Why We’re Not Celebrating Chief Anderson

 Guest post by Andrew Krinks

Nashville’s chief of police has garnered praise from a wide spectrum of people for his response to local protests against racist police violence. But celebrating a police chief for refraining from harming protesters and defending our right to “express” our “thoughts” only decenters the real cause for celebration: the growing coalition building power in the movement against white supremacy and economic injustice in Nashville and beyond—a coalition and a movement whose message Chief Anderson has thus far successfully refrained from acknowledging or engaging in any meaningful way. Thus, we see no reason to spend energy celebrating Chief Anderson until he concretely joins us in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy and economic injustice—which would mean significant changes in what policing looks like in our city.

In response to protests nationwide against the murder of black men, women, and children at the hands of white police officers, and against the subsequent non-indictments of those officers, chiefs of police across the U.S. have dealt with demonstrators swiftly and aggressively, in many cases with billy clubs, rubber bullets, tear gas, and jail cells. In responding in such a way to protests against racist police violence, police departments have only reinforced the point the demonstrations have sought to make: policing in the U.S. is inherently violent and inherently racist.

In contrast to such brutal uses of force from departments across the country, Nashville’s Chief of Police Steve Anderson has garnered widespread praise for his response to local protests against racist police violence. When hundreds of us gathered at the Metro Nashville Police Department headquarters before a march through the city on Tuesday, November 25, to show our outrage at the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown, the police department set up tables with hot chocolate and bottled water. When we proceeded through the streets of Nashville and onto Interstate 24, Anderson gave orders to do what was necessary to keep us safe, which meant bringing traffic on the highway to a halt. “I think they took a reasonable amount of time to make their statement,” Anderson later said. “There was some inconvenience, people sitting in their cars on the interstate. That happens on occasion.”

A few days after the protest, at a town hall gathering and prayer vigil hosted by Jefferson St. Missionary Baptist Church, Anderson summarized his philosophy that grounds his response to such demonstrations: “In Nashville, if you want to come to a public forum and express your thoughts, even if they’re against the government, you’re going to get your First Amendment protection, and you’re going to be treated fairly by the police officers involved. That’s what we do here in Nashville.”

Photo by Andrew Krinks

On Friday, December 12, hundreds of us once again took to the streets in honor of Eric Garner and all victims of racist police violence. Accompanied at every turn by scores of motorcycles and squad cars, we started at the police department; marched around the jail; marched down through the Friday night honky tonk crowds on Broadway where we held a 4.5 minute die-in at 7th and Broadway (to symbolize the 4.5 hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the street); marched over to the recently constructed $623 million convention center where we held another die-in; marched down to the ground-zero-of-gentrification Gulch neighborhood where we once again held a die-in; back to Broadway for another die-in at the intersection of 12th and Broadway; and up to the interstate ramp at 13th and Broadway, where members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol formed a human chain at every on-ramp and off-ramp to block us from entering. When we got to the bridge over the interstate, we looked over onto a completely empty highway: out of what we know to be their fear, they had done our job for us. Energized by the standoff, we spanned Broadway sidewalk to sidewalk and made another round through the increasingly intoxicated and hostile crowds of Broadway and 2nd Avenue before dying-in one last time in the middle of 2nd and Union in front of City Hall.

Just like the first time: no arrests, no brutality, only hot chocolate, squad cars, lines of highway patrolmen, and the city’s busiest highway shut down for at least thirty minutes. The Tennessean, the police department and mayor’s resident cheerleading squad, initially reported that the Tennessee Highway Patrol “thwarted” our attempt to shut down the highway. But we were not “thwarted.” We came to disrupt the flow of traffic and the flow of commerce, to highlight the networks of power beneath the violence that is enacted everyday by status-quo-protecting racist and classist police forces. We came to shut down the highway. And the highway was shut down.

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Photo by Christopher Ott

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Photo by Christopher Ott

The day after Christmas, alongside a story about the everyday struggles endured by police officers—not a problem in itself, though we’re still waiting on a story about the everyday struggles endured by black and poor communities, which includes experiences of unwarranted criminalization and brutality—The Tennessean ran an open letter from Chief Anderson to his officers. In it, Anderson praises the department and his officers for the professionalism they exhibited in their dealings with protests, as well as the protesters for “the peaceful manner in which they have conducted themselves.” But more interestingly, ever eager to give the department a good image, Anderson shared his pastoral, democratically savvy response to a letter he received from a Nashvillian angry about what the man perceived to be the department’s overly lenient handling of the protests.

In his letter, Anderson speaks eloquently of the duties of the democratic citizen to respect and tolerate—and even to engage—the “thoughts,” “ideas,” and “opinions” of people different from us. He speaks, too, of the importance of respecting the government “formed by the people for the people—all the people.” To respect a democratic government, Anderson argues, is to be “respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.” Under Anderson’s riff on social contract theory, it is the police, finally, who protect the government that is formed by and thereby respects and protects all persons, which makes the police something like the protector of human rights and freedom, or at least the first amendment right to “express” our “thoughts” in public.

The vision cast by Anderson’s reflections is undeniably inspiring. Since The Tennessean published Anderson’s letter, the letter itself has gone viral and has become a story in its own right, with figures as wide-ranging as comedian Sarah Silverman and Nashville-based anti-racism writer Tim Wise singing its praises.

But from the perspective of many of us involved in this movement, to celebrate Anderson’s message and actions, in light of the context in which they have been delivered and carried out, is to misdirect our celebration and, in turn, to risk displacing the real cause for celebration. Here is why.

First, to make Anderson’s refraining from brutalizing protesters the story is to misplace our attention. The real story is, first, that police are killing black people with impunity, and subsequently, that black people and their accomplices are rising up collectively and are localizing the struggle, including in Nashville. There is a long history of white authority re-narrating the struggles of black and brown and poor people in such a way that the real story of struggle and resistance gets lost beneath the projected will—even the seeming good will—of those who wield governmental and economic power. The real story is that black lives continue not to matter in our country, and that communities are rising up to create a world where black lives do matter. It is this uprising, this movement, catalyzed by severe racial injustice, that we are celebrating, not the chief of police who has thus far been savvy enough not to brutalize protesters.

Second, to praise Anderson for refraining from brutalizing protesters and for defending the right of all persons to “express” their “thoughts” in the public square is to buy into the implied logic that our rage is only possible or reasonable if police officers permit it, thereby centering the police and the law and decentering and displacing our rage against systemic racism upheld by police and the law. Police forces, whose members have inherited and every day enact the task of protecting and maintaining white supremacy and economic injustice, do not permit our protests; they are the reason for our protests. The uprisings in response to racist police violence are not concerned with a few bad apples, as if Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo are where the problem begins and ends. On the contrary, as the chant goes, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”

What does it mean to say the whole system is guilty? It is to say, for one thing, that Nashville’s police department, like the NYPD and the St. Louis County Police Department, operates on the philosophy of “broken windows” policing, which targets low level “quality of life” offenses, with the claimed idea that addressing such “crimes” (such as Eric Garner selling untaxed cigarettes) prevents more serious crime. It has been widely documented, however, in Nashville and beyond, that broken windows policing functions, in practice, to displace, punish, and extinguish black, brown, and poor life simply for existing in public. Eric Garner and Michael Brown are victims of police officers operating on the basis of broken windows policing.

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Moreover, to say that the whole system is guilty is to acknowledge that broken windows is an evolved manifestation of vagrancy laws and black codes and sundown towns, which, in the U.S., follow on the tails of the institution of slavery. From one institution to another, black life (and brown life and poor life and other forms of life constructed as inherently abnormal or criminal) is policed, contained, displaced, exploited, and dealt death. We are not celebrating Chief Anderson because he runs an operation that—regardless of the kindly or unkindly dispositions of individual officers, which is beside the point—has inherited and continues to enact the task of protecting and maintaining the white supremacy and economic injustice that killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner and that displaces, criminalizes, and crushes black, brown, and poor people beneath the wheels of the progress of the new “It City,” Nashville.

Here are just a few examples that illustrate the tactics and effects of broken windows policing in our city. First, the Metro Nashville Police Department’s “Operation Safer Streets” initiative, which focuses the majority of its attention on predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods, such as those along the Jefferson Street, Lafayette Street, and Dickerson Pike corridors, boasted massive activity in late 2014, including more than 2,000 arrests for the year, most for misdemeanor charges, as well as 11,911 vehicle stops in what the department calls “areas with a gang presence.” That means that the department carried out at least 8,000 vehicle stops in predominantly black and poor neighborhoods that did not result in any arrest. Broken windows policing, by definition, targets black and poor communities, and the numbers indicate as much in Nashville.

Second, as The Contributor reports, in 2012, even though persons experiencing homeless comprise less than one percent of the population of Davidson County, they comprised 52 percent of all “criminal trespass” arrests and 67 percent of all “obstructing a passageway” arrests over the course of the year. Many, if not most, of these arrests fall under what is called the “criminalization” of homelessness and poverty (intimately related to the criminalization of blackness), in which police target “quality of life” offenses for which persons without homes are ticketed or arrested for acts—sleeping, sitting, standing—that those with homes commit every day without consequence. For instance, Anthony, an unhoused black man, was given a citation for obstructing a passageway at 4:09 a.m. on February 15, 2013. He was trying to stay warm in his motorized scooter (he suffers from back problems) on a heating grate at 7th Ave. N. and Commerce St. After pleading guilty, he owed—and still owes—the city $259.33 in court costs. Or there is Eric, also black and also unhoused, who was arrested and taken to jail for standing under an overhang near the loading dock of a business next to the Nashville Rescue Mission during a rain storm on June 21, 2013. He spent two and a half days in jail and owes $289.80 in court costs. Or there is John, also black, and unhoused at the time, who was cited for obstructing a passageway while propping up his feet (he suffers from a condition that causes his ankles to swell, a condition that took one of his toes last year) under a train trestle on 8th Ave. S. during a rain storm on July 10, 2012. After pleading guilty, he now owes $259.33 in court costs.

We are not celebrating Chief Anderson because the Metro Nashville Police Department disproportionately targets, cites, fines, arrests, and incarcerates black and poor communities, in many cases simply for existing in a city that is quickly running out of space for black and poor people to survive.

The final reason we are not celebrating Chief Anderson may be the most obvious, and yet it seems, among all the fanfare surrounding Anderson’s remarks and actions, to be the most elusive. We are not celebrating Chief Anderson because he has been deafeningly silent on the actual content of the concerns of the protests themselves. While it may be easy for some of us to miss, it remains clear: Chief Anderson has not endorsed the protests or the rage that is beneath them; he has said we should “tolerate” them. His content and his messaging have been about first amendment rights, not systemic racism. Hiding behind his seemingly heroic endorsement of first amendment rights, we have let him off the hook from having to engage systemic racism in Nashville or anywhere else in a meaningful way, and of amending his department’s actions—not just thoughts—in response. We are not celebrating Chief Anderson because protecting First Amendment rights is the very least he should do.

Under Anderson’s rendering of the protests, our presence in the streets represented just one among many “opinions” in a liberal marketplace of ideas. In such a marketplace, the democratic citizen he describes must engage with the thoughts of others, weigh the options, and make a decision. Yes, we took to the streets to change minds, but we also took to the streets to begin to seek the transformation of systems and institutions that bring about death and displacement to black and poor people. We are not celebrating Chief Anderson’s remarks because they mistake our rage for a mere “thought,” mistake thoughtful engagement for the breadth of a person’s democratic duties, and thereby give passersby collective permission to do everything but change the systems—which are not, in reality, by and for all people, as Anderson claims—that killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others.

To devote our celebration to a police chief’s response to protests against racist police violence, by centering the authority and seeming good will of the police and decentering the justified rage at the racism and classism that police departments both enact and protect, is to fail to discern the protests for what they have been: not merely the “expression” of “thoughts” or “opinions,” but the embodied appraisal that the “whole damn system is guilty” and that it needs remaking. The young women and men who placed their bodies where they were not legally allowed in downtown Nashville in the 1960s were not there to “express” their “opinions,” they were there to dismantle the systems and policies that dehumanize and impoverish. And so are we.

What would it take for us to celebrate Chief Anderson? It would take Chief Anderson joining us—concretely—in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy, which manifests through structures and policies that exploit and impoverish, and through the criminalization and murder of black, brown, and poor people. But since dismantling white supremacy likely means dismantling policing as we know it—particularly in its racist and classist broken windows practices, including in Nashville—we’re not holding our breath. But when he’s ready, we are. We’re ready. We’re coming.

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