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Nashville To African-Americans: Join Your Police Department!


Conversations are also taking place among people who want to prevent a repeat of what's happened in Missouri. In cities like Sacramento and Dallas, police are convening town hall meetings with community leaders to try to ease tensions and figure out how they would handle a similar situation. Thursday night in Nashville, police attended a gathering that drew several hundred people. Emily Siner of member station WPLN was there.

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Queen McElrath and Destiny Anderson, two high school students, wrote a song for the gathering based on the demonstrations in Ferguson.


QUEEN MCELWRETH AND DESTINY ANDERSON: (Singing) I am Trayvon. I am Mike Brown - hands up - don't shoot. Hands up - don't shoot.

SINER: They performed it for a packed sanctuary at Mount Zion Baptist Church. With them on stage were the Nashville police chief and commanders from all eight precincts in the city. It was Ferguson that prompted Joseph Walker, a pastor here, to organize this meeting.


PASTOR JOSEPH WALKER: All of us have been impacted by the events that we saw in Ferguson. And like all of us, we recognize that no city in America is immune from a similar event happening to us. And so tonight is really about a conversation.

SINER: In the audience was Laini Brown, a member of Mount Zion who's lived in Nashville for 18 years. She says the police treat her son and daughter differently because they're African-American.

LAINI BROWN: Having a 23-year-old son - my son - he knows do not let your hands off that steering wheel. It's yes sir, no sir. You know, these are things - these are lessons that I've had to teach him that I know that my Caucasian counterparts have not had to teach their children to live with.

SINER: The audience was largely African-American. Many people asked about the relationship between police and young black men. A simmering issue that's boiled over in Ferguson. They talked about having sons who were afraid of the police and asked for statistics on shootings and the racial makeup of the force. Nashville police isn't as unrepresentative as Ferguson's. Still, while nearly 30 percent of our Nashville's African-American, only 11 percent of the police force is. Police chief Steve Anderson asked whether the people in the community are satisfied with that.


POLICE CHIEF STEVE ANDERSON: This is my opportunity to say to you join your police department. Be a part of any solution that you think needs to occur here in Nashville.

SINER: And he defended his force, saying in his 40 years on the job in Nashville, he doesn't remember a shooting of an unarmed black man. Other audience numbers said the problem isn't with the police. Michelle Holt placed some blame on the younger people in the black community.


MICHELLE HOLT: I need for the young black men to start pulling your pants up. Let's start with self. And when you see your friends getting beat down - you become a lawyer - you become a judge - you become a police officer.

SINER: Her comment drew pushback from John Faison, one of the faith leaders here. He calls that kind of criticism respectability politics.


JOHN FAISON: Respectability politics says that Mike Brown was shot because his pants were hanging down when the truth is Doctor King wore suits when he went to jail.

SINER: Faison and other community leaders here urged adults to listen more to young African-Americans instead of lecturing to them. During the two-hour town hall, police chief Steve Anderson cracked a few jokes but was mostly business and careful with his words. And he gave out the department's phone number, telling the audience to call it any time. For NPR News in Nashville, I'm Emily Siner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.