Nashville councilmembers gave lots of praise when the city’s budget passed with little debate last Tuesday. But shouts from activists broke through that enthusiasm.
Workers’ Dignity activist Erica Perry says the disruption was triggered by security officers, who tried to take away signs from Latinx residents who are at threat of being displaced from the Mosaic apartments. That led to an unusually long recess of at least 45 minutes, with city officials scrambling to manage the situation by scheduling meetings with residents about housing issues.
Just to let you all know they passed an appalling budget, we shut down City Council.
Here is the thread of the footage just in case the media chooses to repress the People’s will further. pic.twitter.com/QljTqYJ5FU
— Nashville People’s Budget Coalition (@nashpplsbudget) June 16, 2021
It’s important to note that this is one of the most diverse councils on record.
MTSU political science professor Sekou Franklin, who’s been involved with grassroots organizations in Nashville, sat down with WPLN’s Ambriehl Crutchfield to discuss the political context of the meeting. His analysis doesn’t speak for those of the organizations that were present and has been edited for clarity.
WPLN News: Nashville has a strong mayor system, and he shapes the budget because he has the most time with it. Why would activists take the strategy of going after the council and not the mayor?
Franklin: In my experience, whenever dissident groups or groups that are seen as “out groups” or marginalized groups do go to council, then the councilmembers as a deflection tactic will say, “Well, did you go to the mayor?” When they go to the mayor, the mayor literally asked them, “Have you talked to council?” And those kinds of responses are often targeted to poor people’s movements as a way for the politicians that are front-lining efforts to not do anything. Also, when it comes to meetings with the mayor and meetings with council, there’s preexisting privilege. There are certain groups, even progressive grassroots organizations, who can have meetings with the mayor and council, and the mayor and council are conciliatory towards those groups because of class, race, but also status.
WPLN News: The topic of policing is nuanced. There is the Vanderbilt University poll that shows 63% of Black residents support the police department. And councilmembers will say this too. But Black residents also say they want other amenities in their neighborhood. So doesn’t it make sense that the council wouldn’t take money away from the department?
Franklin: You’ve got to understand those residents are going to want more policing. If you look at the nightly news, it’s a horror story, and it’s been a horror story for two decades. There’s research on this by many independent media ombudsmen groups that local news coverage drives opinions about crime and punishment. But they’re only telling one part of a very complicated story. The other part of the very complicated story is that some of those same residents don’t want over-policing. Some of those residents don’t want their kids locked up.
WPLN News: The day after the council meeting, Councilmember Tonya Hancock, who is white, tweeted a picture of the local Metro workers union. She used language like “polite” and said they were respectful of procedure. What does that tell us about respectability politics and effectiveness in Nashville?
It is always great to see the @SEIU_Tennessee present at our meetings. They are organized and polite. They speak passionately for their members and their needs. They are respectful with their choice of words and of procedure. THIS is how you make change! #Purple pic.twitter.com/w5RVi9Xieq
— Tonya Hancock (@TonyaHancock) June 16, 2021
Franklin: I’m going to be very like blunt about this. It’s a racial priming tactic, so it’s subtly saying these are how Black folks should operate. These are the “good Negroes.” The polite, docile folks. They’re not like the “bad Negroes” over there, with what the People’s Budget [Coalition] assumed. But then when she got called on it, she then began retweeting the post of Black women councilmembers, which is another tactic, from my perspective, to say that that they’re on the same side. They’re not like these “other folks.”
And it’s the wrong approach, because I’ve been in meetings with labor longer than any of them had been in council. I know labor’s conversations when they outsource janitors, hundreds of them, Black folks. Their hope wasn’t that Black folks remain docile and polite and that’s the way you can get things done and talk about it. They would have hoped that the whole city was shut down by Black activists if they could have it. There’s no way they want their workers to starve.
So I’ve been in conversations with labor when they play by the rules, they’ve done all the things and it didn’t work. And they asked for Black activists in the street, who are considered to be not respectable and so forth, to be a muscle in the street. It divides community and labor folk when we community activists and labor folk should be all on the same side.
[WPLN News reached out to Hancock for a response about her tweet and the feedback she received. She says her intent was to highlight the consistent work of the local union and not compare it to the People’s Budget. That organization has also shown up to the city’s budget public hearing and council’s work sessions.
“I understand the concept and the talk, but I didn’t feel like my tweet was dividing,” she told WPLN News as she began to choke up. “And I’m sorry that people interpreted it as dividing. We only have a certain number of characters in the tweet and I was just speaking about one organization.” She encourages the activists to keep trying to get their agenda passed.]
WPLN News: You teach about local government. How should we address those very urgent issues like housing?
Franklin: There’s a system failure that is the political institutions that we have today. Council, the mayor and the ecosystem that’s intertwined with the institutions — the Chamber of Commerce and so forth — are either unwilling or unable to deal with the deep systemic issues of inequality in the city. I think part of that is also because of a pro-growth boosterism culture that is embedded in how Nashville operates — pro-business, pro-growth — and it’s been exacerbated by a state legislature that is on constant attack, a laser-focused attack against social justice initiatives produced by the city of Nashville. And so, because of that, when there is system failure, you have to use extra-systemic measures, right? With a system failure, you can’t just use the rules and regulations of a system that is unable or unwilling to respond. It’s going to take really a strategic and creative use of nonviolent resistance by people of goodwill in a city across cross the city — Black, white, Latino — that could begin to address some of these systemic issues. That may include, at times, disruption. It can include sometimes using, you know, rules and regulations that exist in the system, but use them in a way that’s leverage for people that are in dire need.
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