Community Oversight for Nashville: Lessons from the Field by DJ Hudson

On November 6, 2018, the city of Nashville voted to implement its first Community Oversight Board (COB). The fight to win those votes started almost two years ago. The COB itself was constructed from the efforts of a broad coalition that was Black led and committed to a grassroots strategy; we intentionally relied on the power of everyday Black and working class folk to win, eschewing political gatekeepers and trusting our folks to see us through. And our faith was duly rewarded.

In the Fall of 2016, local organization Gideon's Army released a report on the racial profiling of Black communities by Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) called the Driving While Black Report. Even though Nashville's city leadership prides itself on its progressive politics, action on the report's damning findings was slow, and MNPD was unrepentant, with Police Chief Steve Anderson calling the creators of the report "morally disingenuous" and accusing them of driving a wedge between police and Black communities.Then, on February 10, 2017, Jocques Clemmons, a devoted Black father and beloved son, was chased down and shot during a "routine" traffic stop. Within days, activists and organizations rallied around Jocques' mother Sheila Clemmons Lee, who had vowed that her son's life would not be taken in vain. One of our first actions was taking over the city council meeting days after Jocques' death, and issuing six demands. A COB was one of those demands.

We made sure to insist from the start that it be organized by the people, recognized by Metropolitan government, and granted subpoena power, lest we be given a toothless COB that was unable (or unwilling) to change the status quo. We would have to build the COB we wanted from scratch, from legislative proposal to implementation strategy. And even with the crisis that Jocques' death created in  our community, we faced one obstacle after another. Our initial attempt via city council vote failed when would-be allies balked dropped their support, and resistance to the idea mounted amongst liberal leadership.

In October 2017, we carefully considered our next best option: installing a COB through referendum vote. It would require us to collect thousands of signatures to just to make it onto the ballot, and then to run a successful political campaign in order to win. We did so, joining the wave of movements that year who wielded electoral politics in innovate ways, experimenting out of necessity instead of relying on the politics that have failed our communities for so long. We prevailed and won our city's support, but we're clear that that is only because we first had faith in our people, and built our campaign around that trust.