Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reflections on the Metro Police Chief's Christmas message

Many here are now well aware of Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson's open letter published the day after Christmas on the news page of the Metro government website (and then in the Tennessean). Since it has gone national, many outside of Nashville have seen it, too.

Perhaps it gets so much attention home and away because of the marked contrast between the Chief's tone and that of police in other places, especially in St. Louis and New York City.

We should positively reinforce accommodating and tolerant stances of police to protesters. Cops should respect freedom of speech, assembly and dissent. Steve Anderson deserves our thanks for acknowledging as much and distancing his department from law-and-order, shoot-first rightwingers who fail to see that even police officers have organized in order to protest, shut down major roadways and expressed civil disobedience when they believed they had the right to.

Perhaps we are so desensitized by cop violence in African American communities, by police donning anti-mine vehicles and military armor to crush popular dissent, and by thin-blue-line hubris in general that we shocked into viral elation by the words of Chief Anderson, which are no more than what we should expect and demand from the police.

While Chief Anderson is getting unqualified praise for his remarkable letter, there are caveats to his arguments and qualifications to the popular response that deserve expression.

Let's start with Chief Anderson's comments in the letter (all in bold from here on) about the peaceful nature of protesters:

Here in Nashville, persons have gathered to express their thoughts in a non-violent manner. I thank all involved for the peaceful manner in which they have conducted themselves .... None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone.

Protesters, while disrupting business-as-usual in downtown Nashville, have indeed been non-violent and MNPD restraint is laudable. However, the Nashville protests have not reached the national notoriety via the news media to attract more opportunists who are drawn to the attention every robust social movement draws:

In every vibrant progressive social movement there comes a moment when a psychologically or emotionally disturbed person, an agent provocateur, or a political extremist commits an atrocious act that is seized upon by the State and/or the political Right as a means of attempting to discredit or outright repress the movement. The action, committed for whatever reason, is sufficiently heinous that confusion develops within the movement and the movement can lose both its momentum as well as a segment of its less committed or more ambivalent supporters.

In his comparison of recent events in NYC to backlash against protest movements in history, Columnist Bill Fletcher, Jr. insists that there will always be those drawn to movements who strive to be vicious regardless of the higher purposes of the protest. In every snowballing protest, extreme and disturbed people attempt to wreak havoc. Nashville has not reached that point, yet. We have not seen violence toward people or property during the protests. Even when state police moved in with their typical heavy hands and stopped protesters from shutting down interstates, protesters restrained themselves.

Photo credit: Ferguson Grand Jury Candlelight Vigil

Let's be fair to other cities. That does not make Music City exceptional when it comes to social protest. It could mean that we have not reached the crisis point or made the progress to gain the visibility that other protests have. When we are rocked to a scale of Greater St. Louis, New York City or Los Angeles and we still don't attract more destructive personalities, then we can claim to be different. The real test for Nashville will come if we are visited by the disturbed, the provocateurs and the extremists.

That is the actual point where police restraint and tolerance will be challenged. We should acknowledge that even as we applaud Metro Police for doing the right thing. If such an unfortunate event were to land in front of Metro Police, would they use it as a pretense to shut down, undermine and attack legitimate protesters (and in the case of Ferguson, innocent neighborhoods)? We do not know yet because we are not there yet. Social protest in Nashville is not currently at a crisis pitch.

Then there was this exchange between a complaining letter writer and Chief Anderson (bolded) about Mayor Karl Dean, which I thought was odd:

I also understand that you get direction from the mayor's office, but these actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens. At some point you are going to have to answer this question to yourself - "Am I following or giving orders that help or hurt the community?" In closing, if these recent actions have been due to pressure from the mayor's office, please reach out to the people of Nashville, there are many who will gladly contact the mayor's office as well ....

While I certainly appreciate your offer to intercede on my behalf with our Mayor, you should know that the Mayor has not issued any order, directive or instruction on the matter with which you take issue.  All decisions concerning the police department’s reaction to the recent demonstrations have been made within the police department and approved by me.  Therefore, any reasons or rationale supporting your proposal as what would be the best approach for all of Nashville, and not just a method of utilizing the police department to enforce a personal agenda, should be directed to me.

I do not claim to know the identity or motives of the emailer to Chief Anderson, but in case the letter was not written in good faith, in case there it was an attempt to drive a wedge between the cops and the mayor, it is worth keeping the specter of partisanship on the table as a motivating factor. There is evidence that the Tea Party, those in the Republican Party establishment and NYPD union leaders have stirred the anti-Mayor de Blasio pot, including organizing conservative cops from all over North America to attend the funeral of Ofc. Rafael Ramos and turn their backs on cue when the Mayor arrived.

Acknowledging how effective the GOP and conservatives are at online organizing, I would not put it past them to encourage one another in the various cities where protests are occurring to try to pries and polarize government executives and police departments. I am positive that red-state Tennessee Republicans are no different.

Does the letter to Chief Anderson reflect party coordination? Maybe not, but it is consistent with the strategy now afoot, the agenda conservatives flash. Karl Dean has widely-acknowledged aspirations to higher office. The complaint letter does not pass the smell test of nonpartisan innocence and thus it is not above the charge. Someone may be attempting to make some dirt stick on a Democrat.

But make no mistake. Mayor Dean is the CEO of Metro government. He has embraced that brand, particularly when it make grants him executive airs. One of three unwavering Dean campaign commitments in two elections was to public safety via Metro Police. I have heard him tout Nashville's lower rates of violent crimes on his watch. While all of the decisions on how to respond to protesters may have belonged to Chief Anderson so far, to insinuate that the Mayor will not cross the line at some point is to be disingenuous to the reality of the Metro Charter, which gives Hizzoner control over MNPD. There is no great distance between mayor and MNPD.

I am not sure it would even take a coalition of police brass, Republicans and Tea Party flunkies to push Karl Dean to lean on Chief Anderson if the protests grow as elsewhere.

Local business interests centered in the Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Business Alliance along with wealthy campaign donors might provide the efficient cause of the Mayor stepping in to change the tolerance MNPD has shown local protesters. I hardly see him taking the risk Bill de Blasio did to provoke ire: criticizing a judicial decision not to indict an officer for his fatal chokehold on an African American man and expressing solidarity with the bereaved family. The conservatives pounced on de Blasio for that.

What do risk and solidarity mean to Mayor Dean? He did not even change his schedule to attend the North Nashville mass meeting to listen to community anger in the wake of Michael Brown's slaying in Ferguson, MO. He could not even risk the symbolism of being present. I can easily see Hizzoner putting pressure on MNPD to limit protests if they grow in order to avert risk with the business class. I cannot wrap my brain around the day he might take the stand that Chief Anderson did for the rights of Nashville protesters.

But at least the Chief is leading Metro in the right direction. He deserves credit for that.

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