If you’ve been follering us for any amount of time you’ve likely seen us talk about OVERTON COUNTY teacher Mark Lee, who taught at Livingston Academy until his recent 90-day suspension without pay and eventual transfer – which was supposedly tied to years worth of sexual harassment allegations by multiple students stretching back to 2003. (He’s tenured, so he’s likely back on payroll now)
Here’s our interview with 2 of the girls and their mothers:
LIVE: LIVINGSTON ACADEMY (@LA_Wildcats) STUDENTS in OVERTON COUNTY speak out about their teacher MARK LEE – accused of sexual harassment for decades, just served a 90-day suspension… but is STILL A TEACHER. https://t.co/K2j99se1WN
— The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) July 28, 2020
It was also discussed at an Overton County school board meeting, during which multiple parents expressed their disgust that the school board had done little to protect the girls, and in fact had plans to transfer Lee to an elementary school until people hollered about it – yes seriously.
WATCH: “WHY DID THIS HAPPEN TO MY CHILD?”
OVERTON COUNTY: Livingston Academy @LA_Wildcats parents demand to know why MARK LEE is STILL A TEACHER after decades of sexually harassing students.
His suspension is over. D.A. BRYANT DUNAWAY didn’t charge him.
☎️ BOARD: 931-823-1287 pic.twitter.com/m08xMiS049
— Cookeville Holler (@CvilleHoller) July 16, 2020
There was also talk of him being placed at an Alternative School, which is almost worse because that’s often where the most vulnerable students end up.
The District Attorney Bryan Dunavant, who we spoke with, says he didn’t bring charges against Lee because he had no proof of physical touching (although one of the girls says he rubbed his head on her stomach). He also told us he “wouldn’t want his daughter in Lee’s class.
A mother of another one of the alleged sexual harassment victims of the LIVINGSTON ACADEMY teacher (Mark Lee) in OVERTON COUNTY Says she spoke up since 2017, nobody listened. Multiple girls signed sworn affidavits on that occasion, including a cop’s daughter.
Lee is now suing the families and those who have stood up for them for “damages arising out of the defendants’ pattern of intentional, malicious, tortious false and defamatory statements impugning the plaintiffs’ character and reputation and published to the world on social media” as well as “invasion of privacy”.
This guy has some nerve.
HERE IS THE LAWSUIT if you’d like to read it. It includes the posts below, which it cites as defamation.
As a reminder, the director of schools suspended him for 90 days related to all of this.
If you or anyone you know has stories about Lee, or witnessed any of his behavior, feel free to holler at us on social media or at email@example.com – and follow The Cookeville Holler for developments
FLOODS OF JUSTICE is out with a new episode! Pastor Kevin Riggs and Kevin Sage chat with Mike Washington about his incredible journey of cycling nearly 3000 miles across the country in memory of his late wife.
LISTEN: "FLOODS OF JUSTICE" just dropped a new episode!@riggs_kevin and @KevinSage chat with 66-year-old retiree Mike Washington who rode 3000 miles across the country in memory of his late wife to raise awareness of his favorite cause.
— The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) July 29, 2020
FOR MORE INDEPENDENT, TRUTHFUL REPORTING LIKE THIS FOLLOW THE COOKEVILLE HOLLER HERE.
AND FOLLOW THE TN HOLLER HERE.
AND SUBSCRIBE TO GET OUR EMAILS HERE.
If you follow our Facebook & Twitter pages you’ve probably seen us Hollerin’ about the situation in Overton County, where despite decades of allegations of sexual harassment of students, a teacher named Mark Lee is still allowed to be a teacher – even after a 90-day suspension (which already ended).
WATCH: A student at LIVINGSTON (TN) ACADEMY bravely tells her story about a teacher with accusations of sexual harassment going back to 2003.
The case is closed: https://t.co/m9DRFTiZ7c
D.A. outlines accusations to TBI: https://t.co/kUhstJqiZJ
He is still a teacher there. pic.twitter.com/Twwz352guH
— Cookeville Holler (@CvilleHoller) July 6, 2020
The Overton County School Board has been very slow to respond to the situation, and Livingston Academy, where Lee taught, was slow to bring in the authorities.
WATCH: “WHY DID THIS HAPPEN TO MY CHILD?”
OVERTON COUNTY: Livingston Academy @LA_Wildcats parents demand to know why MARK LEE is STILL A TEACHER after decades of sexually harassing students.
His suspension is over. D.A. BRYANT DUNAWAY didn’t charge him.
☎️ BOARD: 931-823-1287 pic.twitter.com/m08xMiS049
— Cookeville Holler (@CvilleHoller) July 16, 2020
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway investigated, but wrote a letter to the TBI saying he couldn’t recommend any criminal charges because most of the allegations were about things Lee said, rather than what he did to the girls physically – although one of the brave girls who spoke out says he did rub his head on her stomach in the back of class one day while telling the rest of the class to look forward.
He also says the statute of limitations had run out because of how slow the school itself and the school board were in reporting it.
It’s worth noting that of the 3 girls who came forward, only one reported it during the time that Mark Lee’s cousin has been the principal.
Yes, you heard that right. Oh, and did we mention that director of schools, who has the power to fire him, is married to a former student of his?
Multiple allegations reaching back decades. Yet they let Mark Lee keep teaching, and were planning to send him to an elementary school until y’all hollered loud enough to help stop that.
But, he’s still a teacher. For now.
The case is closed, but the mothers and daughters are speaking up, the community is starting to push back, so we decided to reach out to District Attorney Bryant Dunaway to ask him about the way he handled the situation, and what can be done.
Below is that conversation.
If you agree Lee should be fired at the very least, contact the Overton County School Board HERE: 931-823-1287
HOLLER: We wanted to ask a few questions about the situation with The teacher Mark Lee. Can you tell us a little bit about what your process was in terms of looking into the allegations?
DUNAWAY: Well that’s been publicly known already – I had the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conduct an investigation. That was the process. With that in mind, I only deal with criminal matters… to see if any crime had been committed. So I asked that the investigation be done and it was.
HOLLER: So did they interview the girls?
DUNAWAY: They did talk with the girls, yes.
HOLLER: And what was their finding? Did they make any sort of judgment on the believability of the allegations or accusations?
DUNAWAY: I can send you a copy of the letter… (he sent to TBI)
HOLLER: We saw the letter.
DUNAWAY: That’s really the conclusion there, the answers to those questions are in there.
HOLLER: I guess what I’m trying to get at is he’s still teaching and people understandably have concerns.
DUNAWAY: I tried to articulate in my letter (to the TBI) – see, I’m a criminal prosecutor. I looked at the situation to see if a crime had been committed or if there was a crime that could be prosecuted. It wouldn’t be proper for me to speak whether he’s violated any school policy or should be a teacher. I mean, I wouldn’t want my daughter in his classroom, that’s for sure. But the school board – it’s up to them to take disciplinary action or to decide whether to keep him employed or not. Really, the purpose of the TBI investigation was to determine whether there was a prosecutable crime, and that’s a very different inquiry than other types of things.
HOLLER: Is there anything that can be done to open it back up?
DUNAWAY: Well it’s been investigated, why would it be opened back up?
HOLLER: If there were new accusations.
DUNAWAY: I said that in my letter too, if there is new evidence or new information I always consider that. Of course I look at things through the lens of – is there a crime, or whether there’s a crime that’s been committed and is it able to be prosecuted. Whether or not he is a teacher or should be a teacher, you know there’s a lot of things about that whole situation that I’m disappointed with. It’s disappointing to me that the school administration as well as the local attorneys who brought this to light admitted they knew about these allegations since 2017 and didn’t report it to law enforcement or my office. It would have been nice to have had a timely report.
HOLLER: So that was the principal or that was the school board?
DUNAWAY: That was the school administration. I didn’t speak to the school board. But no complaints have been made to the school since 2017. The attorney says that he was receiving complaints as early as 2017, and nothing was reported to law enforcement or to my office.
HOLLER: Do you think that could have anything to do with the fact that the principal is his cousin?
DUNAWAY: I can’t speak to that, I can only speculate. He hasn’t always been the principal. He wasn’t the principal in 2017 when the initial reports from the one young lady were made. There was a different principal then.
HOLLER: Is there any criminal recourse they could take to keep him out of the education system?
DUNAWAY: Not criminally. I did do an investigation like I already said. I had to evaluate and see if a crime had been committed, and as I said in my letter. Based upon the evidence the primary complaint of all the girls was that he used inappropriate language toward them. There was only one allegation made that there was any physical touching at all, and that was claiming that he rubbed his head on her stomach over a desk and that’s it. There’s no allegation made by anybody of sexual contact or anything like that it’s all. He makes inappropriate comments, so that in and of itself is not a crime. It’s inappropriate, it shouldn’t be done. You see what I’m saying? In my personal opinion he shouldn’t be a teacher. But is that a crime? No. As I said in my letter, that the closest thing you could come to would maybe be harassment, which is a misdemeanor, misdemeanor assault. Which you know, because of the delayed reporting, the statute of limitations has run on those.
HOLLER: So the statute of limitations has run out on those crimes? That seems like a short period of time.
DUNAWAY: It’s a year. One year on a misdemeanor. And so the complaints from 2017 have clearly run, and the 2019 ones were done early in the school year if I remember right.
HOLLER: Even on a minor?
DUNAWAY: Yes. There’s not much proof, the only proof you have of the head touching the stomach is the young lady’s statement. Do I believe her? Yes. He denies it, there are no witnesses to it. So the proof is not the strongest in the world, but that’s the best you got. Now everybody is up in arms about it, and I don’t blame them. It is very inappropriate talk with students like that.
HOLLER: Which was corroborated by a lot of different people.
DUNAWAY: Which I believe happened too, 100%. But it’s not a crime. It’s terrible, it’s inappropriate, but it’s not a crime that I can prosecute. Just making verbal sexual related jokes and off-color jokes like that. So that’s the situation. And I’m only speaking to the criminal aspect of it. Whether he’s inappropriate or not, the school board has got to make a decision on that.
HOLLER: Hopefully they’re realizing they have to do more than they’ve done. A few days ago they were going to assign him to an elementary school but they’re reconsidering that from what we understand.
DUNAWAY: So one of the things that you saw in my letter is that we uncovered and took a statement from a now adult who said she was a student back in 2003. Her complaint was that he made the same type of inappropriate comments. Still no allegation to physical or sexual contact, but just making inappropriate innuendos.
HOLLER: Well it seems like everybody would feel a little bit better if they knew that he wasn’t going to be in the classroom anymore.
DUNAWAY: I agree there, I don’t disagree with that at all.
HOLLER: Appreciate you talking to us.
DUNAWAY: Anytime, you’re welcome.
WATCH: “In 2017 my baby sister was sexually harassed by her teacher—ALL THEY WANT IS JUSTICE.”
A sister of 1 of the students accusing Mark Lee says she’s proud of her sister for taking a stand.
Overton County may send him to an elementary school. (See above)
☎️: 931-823-1287 pic.twitter.com/kHe4uXBVfZ
— Cookeville Holler (@CvilleHoller) July 17, 2020
(Police Brutality Videos Are Not An Excuse, ESPECIALLY IN TENNESSEE)
By Betsy Thorpe
“Thank Goodness Everyone Has Cell Phones Now and Are Recording Acts of Vigilantism and Police Brutality, because now we see it, so now we know, and now we can change things.”
At least, that seems to be the prevailing opinion of many people.
And while I’m glad white people are now taking police violence against black people seriously, how can you help change the future if you don’t know history, or if you don’t trust what the victims are saying about an evil you are trying to eradicate?
Throughout our history, white people have privileged myths propagated by white culture over the voices and experiential knowledge of Black people.
Even now, I see this new narrative about the prevalence of video developing to explain why white people have remained clueless about what has been happening to Black people.
That’s a cop-out. It’s a false narrative that white people did not know how bad things were for Black people prior to cell phones and social media.
Take the case of Ell Persons, a 52-year-old black woodcutter from Memphis, Tennessee who was lynched on May 22, 1917 after being accused of killing a 15-year-old white girl. A detailed eye-witness account of his torture and execution was picked up by the Associated Press and published in newspapers throughout the country.
People from Washington D.C. to San Francisco were shocked by the story that appeared on the pages of their local newspaper.
One widespread misconception about Jim Crow era lynchings is that they were spur of the moment events, conducted at night, by masked good ole’ boys on horseback, brandishing jugs of whiskey, as they take a victory lap around a hanging tree after watching their victim die. As evil as that image is, what really happened is far more dangerous and disturbing.
The real masterminds of terror created a system of racially motivated violence to keep Black people enslaved through fear. They were elected officials, judges, professionals, business leaders, clergymen and educators. The system relied heavily on the cooperation of law enforcement officers.
Elle Persons was not lynched at night. He was not hung from a tree.
He was the main attraction in a public spectacle, planned by some of the most prominent men in Memphis. At 9:30 in the morning of May 22, 1917, more than fifteen thousand sightseers and revelers cheered when he was chained to a tree, doused in oil, and burned alive.
From the year 1882 through 1968 at least 3,446 Black men, women and children were lynched in the United States.
What is so striking to me is how similar the national reaction to Ell Person’s lynching is to the George Floyd murder 130 years later.
One eyewitness recorded Floyd’s arrest and murder with a cell-phone camera. The person who recorded the murder captured the sight of three other officers standing by and doing nothing during the eight minutes and forty-six seconds George Floyd struggled to stay alive.
At least one reporter was at Person’s murder, noting all the witnesses and recording in words for the whole nation to read how Persons died.
The first Tennessee branch of the NAACP was established in Memphis on June 6, just two weeks after Ell Persons was lynched. In the months that followed national membership in the organization increased ten-fold, from a group of 9,000 members to a force 90,000 strong. Similarly, anger over the murder of George Floyd sparked mainstream support and enthusiasm for the Black Lives Matter movement. Calls for the arrest of all four officers and demands for police reform was immediately heard from across the land.
From late May of 1917 through July of that year protests, and riots erupted in racially divided cities. The deadliest of the race-related riots was a series of fiery outbreaks in East St. Louis Illinois. The first disturbances occurred in late May just one week after the lynching in Memphis. They finally ended on July 2. An estimated two hundred and fifty Black people were killed in the East St. Louis riots.
On July 28 of 1917, the NAACP organized the Silent Protest Parade. Approximately ten thousand Black men, women and children marched along Fifth Avenue in New York City to protest lynchings and other acts of discrimination and oppression inflicted against Black people in America. It was the largest mass demonstration for Civil Rights the country had ever seen.
The wave of protests and marches that continue to surge across the nation since the murder of George Floyd mirrors what happened after the lynching of Ell Persons in 1917.
As evidenced with the murder of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta by a police officer last week, certain officers feel no matter how many people are watching they are above the law and that it is safe for them to use excessive force. It was the same in 1917, when self-appointed law and order vigilantes and the law enforcement officers who helped them knew they were safe to use third degree tactics to torture and kill in public.
Especially in the state of Tennessee.
The protests against racially motivated violence in Tennessee carried on through the end of 1917 and into the beginning of the new year as two more barbaric lynchings stained the reputation of the state. Reports that on Sunday December 2 a Black man named Lation Scott was mutilated and burned at the stake in front of white Sunday School children made national news. Two months later, on February 8, near the small town of Estill Springs another Black man named Jim Mcllherron was burned alive in front of a crowd of five thousand onlookers, some coming from as far as fifty miles away just to watch him suffer and die.
Public fury was so great after Estelle Springs that one syndicated newspaper reporter was compelled to pen a blistering condemnation of the state of Tennessee:
“Americans who are denouncing the Prussian Huns as the most cruel and inhuman murderers should take a squint at Tennessee. No diabolical Hun ever did anything worse than torture a human being with hot irons and burn him at the stake.”
In a silent march in Nashville on February 19, 1918 two thousand Black men marched four abreast from the YMCA on Fourth Avenue up what is now Charlotte Avenue to Capitol Hill where three of their leaders entered the Capitol building. The leaders met Governor Rye and other elected officials. One leader told the assemblage that the Black man in the South was the most endangered being alive, another stated that “a man’s chance is all that is wanted.” But it was one plea to the governor of Tennessee that most resembles the demands we hear from activists today.
They petitioned the governor to do something about the official dereliction of law enforcement and allow officers of the law to be held accountable for participating and or enabling the murder of Black people in Tennessee.
The press was present during this meeting between Black leaders and the Governor of Tennessee. A transcript of their dialogue was printed on the pages of both the Nashville Banner and the Nashville Globe.
So, as you can see, acts of racially motivated violence have been reported time and again by whatever media was available at the time. Right-minded people have sounded the alarm. Over and over. They have marched, protested, and held public vigils for more than a hundred years.
So, while it is quite true that “this has been going on forever”, and it is also true that “we now have phone cameras to record it,” it’s not true that we didn’t know.
And it continued to know throughout the twentieth century. Funereal photos in Jet Magazine of Emett Till’s brutalized body lying in his coffin, news stories of young Black people in the Children’s March in Birmingham Alabama being attacked by dogs and with firehoses, live television coverage of the wake after Dr. King’s assassination, the list goes on. Sadly, there are just too many names to name.
What bothers me about the “now is different just because it is recorded” false narrative is that it implies that if we had only known, we would have done something. But that is simply not true, because we did know.
History teaches me to be wary of the assumption that this time will be different. If we cannot own our responsibility for not having effected change when we knew about it before, why should we assume that this time will be different?
We must be much more honest with ourselves about our failings to fix things when we knew about them before, in order to be more determined and effective in our efforts this time around.
Betsy Thorpe is a member of the Nashville Historic, Inc, the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society, and Power Together Tennessee. Betsy is also part of the national criminal justice reform organization REFORM Alliance and is an active honorary member of the International Society of Women Educators, Delta Kappa Gamma.
Betsy works part time as a legal research assistant. She conducts research for a small criminal defense law firm that serves some of the most vulnerable and underrepresented populations in rural Tennessee.
This was originally a Facebook Post by Chad Riden. Re-posted with his permission.
REP. RAGAN DECLINES TO DENOUNCE THE KLAN
State Representative John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), representing District 33 in Anderson County, made it clear in an exchange with Chad that he has no intention of distancing himself from the KKK, despite being given every opportunity.
Chad emailed each of the 11 legislators in the ‘Naming, Designating, & Private Acts Committee’ who voted NO on HJR0686 (General Assembly, Statement of Intent or Position – Suggests removing Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from State Capitol and replacing it with tribute to more deserving Tennessean.).
His email said the folowing:
“Did you realize you’re becoming internet famous? The attached image has been posted to Reddit Instagram Facebook Twitter and probably other places.
People are saying that by voting NO to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust you are standing strong in support of the KKK. Are you a member of the Klan? Or are you merely in support of continuing to honor the murderous slaver who served as their first grand wizard? Is there a difference?
I would like to know why you think it’s a good idea to honor this murderer in our state capital.”
This is the image Chad included:
According to Chad, the offices of Rep. Jerry Sexton and Rep. Mike Sparks responded with a generic “thank you for your message” type email.
Rep. John Ragan, however, responded personally by sending him the text of this entire article defending Nathan Bedford Forrest, the KKK’s First Grand Wizard, as an “activist for black civil rights”.
According to Chad…
“I have heard that NBF changed his mind near the end of his life but this is the story about him that haunts me:
‘The Battle of Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864 ended with a massacre of African-American Union troops and their white officers attempting to surrender, by soldiers under the command Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Union survivors claimed that even though all their troops surrendered, Forrest’s men massacred some in cold blood. Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, “No quarter! No quarter!”
A letter from one of Forrest’s own sergeants, Achilles V. Clark, writing to his sisters on April 14, reads in part:
“The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte \[sic\] men fared but little better. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”‘
I’m uncomfortable celebrating a man who ever did that. The only people I hear defending Nathan Bedford Forrest are white supremacists. How do you feel about the Black lives matter movement? Will you go on the record denouncing the KKK?”
Rep. Ragan wrote back:
“Dear Mr. Riden,
Your description of Fort Pillow is questionable when considered objectively. It remains unclear whether Forrest ordered the massacre, encouraged it, ignored it, or — as he later claimed — was unaware of it. He was never charged or tried for the events at Fort Pillow.
Please consult any of the following sources and you will see that Forrest was never convicted of any of the accusations you posited:
These trials can be found via a link on the catalog records on the Library of Congress Online catalog. The military trials encompass several departments:
Military Trials: Middle Department, 1862 – 1866
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the South, 1862 – 1868
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the Cumberland, 1866 – 1870
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the Missouri, 1861 – 1863, 1866 – 1867, 1868, 1869 – 1870, 1871 – 1872
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the Gulf, 1862 -1867
General Court Martial Orders: Department of Texas 1861, 1865 – 1866, 1870 -1872
The military trials are viewable in PDF and Page turner versions. The name indexes have been included and tabbed in the PDF view, and in some of the volumes a subject index is available.
Relative to your other questions: you may consult my record and you will have your answers.
John D. Ragan
I wrote back:
“Thank you for responding I do appreciate it.
However you have not answered the questions I asked very directly:
How do you feel about the Black lives matter movement?
Will you go on the record denouncing the KKK?”
“Dear Mr. Riden,
Neither I, nor any of my direct forbearers, going all the way back to the one exiled by Oliver Cromwell to Jamestown in 1690, ever owned slaves. While I condemn that institution unequivocally, I owe no one an apology for it.
Moreover, my children have ancestors who fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. However, none of those ever owned slaves, either. Therefore, neither they, nor I, owe anyone apologies for slavery.
Furthermore, there were atrocities as well as heroes and villains on both sides of the Civil War. Additionally, there were black slave owners and blacks fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. There were slave owners in the North and the South including Union General U.S. Grant.
Your historical research relative to Confederate General Forrest is inadequate. If you refuse educate yourself, it appears future discussion on the topic is futile.
Finally, your juvenile attempts at insults to a veteran of two theaters of conflict though 24 year of military service, of which 8 were overseas, are ridiculous. I have served in deserts and jungles and picked up body parts of a comrade-in-arms from blood soaked ground. Moreover, while on active duty, I have had the very sad duty of escorting my squadron mate and best friend’s widow down a funeral isle to stand before his flag draped casket…an active duty fatality. Consequently, I do not need you to churlishly challenge my loyalty to the US Constitution, especially the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
You may consult my record for answers to your other questions.”
I guess I struck a nerve. I replied:
I didn’t ask if your family owned slaves but thank you for that information. Sorry if you feel insulted, that was never my intention. I just want to know:
How do you feel about the Black lives matter movement?
Will you go on the record denouncing the KKK?”
His response? You guessed it:
“You may consult my record for answers to your other questions.
John D. Ragan
John D. Ragan, State Representative REFUSED to denounce the KKK multiple times and told me to consult his voting record for my answer.
His voting record shows he wishes to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the KKK.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s a confirmation that John Ragan from Oak Ridge, representing District 33 in Anderson County, fully supports the KKK.
Throughout all this social unrest and discussions of police brutality, white supremacy, and racism, one organization continues to get mentioned: Police unions. The “Fraternal Order of Police”, as they commonly refer to themselves, exist in many cities representing the interests of officers in their dealings with the city.
Different unions have different stipulations in their contracts, but very often what it says in those contracts dictates how situations are handled after officer-involved incidents. Some contracts shield the identity of officers, others ensure the officers continue to get paid throughout investigations, still others limit civilian oversight power.
The “Police Union Contract Project” researched many of the individual union contracts, and can be found here.
NPR just did a story on a recent study that tells us that where police unions are present, police-involved killings – particularly of minorities – rises.
To Nashville’s credit, according to the Police Union Contract Project, many of the problematic stipulations are not in the Metro-Nashville Police Department contract.
In the midst of this recent upheaval, we reached out to the President of the Metro Nashville Police Union James Smallwood, and he was willing to speak with us.
Below is that conversation word for word, which can be found exclusively in PODCAST FORM HERE. (SUBSCRIBE!)
HOLLER: What, from the police union’s perspective, are your priorities right now?
SMALLWOOD: Our priority is ensuring that our officers will be able to keep the communities that they serve safe. We want to make sure their paid benefits and working conditions are good and that their voices are heard, that we all work together to make the world a better place.
HOLLER: I guess the questions I have are more about the role of the police union in all of this. Do you see the role of the police union as going to bat for officers no matter what, or is it more about finding a balance?
SMALLWOOD: Well clearly you have to find a balance, nobody wants a bad cop gone more than a good cop, right, so having the mentality that no matter what we’re going to bat for you, that’s not really what any police officer stands for. That being said, if you pay for a service and expect to be represented, we’ve gotta provide you with that service. So if you’re in a traffic crash and you’re at fault and you call your insurance company and they say, “Well, you were at fault so we’re not going to cover you,” that would be a violation of the agreement that you had with you and your insurance company, and it would be similar with the union and their employee. They’re asking for representation, and it’s our duty to do that.
HOLLER: So it sounds like you do see it as it’s the role of the union to support the officer first and foremost. I guess that’s kind of the thing that people wonder when it comes to police unions, it always seems to be that no matter what the video shows that unions tend to take the side of the officer, and it sounds like you do see it as their role, no?
SMALLWOOD: No, that’s not what I said at all. So you’re saying it’s our role to take the side of the officer and no, it’s our role to represent the officer. Just because the officer may or may not be wrong doesn’t give us any determination as to whether or not he or she gets representation.
HOLLER: So it’s like a lawyer almost.
SMALLWOOD: Well, yeah, I mean there are criminal defense lawyers out there all the time who have a job to do, and their client may be guilty but they have to represent them. And that may be the case you’re seeing with George Floyd in Minneapolis right now, those officers were clearly wrong and have been charged with a crime, and they’ll have their day in court. I’m sure they have some sort of representation there and that’s probably something they’ve come to expect because he’s paid for a service through his union. That doesn’t mean his Union agrees with what he did, it means they are obligated to provide him with a service.
HOLLER: There’s a project called the Police Union Contract Project – the Nashville contract is one of the least problematic from their point of view. It actually got pretty high marks when it comes to police union contracts. There are provisions in other contracts around the country that do seem to set off some alarms, though, in instances like this. For instance, protecting pay for police even when they’re found to be in the wrong, or when they’re under investigation, shielding their identity, blocking civilian oversight – these are things that are not in your contract that are in other contracts. Are these things that you asked for but didn’t get, or are those things that you didn’t think were right to have in these contracts?
SMALLWOOD: Those are things that we’ve not asked for but you need to be careful about what you may be placing as words that exist in contracts that may not be. I’ve not read these contracts you’re referring to, obviously, and my contract doesn’t include that, but I would assume that keeping things confidential while there’s an investigation underway – that’s reasonable, every officer is entitled to the same due process that any civilian out there in the street has. And the problem is when somebody is under investigation there’s not a whole lot of facts to consume and it’s very easy to draw conclusions. Once you draw conclusions it’s nearly impossible even with facts to show people that, okay this is what really happened, this is why we made that determination. So I can understand the reasoning behind saying, hey while there’s an ongoing investigation we’re going to keep this confidential until we reach the conclusion. The same exists when an officer is under investigation and receives his or her pay. If somebody complains about an officer and they’ve done nothing wrong, and the investigation turns out that they’ve done nothing wrong but we’ve decided arbitrarily to stop paying them because somebody complained on them, that’s a serious problem. You have affected somebody’s life very seriously for absolutely no reason, and to jump to the conclusion of guilt or innocence, and make an employee prove their innocence is not fair in any realm of reasonable representation. I think that’s probably what you’re seeing in those other cities.
HOLLER: What the other side of that would be is that you’re assuming innocence of the officer, and you’re assuming guilt of the deceased, or the victim, or whoever it might be in that instance.
SMALLWOOD: That’s not it at all, that’s not even close to the truth. The other side of that is we understand if you have a complaint, we want to investigate it fully to get all the facts. It’s not saying that you’re a liar – that’d be like saying hey, Joe Smith we’re investigating you for theft, because this individual over here has accused you, but we’re going to go ahead and arrest you right now instead of investigating it, finding the conclusions, and making sure that we’re getting it right so that we don’t affect your life negatively for something that may not be the truth. It happens quite frequently, I mean people tend to embellish stories quite a bit, whether it’s related to law enforcement or not. We all know that there’s folks out there who don’t want to tell the truth for whatever reason, and we have to investigate. We have to get the facts, you have to get it right whenever you’re going to affect somebody’s life, and that’s why officers are entitled to the same due process that civilians are.
HOLLER: A lot of the officers that we’ve seen involved in some of these incidents turn out to have a number of complaints against them. Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, for example, had 17 complaints, and was involved in some pretty high-level incidents before this. What is the general rule of thumb for how many of these incidents are allowed before there’s some sort of consequence with an officer? By the way, I’m a union guy, I’m in a union myself, so I’m very much pro-union. I’m just trying to understand the role that the union plays in providing protection for people that may have problematic records.
SMALLWOOD: Well, I think if you researched this topic appropriately, at least for our agency you’re going to see that the protection that is attached to this narrative that’s traveling across the country – there’s not as much protection as people think at least not in Tennessee or here in Nashville. There is no solid number of complaints or investigations that will automatically trigger some sort of determination. That would be completely unreasonable because we have hundreds of thousands of encounters over a career as individual officers, and any of those who can turn into a complaint, justified or not. They could be minuscule as the officer was having a bad day and he was rude to me. There’s a progressive discipline scale in place, and those officers are counseled and trained to try and change their behavior just like any other disciplinary scale that you see in society. But the jump to the worst possible conclusion of well, this guy has had five or six complaints so let’s fire him – let’s look at the totality of circumstances, let’s look at what instances of those complaints. And it’s easy to go oh, well, there’s nine complaints in officer Smallwood’s file, so obviously he’s a bad cop. What were those nine complaints founded on? Did somebody review them and find out that eight out of nine of them were based not in truth, and the department investigated and found out that there were things that came into play that made them not factual? Officers get complained on all the time for writing traffic tickets simply because somebody doesn’t like to receive a traffic ticket, does that mean it’s a bad officer? No, that means someone’s not happy about the outcome of an encounter and that’s not something we can control.
HOLLER: Whose discretion does it end up being for what happens to the officer? Is it just up to the senior presiding officer, whoever’s in charge? Does the union get involved in that?
UNION CHIEF: The union will provide a representative only if the individual requests one, so if the individual says hey I’d like a representative to sit with me, I’ve never been through this before, we’ll provide a representative. But we don’t have any influence on what the outcome of the investigation will be, that would be a conflict of interest for us. Folks that are attached to either internal affairs or the office of professional accountability – their independent offices will investigate the officer in claims of wrongdoing, and they’ll come out with a finding. Or in, more minor cases, like you know, I stopped somebody today and they’re upset about a traffic ticket they received, the direct supervisor of the officer will review and make recommendations on how to proceed.
HOLLER: There’s a study that NPR just featured on a Planet Money episode, about an economist’s finding that in cities where there is a presence of a union, police killings of minorities go up. The idea, I think, is that there’s job security. Do you feel like job security plays a part in some of these instances, or do you think that this is just random?
SMALLWOOD: Absolutely not. Well and I guess my question on that study would be that did those study all encompass major cities, or what are all the variables that come into play, because just saying that where there are police unions there’s more killings… look at the facts of the case. We are trying to find reasons to blame police unions for things that happened that outside of our control. We’re trying to blame police officers for things that are outside of our control. The Minneapolis incident that is one that should never have happened, I agree 100%, and you’ve seen organizations and agencies from all across the country come out and condemn those actions. That should be a very clear signal to you that we recognize when wrongdoing happens, and we’re willing to point it out. Saying there’s more killings in a city because there is a union there, surely you see how ridiculous that sounds.
HOLLER: You seem like a reasonable guy, but in Minneapolis, the union president is out there saying all kinds of stuff. They’re not always as reasonable as you seem to be. In St. Louis, there’s a similar situation. So it seems like there tend to be a certain bravado or challenging of the narrative by police unions sometimes, and I think that’s why people tend to assign that role to them in these situations. Do you think that there’s something wrong in the country with police-community relations, and if so, what would you recommend? I think right now we’re at a boiling point, people are looking for answers. Do you, as the president of a police union of a major city in the South, have any thoughts about what actually can be changed?
SMALLWOOD: I think at least for the Fraternal Order of Police here in Nashville, I’m always looking to do better. I’m always looking to improve, but certainly we are always engaging in our community and trying to find new ways to build bridges. The FOP has a youth camp that we’ve had for more than 50 or 60 years that actually goes into communities and has kids that we deal with. When we identify kids on a call that may need a little bit of relationship building with the police or may be down-on-their-luck or for whatever reason, and the officer says that child could benefit from a free Camp week with a police officer, they sign them up, and then we will take them for a week long trip to our youth camp. We will work all week long with them playing basketball, or baseball, or kickball, and taking them swimming in the lake, or fishing, or kayaking. There’s a whole host of different activities that we do. But the whole concept is to build positive lasting relationships with those kids, and that will pay dividends long-term because they need to learn that we are their friends, not the enemy. That’s huge for us, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, as our organization moves forward.
We’ve expanded on that to reach out to our community where we can identify people that are in need of financial aid, where there’s no social program that can step in and help, or where there is no welfare program. We say hey, we understand you need help with this we’re going to help you overcome that adversity. Officers can actually reach out to the FOP and say hey, we’re here on this call and Mrs. Smith has three children who are sleeping on the floor because they can’t afford a bed for their kids, and we buy bunk beds for them. So we actually step in and purchase bunk beds for these families and work to build that positive relationship. You’ve seen things like in West Precinct where they’ve developed a community engagement team and they’ve seen significant reductions in crime. That engagement team has been working in an area that had high crime, and that precinct has now seen a significant reduction because of that engagement with the community. Does that mean that everything we’re doing is working? No, we can do better. We should be doing better, you know the FOP, as much as we’d like to, there are time constraints. We need to be sharing conversations with people from our community, we need to sit down and share perspectives from both sides, because if one side does not understand fully the perspective of the other side we will never accomplish our goals and make our community a safer and stronger place.
HOLLER: Do you think it helps when officers live in the area that they work in?
SMALLWOOD: You know what’s very concerning about that question is that officers in the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department cannot afford to live in their communities. They can’t. They cannot afford to live in the Nashville community, and so it’s very difficult to answer that question because we’re simply not paid enough to survive with a living wage, and survive the cost of living in Nashville. We were driven out by high increases and the cost of living not keeping up with salaries. I think it’s important that we do continue to have those conversations with our community, and police officers are human beings. We’re not perfect, but we strive to do everything we can to help. You see them as Sunday school teachers, as baseball coaches, as Boy Scout leaders, whatever you name it. When they’re not wearing the uniform, they’re generally engaged in their community anyway. So we’re not just a badge in the uniform, we are humans, we are people, and we are out there engaged in every aspect we can possibly do, we just want to help make the world a better place.
HOLLER: I ask this next one acknowledging that Nashville has not been really a part of this but we have seen a lot of videos of police… first of all, let me acknowledge we’ve seen a lot of looting and destruction on the part of people. I mean the vast majority of them have been peaceful protests, but there obviously has been problematic stuff, including here in Nashville. On the flip side, the vast majority of police have handled themselves well, but we’ve also seen a bunch of videos where police have gotten out of control and done things that are completely unnecessary. There are something like 500 examples from the past 2 weeks.
(FOLLOW THIS THREAD…)
To simplify following the criminal justice news of the last 36 hours, I posted a set of 10 links to police brutality videos on Facebook
Can’t do that here, obvs
So I’m putting them into a thread
— T. Greg Doucette (@greg_doucette) May 30, 2020
HOLLER: When you see those videos, does it feel like that’s actually doing police a disservice when they act that way, or do you feel like there might be a justification for it?
SMALLWOOD: So here’s where we come to a problem, and this is where you’ll go back to, well police unions are just there to stand up and protect officers whether or not they’re wrong. I don’t know the facts of a situation that happened in Buffalo, New York, or Louisville, Kentucky, or St. Louis, Missouri, or wherever any of these protests may have taken place. I know what was captured in the 30 second video, but I have questions. I want to know, were officers giving reasonable commands to leave the area, were they given ample time to leave and the person either refused or charged at the officer, or walked towards the officers. Those are all variables that come into play, and it would not be appropriate for me without getting all the facts to comment as to whether or not that’s right or wrong. I can comment as to whether it looked right around but that would be very reckless.
HOLLER: I know I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. When it comes to people who aren’t police, like in Minnesota there were officers driving by people walking on the highway, and a guy just stops and pepper sprays a guy for no reason and drives off. It seems like it just creates this air of distrust which feels like it makes you guys less safe in the end.
SMALLWOOD: I’m not sure what event you’re talking about I’ve not seen it.
HOLLER: I’ll send you some links!
UNION CHIEF: Please do.
HOLLER: I definitely will. The last thing I’ll ask you about, and I think I already know the answer, but there is a refrain from activists right now to defund the police. Some people are taking it literally, and some people mean it literally which is like to not have police anymore, but other people mean that police budgets, in comparison to what we spend on other priorities like education, healthcare, that kind of thing, are fairly bloated. Memphis, for example, has a vast majority of the budget. I actually don’t know what it is in Nashville, but we are spending like nothing on education in Memphis from the city budget, and housing is also a small amount. The argument that people make is if we were spending more on other priorities, then your job would be easier because there would be less militarization of police and there be less imprisonment. Essentially it’s a vicious cycle, where the more we spend on policing, the more we spend on locking people up, the more people are down on their luck, and the more they’re going to commit crimes. If we just break the cycle and start spending on other things and invest in people, and trust in people, that that might actually ultimately help your job out. What do you think about that philosophy?
SMALLWOOD: So, the reality is there are always going to be bad actors in our society. There are always going to be people out there who are willing to rob other innocent people who are willing to burglarize people’s homes, who are willing to break in and kidnap children, and continue the sex trafficking rings that are riddled in our society. There are horrible things that we see as police officers on a daily basis, and while social and community projects are great, and they should be funded and, absolutely we should be focusing on trying to get people to stop doing that, these people are always going to exist in our society. When somebody robs you and you’ve defunded the police, who’s going to come who’s going to answer that call? And saying we need to take money from away from law enforcement to fund these community projects is a lot like saying we need to rob Peter to pay Paul. We’re not doing any services by saying “defund the police.” That’s not the solution. The solution is to find new, creative, and innovative ways to have our society reduce the violence, to reduce the victimization of our communities, and to reduce people terrorizing our neighborhoods. When we find those real solutions, I think you’ll see that that problem will solve itself. Policing is not the crux of all our socio-economic problems that exist in America. We are a nation of laws. Unfortunately those laws have to be enforced because not everybody wants to follow them. I think that that’s a very dangerous idea.
HOLLER: I agree that it’s not the crux, but what others would say is that maybe it’s not the answer to everything either. That we always tend to turn to the police to handle everything, like mental health issues, and that kind of thing. That there’s too much on the plate of the police that actually they’re not properly trained for.
SMALLWOOD: I agree that we could use more training and that people turn to the police for far too much. There are things that we need, like mental health responses. We need more training for that, but here’s the thing, when the call comes in, say there’s an individual suffering with a mental health crisis. And that individual either has a knife or a gun – are we going to send a social worker to the house by themselves to deal with that mental health crisis and have them take all the risks? I think the reasonable person in society says that doesn’t make sense. That’s why law enforcement exists. We stand on the line between danger and chaos and civility in our society. While yes, bringing a social worker to deal with a mental health crisis…there are crises beyond that that are real dangers to our society that need to be resolved. Sometimes that can’t always happen, so it’s not reasonable to say well if we fund all these social issues, we fund all these community projects, then we won’t need police officers anymore. To me that just doesn’t make sense. Even if I wasn’t a police officer, that doesn’t make any sense to me. It doesn’t stand to any kind of reason or logic.
HOLLER: Do you understand why maybe black people might feel that way in general?
SMALLWOOD: Why they feel what way?
HOLLER: Why they feel like they can’t really trust police. I know black people who are afraid to call the police even when they need a cop.
SMALLWOOD: And I think that’s why we need to get back to having reasonable conversations not based in emotion and rhetoric. I can see why, especially when you’ve got folks who are villainizing law enforcement, why there might be some concern. But frankly, law enforcement exists to help and to intervene when there’s a problem. When you look across the country… let’s just look at Nashville. Nashville has over 1 million police contacts per year. 99.9% of those contacts end in a positive or protective way. There are a few that do not, and those officers that are involved were held accountable for their actions. But for the majority, just like you said about peaceful protesters – there’s a few people in those crowds who want to be agitators and create problems, and riot, and loot, and steal, and pillage, and we ask the police to stand there and deal with those problems. The same exists in the law enforcement profession. The majority of us are here to serve our community, like counselors and social workers, to intervene in a crisis, to help where help is needed. There are a few that get painted, that made mistakes, or are bad actors, and they paint the entire profession with those few who make those bad actions. I think that’s where we need to have those real conversations with people in our communities and say look, if you want to be reasonable we’ll be reasonable, if you want to talk facts we’ll talk facts, but if you want to go, we’ll everybody’s bad because one person, but that standard doesn’t apply to us, that’s not reasonable. That’s not logical, and that’s where we get lost in the weeds.
HOLLER: Is there enough de-escalation training?
SMALLWOOD: We are huge proponents of de-escalation training, and we’re also huge proponents of training and general. Frankly, there’s not enough training. We would love to train more, but training cost more people and money. It takes more people to man the streets while officers are down getting more training, and it costs money to train those officers.
HOLLER: When you say training, what are you thinking of?
SMALLWOOD: All across the board, whether it be mental health crises, de-escalation, or any of the training that may pertain to the law enforcement profession. We need more training, and we’re always saying train us more, train us more, train us more, but there are limitations on how much training is reasonable and how much we can actually get done.
HOLLER: Would your officers be receptive to it?
SMALLWOOD: We already have the escalating training, yeah.
HOLLER: I mean other stuff, like mental health issues and things like that.
UNION CHIEF: I’m sure if you ask the police department they’ll show you the curriculum. If you look at the curriculum, there’s already mental health training, there’s already those kinds of things that people are saying police officers need to be doing, like implicit bias training. We are doing these things, like de-escalation training. We are doing these things proactively, but there’s one thing to remember, and that’s that de-escalation requires cooperation and it’s a two-way street. As much as we would love for every situation to deescalate, that’s just not always the case. There are people out there who do not want to comply. There people out there who are looking for a fight, and we can de-escalate all we want, and they will not cooperate with that de-escalation tactic. We have to rise to the level that they’re at at that point, because we have just as much of a right to go home at the end of a shift is anybody else does, and if somebody doesn’t want to work with us and de- escalate as we try to deescalate the situation then we have to come to their level and make sure that that threat doesn’t continue to threaten our community and ourselves.
HOLLER: As a final question, there’s a bill right now for Constitutional Carry, basically permitless carry, in Tennessee. I know there are some law enforcement officers that are against this, do you guys have a position on that?
SMALLWOOD: This is gonna sound like a cop out, but any comment on legislation has to come from our State FOP office, not from a Local.
HOLLER: Well, James, I appreciate you doing this, I’m a union guy. I think you’re a reasonable guy, and I think that there are different union presidents throughout the country that are going to give you different answers and different attitudes, and so I appreciate you taking the time. I hope you understand that people are just scared and frustrated, and in the age of video this stuff really leaves a lasting impact. That’s where people are coming from, and I just hope the lines of communication are open. I hope you guys stay open to some of these ideas because people feel like something needs to change, as this all has amounted to something here. So hopefully that’ll be something that’s mutually beneficial.
SMALLWOOD: I appreciate that, and as long as things are reasonable, I think we are open to conversation. It’s when things become unreasonable and are painting pictures that don’t really exist, that are not based in reality or not based in fact – that’s when we start to lose control of our society, so I think we all need to be communicating better, we all need to be sharing perspectives. I think that a three second video does not show what a 30 minute call was. We see it time, and time, and time again where somebody has taken a cell phone video, narrowed it down to a three second clip, and then when we get the full video, we see oh, well x, y, and z happened that led to this, and now, with the facts that surround it, it’s reasonable. That’s not what happened in Minneapolis, it’s just general talking about what we see time and time again when law enforcement videos get released on the internet. Minneapolis is a completely separate and independent issue, George Floyd should still be alive today. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do to change that, I’m in Nashville.
HOLLER: There’s been a bunch of them, there’s been a buildup here. If it hadn’t been for the 30 or 40 that happened beforehand…it’s an explosion, this isn’t an isolated incident. I think that’s part of the problem. But I understand what you’re saying. Thank you for your time, maybe down the line we can circle back.
SMALLWOOD: Sure, thanks.
The president has just attempted to declare Antifa a terrorist organization, and there has been a concerted effort by conservatives to blame the social upheaval we’re seeing on Antifa to distract from the real issues of police brutality and white supremacy.
There have been many videos of white people dressed in black causing destruction, but we’ve also seen that white supremacists are doing the same in an effort to pin the blame on Antifa… so where does the truth lie? What is Antifa exactly?
In an effort to hear from Antifa directly, we reached out to Atlanta Antifa on Twitter, and they responded and were kind enough to talk to us. This is what they had to say.
HOLLER: My first question is, what is Antifa?
Atlanta Antifa: “Well I think at this point it’s a rapidly evolving word and it’s used in two ways, one is just generically anti-fascist. Anybody who doesn’t like Nazis. So in that definition, there is there’s a lot of people who say people who fought in World War II were Antifa, and you know in a certain perspective that’s totally true, but it’s also used in a more specific way to talk about the groups that rose out of the old anti-racist actions from the 80s and 90s which were specifically designed to fight the far right, to monitor and counter KKK, Nazis, racist boneheads…. and then in the modern era, the alt-right. So our group is part of that more specific meaning of the word Antifa and we consider ourselves to be in that tradition. It’s an international movement to monitor and counter the far-right.“
HOLLER: And when you say our group, who is our group?
Atlanta Antifa: “Atlanta Anti-Fascists.”
HOLLER: How much coordination is there among Antifa groups in America?
Atlanta Antifa: “I would say we have a lot of coordination in terms of information sharing because really the vast majority of the work we do is monitoring, using open source intelligence. We will try to doxx Nazis and uncover their plans, de-platform them, so we share a lot of information, frequently publicly, in a decentralized way. We have no hierarchy, so there’s no leader of Antifa, groups don’t use real names, we tend to use a lot of information security because the Nazis are after us you know like the Base Plot for example, when they tried to assassinate two people they thought were our members, so we use a lot of security in order to keep ourselves safe because the people that we are after are pretty violent.”
HOLLER: So how did it start if there’s no hierarchy?
Atlanta Antifa: “I would say that while being an anarchist is not a prerequisite for entry, the group is fairly non-ideological when it comes to that, the dominant culture comes out of the anarchist political tradition in which you don’t want to have a strong structure or hierarchy because that a lot of times leads to abuse, so instead, folks contribute what they can. They do what they can and coordinate that way and operate by consensus and voting, and not “you do this, here and now.” We have coordination, but we don’t have hierarchy and leadership.”
HOLLER: Is violence a part of what you do?
Atlanta Antifa: “The vast majority of the time, no. Something like 99% of what we do is nonviolent. But, at the same time if it comes to that, we are definitely prepared to do that and we would not condemn it. I’m talking about stuff that Antifa, does encountering Nazis. For example, the protest in Newnan where there was a possibility of something like that happening but it was a community defense situation, it would have been defending AGAINST Nazis. So that’s pretty much the area where violence comes in. I would say our philosophy is we comment combat racism and fascism by any means necessary but almost all of the time those means are not violent.“
HOLLER: So, I’m assuming you’re seeing what’s happening in the country right now…
Atlanta Antifa: “Yes.”
HOLLER: “…And there’s been a concerted effort by Republicans, the President, the right-wing, Fox News, and all the way down the line to state and local legislators on the right, to essentially lay this at the feet, in large part, of Antifa. What do you think when you see that?”
Atlanta Antifa: “Well it’s sort of a wary disappointment because it feels like this has all been done before. It’s damaging I think because a lot of what is happening this weekend is a black-led reaction to white racist police violence and it shouldn’t really be about us. Although we are definitely very against racist beliefs, we are not planning or coordinating any of this. We are just supporting it. We are a small group, so our support mainly comes from monitoring these protests and trying to keep an eye out if any Nazis and far-right militia members are showing up so that we can warn people. That’s what we see as our function, but we have been sort of cast in the central role as the villain when we’re not even on the stage, let’s just put it that way. And it echoes back to the 1950s and 60s when racists were trying to discount the Civil Rights Movement which was led by black people they would say oh “they’re being puppeted by white Communists, it’s all outside agitators,” and I feel like people are reaching for that same playbook again and using us in order to discredit this other group. The other thing I want to say is that it’s dangerous because it encourages law enforcement to just crack down so much harder on people who are just trying to defend themselves against racists in their communities and these people may not have any connection at all to our group, which is a very specialized group in this tradition that I’m talking about going back to the 1980s, but anybody who says Nazis are bad now could be “ANTIFA” and will get cracked down harder on by police and law enforcement.”
HOLLER: Right, meanwhile though there are videos all over the place of white people just dressed in all black running around being destructive, and we as the public have come to recognize mostly white people dressed in all black as Antifa. We’ve seen pictures of white supremacists dressing up as Antifa to create this narrative, but is it possible that there are actually people who consider themselves Antifa who are doing this?
Atlanta Antifa: “Well, the situation is very chaotic and confusing, and the fact that there are white people causing damage, sometimes white people causing damage is it even political, like if you look at all these riots that happen after football. I think right now there’s a lot of different stuff happening and people do not want to examine the situation it is complexity, so they picked a very simple narrative, and the narrative a lot of people have picked are that we are the villain. I will say that that’s really our number one thing, is that we are trying to monitor any far-right people who have shown up at these protests that we can warn other protesters and track them, but it’s difficult because sometimes people hide their identities. We do think that sometimes the participation of white supremacists has been overstated though.”
HOLLER: So you’re involved with communication right? There’s something called The Torch Network?
Atlanta Antifa: “Well, The Torch Network is just a loose affiliation of some Antifa groups such as us, Portland, and so on. It’s an information-sharing network connecting the larger groups. There a lot of Antifa groups that are not members of The Torch Network. But the thing to understand is it’s totally decentralized and autonomous, so anybody can say that they’re Antifa, and anybody can say that they’re not Antifa. So the fact that somebody who is white and wearing all black and is destroying something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s “Antifa.”
HOLLER: So you are involved in the communication theoretically of whatever this the closest thing to the centralized communication that there is. Is the goal to go out there and cause chaos or is it the opposite?
Atlanta Antifa: “It’s neither. We have no goal, actually. When it comes to this protest, we basically we support any black-led rebellion against racist policing, let’s just put it that way. We support, it but we don’t have a role in controlling it, and if we could then we wouldn’t because we don’t think that’s our role. I know that the popular that perception is, that Antifa is all white, but that’s actually not the case. People who are involved in these Antifa groups all stay anonymous because we don’t want Nazis trying to kill us, and there are definitely members of Antifa who are not white, but those members tend to stay even more anonymous because they get even more negative attention.
When it comes to the riots, I keep saying this but it’s totally true – if you talk to these other groups they’ll say the same thing, that we are not planning this. We are not saying okay this is the goal and go do it. When groups are coming together and they’re tearing down Confederate statues or making the police retreat, we’re going to cheer that on because we believe that that’s a good thing, against fighting racism and fascism, but we are not coordinating this. We are not the Puppet Masters.”
HOLLER: Right, so now the President has essentially said that they’re going to declare Antifa as a terrorist organization. How do you feel about that?
Atlanta Antifa: “Well you know like I said at the beginning, we’re kind of used to it at this point because he made the same threats last summer. We’re not sure if it’s even legal or Constitutional for him to do that, although I’m sure it will result in an increased law enforcement presence, but you know like I said, most of the stuff that we do is completely legal and covered under the First Amendment anyway. We think that the crackdown that will result will probably not affect groups like ours, although it may affect our social media and things like that, but it won’t affect us as much as it will affect every day just regular people who are accused of being our members.”
HOLLER: Right, so now they can declare anybody Antifa and treat them as terrorists.
Atlanta Antifa: “Yes, exactly, in his supporters already think that they can do that. They’re all saying “you’re going to be dragged off to GTMO,” and having all these fantasies of violent retribution.”
HOLLER: “We had a courthouse burned here, and they caught a guy who seems to have been involved. There was also a guy in all black right in front of him, and immediately the narrative was “oh he’s Antifa.” Fox Nashville came out and said that with zero proof of it. Meanwhile, he had what looked to be a white supremacist tattoo, and he’s from Nashville and has done other stuff here. When that happens is there any communication among you all to say that he was or wasn’t one of ours? Is there any way to validate or invalidate those kinds of claims?:
Atlanta Antifa: “Well, we’re all about transparent communication and public service, so if I knew anything about that case that was helpful I would say it, but I don’t.”
HOLLER: Gotcha, mean I wasn’t expecting that you knew anything about that case, I was Just saying is your group of where that that happened, and is there any communication among you saying does anybody know this guy or has anybody heard of this guy that kind of thing?
Atlanta Antifa: “No.”
HOLLER: Is there any desire on the part of Antifa to control the narrative?
Atlanta Antifa: “We really can’t control the narrative because the nation has gotten so polarized at this point that the right-wing believes what they want to believe, and in many cases the mainstream media is taking their cues from the right. All we can do is just say the truth and hope people will pick up on it. Our business is not to go around avowing or disavowing all these different actions that are taking place this week, we’re just we’re not focused on that.”
HOLLER: Got it. I think people will be interested to have heard from you, so is there any message that you have either for people who are supporting the feelings black people are having, or for those who are trying to blame you like the president? Is there anything that you want to say?
Atlanta Antifa: “I think that we have to take care of each other, do a lot of mutual aid, support each other, and listen to each other. But that kind of listening and process it has to start from the bottom up. It can’t go from the top down. We have to listen to the people who are the most hurt, and the most powerless in society, and not go the other direction.”
HOLLER: All right well I appreciate you doing this and be careful out there.
Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee
“BIG DATA ON ELECTION NIGHT”
From the Not-So-Farfetched File…
RACHEL MADDOW: Good evening, and welcome to MSNBC’s Election Night 2020 coverage.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: We still have two hours to go before voting locations close on the East Coast, but we do have public opinion polling to give us some fascinating insights into the electorate.
MADDOW: For that we go to Steve Kornacki at the big board.
KORNACKI: That’s right, Rachel and Brian. We’ve been able to use what data experts call common reference points to link standard election polls to all sorts of other Big Data information. Let’s start with comparisons to 2016.
Donald Trump is down ten points among pick-up truck drivers, but up two points among drivers of vehicles with slogans or female images on mud flaps. Joe Biden’s commuting habits seem to be paying off for him. He is winning three-to-one among people who’ve ever traveled by train, two-to-one among those who as a child had model trains. He’s also winning big among those who ever watched Soul Train, or can sing at least some of the words to “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
MADDOW: You have other information about Georgia as well?
KORNACKI: Yes, we discovered that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, known for his botched response to coronavirus, is now less popular than the virus itself.
WILLIAMS: But he’s not on the ballot this time around.
KORNACKI: That’s right, but our numbers indicate he would lose a recall effort by roughly twelve to one.
MADDOW: Any other big surprises?
KORNACKI: Yes, going back to 2016 comparisons, turnout overall could be up by as much as ten percentage points. Those who think it’s okay to cast a third-party protest vote is down 93 percent.
WILLIAMS: I understand you also have social media data.
KORNACKI: Oh, large amounts of social media data. Trump and Biden overall are dead even among Facebook and Twitter users—with Trump holding a strong lead among first-time users from foreign domains.
Looking at just Twitter users, Trump leads among those with spelling and grammatical errors in their posts, and with those who use multiple exclamation points, or who link to conspiracy sites. Biden leads only among those who link to established news and information sites.
We have even more on tweets. Song birds that tweet daily are breaking big for Biden. Parrots are tilting toward Trump. We’re pretty sure Big Bird, and most of Sesame Street—excepting Oscar the Grouch—will be going for Biden. Trump, by the way, scores well among vultures and all creatures who feed on dead flesh.
MADDOW: Wow, that’s a broad database.
KORNACKI: Yes, it is. We even have foreign data. Biden is doing much better than Trump with Americans living in France, those who ever have visited France, and among French people who wish they could vote in this election. Trump leads only among those who can’t find France on a map.
WILLIAMS: You also have some other data you’ve told us is hard to categorize.
KORNACKI: Correct. Trump is down ten points among those who use “summer” as a verb, but he’s up five points among residents of mobile homes who have thought about bleaching their lungs or admit to snorting Lysol.
We can’t give away too much, but I can say all indications are this election night will please a lot of people who shop on Thursdays, post photos of children, and drive automatic transmissions.
Mark D. Harmon, a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, is an award-winning freelance columnist.
After 220+ days of protests against Ballad Health the city of Kingsport recently passed a “no camping” ordinance to make the encampment of protestors a violation of city law. Newly obtained emails reveal the ordinance came at the request of local businessman Bob Feathers – who was previously a Ballad board member.
For those who haven’t been following the Kingsport Ballad saga closely, here’s the back story we posted a while back, but the bottom line is Ballad Health is a state-sanctioned hospital monopoly that resulted from a merger enabled by state legislature cronyism, and the merger resulted in a limiting of vital resources for the Kingsport area. Ballad has also now become known for overcharging for services, and suing thousands of low-income Tennesseans for outstanding hospital bills.
It’s also worth noting that Alan Levine, the CEO of Ballad, previously made headlines in a 60 Minutes interview where he came to the defense of HMA, a company that was committing MASSIVE amounts of Medicare Fraud.
Levine denied the allegations despite being presented with irrefutable evidence, and the company ultimately ended up paying out $260 MILLION in penalties – but nobody went to jail, and now Levine is in Tennessee quarterbacking Ballad Health’s doings in Kingsport.
The 220-day+ Ballad protest has been led by Dani Cook. Dani and other citizens recently spoke up at a city meeting about the proposed ordinance, but the “no camping” law passed anyway and just took effect this week, which has led to the police putting a notice on the encampment of the protesters letting them know they’re now in violation.
NEW: After a 188 DAY PROTEST of state-sanctioned monopoly @BalladHealth gutting their hospital, KINGSPORT attacks citizens’ rights with a bogus ordinance, may charge @Danithepoet with “Felony Vandalism” because of the GRASS 🤔
WATCH their heated meeting👇🏼pic.twitter.com/t84YEdwzIb
— The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) November 6, 2019
Emails shared with the Holler reveal the ordinance came at the behest of Bob Feathers, president of Workspace Interior, who was previously a Ballad board member and currently owns a furniture supply store we’re told supplies Ballad with much of its furniture.
Below are the email exchanges between Feathers and local officials who passed the 0rdinance. The first is from Feathers, who complains condescendingly about the “pathetic mob instincts” of the protestors and requests a “no camping ordinance” from mayor Pat Shull:
Mayor Shull then responds to clarify that what Feathers wants is a “no camping ordinance”:
Feathers agrees: “A no camping ordinance designed to prevent harm against all of us”
At which point Miles Burdine of the Kingsport Chamber chimes in to express his support:
That the city was doing Ballad’s bidding with this ordinance comes as no surprise, but it still always clarifying to see who’s pulling the strings and making the laws right there in black and white – which is probably why the city doesn’t want to talk about it:
Protestor Dani Cook took to Facebook last night to discuss the situation in a post about “The Kingsport Mayor’s email trail, Unconstitutional Ordinance”, and has made a post today showing the protestors are still out there for their 225th day.
Feel free to holler at Dani to express your support, and if you have anything to say to Feathers, Burdine, Mayor Shull, or any of those who voted for the ordinance, their emails are below:
Mayor Shull: PatShull@KingsportTN.gov