Two to three hundred citizens, including students, college professors and members of the NAACP, gathered for a public briefing the evening of Feb. 16 at St. James Missionary Baptist Church’s community center to garner support against police profiling of Nashville’s blacks.
The nonprofit advocacy group Gideon’s Army hosted the event – featuring free speech, slam poetry and a spiritual chant – to share stories, experiences and discuss the group's recently published "Driving While Black: A Report on Racial Profiling in Metro Nashville Police Department Traffic Stop," while identifying steps for the future.
The report has catapulted the group, founded by Peabody College Vanderbilt graduate Rasheedat Fetuga, to engage larger numbers of not just black or brown, but white allies.
The report, released in October, claims Metro Nashville Police Department targeting of black and other minorities is not coincidental, but systematic, and a person who is black or brown is actually more vulnerable and at risk than other people while driving.
“It’s as if we need to be watched closely,” said Khaos, a senior community activist who spoke at the event and said his lifetime experiences with the MNPD “have not been good.”
“They say we cause more crimes than anybody else, but the statistics don’t prove that," he said. “Now we have a death at the hands of the Metro Nashville Police Department, starting with a traffic stop,” referencing the Feb. 10 shooting killing of Jocques Clemmons by MNPD Officer Joshua Lippert.
Gideon's Army also reports that Lippert's search rate of black drivers was "astronomical." He conducted a search of 30 percent of the black drivers he stopped, while other officers patrolling the same tracts searched 5 percent of the black drivers they stopped.
Community resident Oronde Walker, in the audience, spoke up during the briefing and said what people need are attorneys willing to take their cases. He said he has been stopped “270 times and never a felony,” and has three sons driving age who have been stopped 30 times each. “But I taught them how to survive,” Walker said.
“A lot of us have been out here fighting for all long time,” Walker added. “Any time my light goes out, I got a cop there. Any time I look suspicious, I got a cop there. Any time I don’t smile, I got a cop there. We need help out here.”
Fetuga said finding attorneys to take cases is one thing Gideon’s Army is working on, but it is a process.
“What we’ve heard from the community is one, restorative justice, and two, and a lot of people who are just tired, so what we are looking at is creating our own community response team. What can we do to keep our communities safe,” she said. “We need to start with research and understanding which community we start with in Nashville, because one thing that’s happening in Nashville is very heavy gentrification. So how do you come into a community (to make it safe) that is being pushed out?”
Fetuga said future steps for Gideon’s Army are looking at community-based safety models and creating a community review board with subpoena powers.
“That is definitely what we need, especially in this situation – where we are calling for transparency and a speedy investigation [into Clemmons’ case]. But how transparent are they being if they release all this about Mr. Clemmons but they didn’t say anything about the police officer’s [infraction] record of history?
“So now, in the minds of the masses who have watched the news over and over again, Jocques is to them someone who does something wrong,” Fetuga said. “He’s a criminal. He’s a black man. He’s a thug.”
She added, "How many years can you push, push, push as activist against a system that doesn’t want to do right, that is structured against your demise? The beautiful thing is we can be as creative as we want to be with this, as a collective.”
Photo: Rasheedat Fetuga, founder of Gideon's Army, speaks at public briefing Feb. 16. Credit: Ashley Heeney.