media did not announce it until Wednesday. What kind of crowds would have shown up if the announcement had gone out across the city over the weekend?

The predominantly white mainstream print and broadcast media looked like it was in full force, so you can probably read or listen to major details and talking points any place today. I'll stick with my own impressions here.

The first thing I have to say about the meeting was that it was a bona fide town hall complete with comments and questions from the audience. It was not a faux community meeting along the lines of the Mayor's bus rapid transit plan or a planning meeting where the only way you can have your questions answered is if you write them down on a permission slip. It was not a NashvilleNext "lounge" designed to lure hipsters and Millennials. It was unadorned, free-style, old-school town hall, which was fine with me. Democracy is messy business.

Beyond meeting logistics the takeaway for me is that Chief Steve Anderson was the main focus of the meeting. I was there until about 8:45 and Chief Anderson took the brunt of questions from the panelists and from the audience on what Metro cops would do if faced with the same events as they unfolded in Ferguson and on how Metro Police are working internally and with the community to prevent racism and brutality.

His department received praise, criticism, questions and notes of caution.

He handled himself serviceably. And I got the impression from audience and panelist responses that people were satisfied with his answers. Chief Anderson opened his comments with a list of mistakes he thought Ferguson police made, the most important one: failing to diffuse the situation two weeks ago when Mike Brown was shot dead (to be specific, he was shot six times, twice to the head) by a cop and kept in the street for hours afterward. The chief also said that not releasing shooting officer Darren Wilson's name immediately was a lapse. "Within the hour there should have been a statement," he told the audience. He described the way that the police handled the aftermath as appearing to be a conspiracy. He argued that they should have been more transparent from the beginning.

However, his ostensible list of mistakes did not include any mention of use of military equipment by police in protest situations. I was troubled by that.

In his comments on how the police would handle protests after police shootings, Chief Anderson told the audience that his department would meet with community leaders before the protests in order to cover organizing and coordination. He said something about "wanting to be with" peaceful protesters. He said that he would allow protesters to break "some of the law" by marching in the streets as long as community leaders understood that the police would maintain order at the end of the day.

Again he had the opportunity to address the use of military weapons on innocent protesters, but did not.

Finally, after a representative from Pacify Nashville read off a list of military weapons that Metro Police could use on the community, Chief Anderson spoke to the problem; but only after he read a list of the ways that military equipment had been used in the 2010 flood and in other emergency situations to help people in distress. It came across to me as dancing around the problem. The real issue here is that the weapons are designed for the battlefield. The possibility of using them against strikes and marches flips social protest to war. They were not designed for less grisly pursuits.

The police chief said that he would not use military equipment in the community "unless absolutely necessary." He only elaborated by saying that police would use it to protect property and life. Then again, the St. Louis County cops would probably argue that they only used it because it was absolutely necessary to protect Ferguson property and life last week as they were gassing residential areas from armored vehicles. The Pacify Nashville rep asked him point blank and the police chief seemed to be reserving the right to use them. Can you imagine a natural disaster where sound cannons like the ones used to drive away Ferguson protesters would be needed by the Metro Police? I cannot.

You can jump to a list, culled by the New York Times a few months ago, of the $4 million in military toys Metro Police has to play with. It is one thing to have an armored truck for use in authentic hostage situations; it is quite another to own a $600,000 "mine-resistant vehicle" and to reserve the right to use it to protect property during social protests. When was the last time Metro Police had to deal with mines?

In the end, I was left with the impression that we are just supposed to trust that the police won't viciously use the military weapons according to the purpose for which they were made. Is trusting the police good enough for the North Nashville community?

UPDATE: Pacify Nashville posted a video of the question they posed to Steve Anderson as well as his response. You will see that as Pacify Nashville read the list of military weapons in the question, gasps and shouts from the audience became louder. After Pacify Nashville asked Chief Anderson to define "strikes and riots" as situations that allow military weapons to be used, the audience applauded in response before the Chief's reply.

Clearly there is great concern in the community about weapons that allow police to scale up police brutality with military weapons. Military weapons do nothing to promote community policing and civil contact with neighborhoods. If there is a committee formed between the police and local citizens in the aftermath of Ferguson, it needs to come up with proper guidelines on the acquisition and use of military weapons by police departments. At some level, Metro Police will have to demilitarize if they want to earn the trust of the community.

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