Nika Holbert’s death at the hands of police has prompted many in Nashville, TN to start asking the age-old questions about how Black communities are being terrorized by those that are supposed to be the protection there.
On the morning of March 12, 2021, Metro Nashville Police Officer Josh Baker pulled over a Black Camaro. The owner of the Camaro had six outstanding warrants. Nika Holbert was driving the car but was not the owner and therefore not who Officer Baker was looking for. A half-hour later, Nika Holbert was dead and Officer Baker was injured. Within a few hours, the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) released a slickly produced video with an introduction and voiceover by the head of the police media department which included edited body cam footage purporting to show that Officer Baker was justified in shooting Ms. Holbert. The raw footage has only been released to media and not the public. Nika Holbert became the latest victim in the bloody and prolonged war for Nashville’s soul.
Nashville presents itself as a shining beacon of the New South not completely unlike its sister city Atlanta. The past decade has seen the city seeming to really come into its own. Everywhere you look in the city’s core, there’s construction and cranes with shiny new skyscrapers reshaping the skyline. In 2018, Nashville scored a big win when they beat out other cities in luring Amazon to locate its East Coast operations hub right outside downtown.
Nashville’s politics seem similarly bright, shiny, and new. Nashville has long been seen in Tennessee, along with Memphis, as a blue dot in a sea of deep red. Only Nashville and Memphis have long-term, seemingly safe Democratic seats on the state and national level. While local politics is not based along party lines, most city council members are considered “progressive”. Many people in power in Nashville consider themselves, politically, to be in the center and/or left-leaning, the last bulwark against the rabid conservatism which marks politics in the rest of the state.
However, this bright shiny image does not hold up to close scrutiny. There’s a dark underbelly of racism, classism and paternalistic greed which has been simmering for decades and which has been coming to a boil over the past few years. The beginnings are rooted in the history of why Nashville opted for a metropolitan form of governance back in 1962, combining Nashville’s city government with the city governments of the smaller cities in Davidson County. The official reason was to better offer services to the citizens of the county. The unstated reason was to curtail the growing political power of Nashville’s Black residents since Nashville had become the intellectual center of the civil rights movement. (Interestingly, Atlanta has resisted forming a metropolitan government for similar reasons.) Ten years later, the aggressive dismantling of the heart of the Black community, North Nashville, began with the construction of Interstate 40 right through its heart (also paralleling Atlanta’s construction of I-20 through the Black communities of West Atlanta). Recently, the long-term plan to violently re-develop North Nashville has begun to bear fruit and policing plays a huge role.
The malicious destruction of neighborhoods and a prosperous business district was followed by decades of malign neglect. City services were largely removed from North Nashville except for policing. The area became an urban wasteland in many places, with poverty and food deserts. And crime. This is how North Nashville’s central zip code, 37208, became the place with the highest incarceration rate in the country. The mechanics of violent development were put into place. With the encouragement of the city, developers began quietly, and then not so quietly, buying up the grossly undervalued real estate in North Nashville. Before the residents of these neighborhoods knew what was happening, the home of Black culture in Nashville was under threat and they were being displaced with nowhere to go except for jail.
Policing in Nashville has always been violent and repressive. However, in 2016, the community began fighting back. In October 2016, a group of activists held a press conference on the steps of the historic Davidson County courthouse. These activists were announcing the results of a months-long study they had conducted of traffic stops by MNPD. The results of the study showed a clear racial bias in how MNPD was conducting traffic stops. The activists had a list of recommendations which included a demand that all MNPD officers be outfitted with body-worn cameras. Their concerns were largely dismissed. The police chief at the time, Steve Anderson, disparaged the report and the activists’ demands as “morally disingenuous”.
Four months later, as these activists had feared, a young Black man, Jocques Clemmons, was killed by MNPD officer Joshua Lippert during a traffic stop in public housing. With no body camera footage to document what transpired, the accounts of what happened quickly devolved into a confused melee of conflicting accounts. Officer Lippert claimed Jocques pulled a gun on him and the MNPD PR machine tweeted out a picture of a gun that was supposedly recovered at the scene. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) declared Officer Lippert innocent of any wrongdoing within days, before the investigation had been concluded. A video soon emerged from a surveillance camera posted on a building across the street which threw doubt on MNPD’s version of events, however, MNPD continued to maintain that Jocques had a gun. The community’s demands for body cameras, joined by Jocques’ family, intensified.
The fight for transparency and accountability from MNPD quickly turned into a narrowly focused fight to establish a community oversight board. This fight was won in 2018 after a hard-fought campaign which the community united behind. Voters overwhelmingly approved of the board despite stiff resistance from Metro government.
In the intervening months and after the high-profile police murder of Daniel Hambrick after another traffic stop in public housing where surveillance camera evidence contradicted MNPD’s initial story, the community’s demand for body cameras was evolving. Nashville had undergone several changes of mayoral power since 2017, however, all of them had promised to roll-out cameras. Those promises had gone unfulfilled. Instead of working with the communities most impacted by police violence, Metro government had left the implementation of cameras to MNPD, which remained vocally opposed to the idea, and the District Attorney’s office. MNPD’s stalling tactics were obvious and activists complained that they were being given too much power over the process and there seemed to be no real will to make good on election-time promises for cameras and accountability.
In addition, since 2017, there had been other widely publicized incidents of police violence which involved body camera footage. William Scott, Laquan MacDonald, Eric Garner, all of these murders were recorded on police body and dash cameras, but these cases clearly indicate that the presence of cameras do not decrease police violence and do not change outcomes. Instead, data was emerging that the use of body and dash cams were instead being used as a tool for further surveillance and in developing cases for prosecution. This is the exact opposite of everything people were fighting for. By the time MNPD and the current mayor, John Cooper, announced that they were finally ready to implement cameras, many activists in Nashville opposed the program. With emerging data showing how body cameras increase arrests and prosecutions, combined with the fact that the body camera program had been largely developed by MNPD without community input, activists had every reason to expect abuse of the program.
The fight for abolition of police looks very different in the South. Nashville is a case-study of how Southern racism born of slavery and Jim Crow refuses to die and is reinforced through modern-day policing. Even the most “progressive” of Southern cities are deeply steeped in its legacy. As gentrification becomes more aggressive and resistance from the community becomes more intense, MNPD has become more violent. Since the beginning of this year, there have been four shooting incidents involving MNPD with two fatalities. Even with the community oversight board and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conducting outside investigations, MNPD still has been successful in resisting accountability and transparency. The core of our struggle never changes, only its face. Unless we get to the root of the problem, the ghosts of the plantation will forever haunt us.
Theeda Murphy is a Grassroots Coordinator at No Exceptions Prison Collective in Nashville, Tennessee. They advocate for sentencing reform, better living conditions in prisons, and the abolition of all private prisons.