There's a moment in the cellphone video recorded in the James A. Cayce Homes on April 12 when the cumulative effect of two years of news video from across the country — which has at times felt like a hellish GIF looping the killing of black men at the hands of police officers over and over — swells up from your stomach and into your chest. This is the moment, you think, when the officer pulls out his gun and shoots an unarmed man.
The video, which has been viewed more than 3 million times on Facebook and was quickly picked up by media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, begins with a crowd milling around a courtyard on South Seventh Street in East Nashville. It's a little after 6 p.m., the long spring day still holding off the night. The buildings are brick, the bodies mostly black and the voices loud and upset, though the source of the commotion isn't apparent.
Then a sudden surge in volume — the sound of a few voices is overtaken by the distorted noise of a crowd of dozens shouting. A few quick shifts of the camera reveal the reason: a police officer on the ground, on top of someone whose legs and neon-green tennis shoes are squirming beneath him. The Metro police department would later identify the two as Brian Shannon, a 22-year-old black man who does not live in Cayce, and Matthew Cammarn, a white officer with the East Precinct.
As they struggle on the ground, Cammarn's left arm can be seen rising and plunging downward, striking Shannon with multiple blows. As the crowd surrounds them, some begin to pull at the officer. One man approaches and flips them over, putting Shannon on top, and someone else pulls at Cammarn's leg as Shannon appears to try to break free. Another person emerges from the crowd and appears to kick Cammarn. A woman's voice can be heard nearby.
"Oh my fucking God! Oh my God!"
Then, suddenly, Shannon breaks free and sprints away, prompting a reaction from the man filming (and likely, many viewers): "Oh shit!"
Officer Cammarn jumps to his feet, and the crowd scatters. This is the moment — that moment when you think the officer will pull his weapon. But he doesn't. He takes off running, chasing Shannon out of the courtyard.
"Run!" a woman shouts as he disappears from view. "Run!"
The crowd returns, as does the commotion.
"Man, I got this shit on camera, bro!" says the man filming, a thrilled sense of disbelief in his voice. "It just went down!"
It was the second day in a row that the Cayce Homes — Nashville's largest public housing development — had been the site of a violent incident involving the police. A day before, Central Precinct Officer Josh Hausman suffered a cut to his hand while trying to break up a fight between two women. The details of both incidents remain foggier than suggested by early media reports.
Initially, the police department noted that Hausman "was not able to determine whether he or one of the female combatants was the intended target of the person with the sharp object" and that "officers reported that the crowd was not particularly aggressive toward them, but just seemed to disregard their presence." Even though there is video footage of the second incident, questions remain about that too. While the police department's release to media claimed that Shannon — who was ultimately apprehended by Cammarn the night of the incident — had pulled away as the officer tried to take him into custody, grabbing him and pulling him to the ground, that part of their interaction cannot be seen in the video. And while the department says Cammarn had intervened after seeing Shannon "assault a woman," Shannon was not charged with doing so, though he does face several charges, including resisting arrest and felony aggravated assault on a police officer.
But the department's reaction after the April 12 incident framed the story, identifying Cammarn as MNPD's 2015 Police Officer of the Year and juxtaposing a photo of him receiving the award from Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson with a mugshot of Shannon. And coverage of the episode only served to cement the police department's depiction of events into a narrative: Officers had been attacked in the projects, and new measures were needed.
Left unanswered were questions about the broader context in which the incidents had occurred — questions about the past and ongoing relationship between Cayce residents and the police. If the story was that people there had reacted with hostility or at least indifference to the police, then why did they feel that way? And is the announced police response — primarily, more police and more surveillance — likely to be a solution, or will it just compound the problem?
In the early '90s, East Precinct Commander David Imhof was a patrol officer assigned to the Cayce Homes. According to his telling, a beat cop from 25 years ago wouldn't recognize the place now.
"Back then, you would drive up a street and you would see 10 guys standing on a corner rushing up to a car to try to sell drugs," Imhof tells the Scene. "You don't see that anymore. Not saying there aren't drugs there. There are. But not to the extent. It's like two different places."
Still, he says, the area has always been a challenging one for police.
The day after the second incident, at a press conference with Mayor Megan Barry and Chief Anderson, MNPD unveiled a list of "steps to reduce violence" in the Cayce Homes. They included increasing the number of officers working the area and directing the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency Task Force — a group of five police officers and one sergeant assigned to MDHA properties — to work exclusively in Cayce. Additionally, two mobile camera systems would be added to the network of cameras already scanning the property, and an MNPD helicopter would monitor the area "periodically." (That last one may sound the most extreme, but Imhof says, "Aviation is up a lot of the times anyway — they're no good to us in the hangar.")
Clergy were also asked to "establish a presence in the South Seventh Street area to reduce tensions and work toward non-violent resolution to disputes."
In her own remarks, Barry said "attacks on our police officers are outrageous and completely unacceptable."
"Officers put their lives on the line to promote the safety and well-being of our citizens," she said, "and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which certainly didn't happen in these two incidents this week."
Almost a week later at the East Precinct on Trinity Lane, Imhof, precinct community affairs liaison Sgt. Michael Fisher and MNPD spokesman Don Aaron met with the Scene to discuss the incidents and the department's response. They say both incidents occurred after police were called to the area because of ongoing fights — fights they link to recent tensions among some young women over some young men. Asked about the second incident and what led to an officer engaging a crowd of what looks to be 50 or more people on his own, Imhof says Cammarn intervened to help the woman police claim Shannon was assaulting.
"Other officers were on the way, but when he saw someone getting assaulted he felt like he needed to act and protect her at that moment," he says.
In a later follow-up discussion with the Scene, Aaron responded to some lingering questions about Cammarn's conduct and the department's claims. As for why Shannon was not charged with assaulting a woman — the alleged act that led to his tussle with Cammarn and a long list of other charges against Shannon — Aaron says the woman and her family weren't cooperative with police after the incident. And what about the punches Cammarn is seen throwing into Shannon?
"Officer Cammarn is attempting to bring this man into custody while defending himself," Aaron says.
"There's a use-of-force continuum that kind of went from what would've been hand control until the guy took Cammarn to the ground to having to escalate or elevate the use of force to defensive tactics and strikes to attempt to rectify, de-escalate the situation and bring him into custody," he says. "Ultimately that didn't work."
Aaron says Cammarn "did a good job in a very difficult situation."
Imhof describes the new measures being deployed in Cayce as an extension of the department's efforts toward "community policing."
"We're over there right now to try to quell the situation going on," he says. "Try to make it peaceful for the folks that are living over there and try to improve the quality of life."
That description may elicit eye-rolls from some activists and criminal defense attorneys, but Imhof says the majority of the activity by additional officers in the area is "community contacts, just going up and talking to people." So far, he says those interactions have been overwhelmingly positive.
There's no doubt the area remains a challenging one for police. Imhof shares data showing crimes so far this year in Cayce: 17 aggravated assaults, 16 residential burglaries, six robberies.
But how to respond to that challenge without making the residents of Cayce feel like they're living in an occupied state?
"There's always gonna be a rub one way or the other," Imhof says. "If we don't have a presence and we don't go over there, they're gonna say, 'Where are you all at?' ... And then if we do go there, there's the rub that 'you're harassing and you're causing a problem.' "
Nashville has not been listed alongside places like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore or other cities whose names immediately conjure images of police shootings and public unrest. But it is an American city and it has a history of its own — one that includes not only strife during the civil rights era, but also episodes of racially tinged police violence in more recent times.
In the early '90s, The New York Times reported on the beating of Reggie Miller, a black undercover officer, by a group of white MNPD officers who had stopped him for a traffic violation. Less than a decade later, in the spring of 2000, the Scene reported on boiling tensions after the shooting deaths of three minorities by white MNPD officers — tensions that sound familiar to readers even 16 years and two presidents later.
The time between the sort of incidents that attract national headlines is, for some, filled with smaller yet still fraught interactions with police. The stops, the searches, the racial profiling — the sort of experiences that burst into the broader view once enough pressure has been applied, as they did in Nashville in town-hall meetings and community gatherings following the events in Ferguson nearly two years ago.
On a weekday morning at the Cayce Homes, stories of those types of interactions are easily found. But so is a nuanced view of the police presence — a sense that policing in the neighborhood is welcome, if it's done the right way.
Nevertheless, almost to a person, residents use the word "harassment" to describe police interactions with people in the area.
Two women who decline to give their names say any young man, and particularly one with dreadlocks, is likely to be stopped by the police — so likely that one of the women says her grown sons won't come to the neighborhood anymore to play basketball.
Sitting on his stoop, Bruce Cortner, a 53-year-old black man who has lived in Cayce for eight years, describes watching the police stop and search any car with tinted windows or custom rims. But he also says he welcomes an increased police presence if it means residents and their kids and grandkids are safer.
"You ain't even safe in your own house around here," Cortner says. "They shooting every day. Who wants to live and feel like that all your life, you know?"
Over in the courtyard, feet away from the spot where the now-viral tussle took place, Xzavier Torrez — a 25-year-old wearing a Captain America T-shirt who has lived in Cayce for about two years — sits on a utility box fiddling with an unlit cigarette.
"I see how they do the young people around here," he says. "You know, they harass them all the time. All the time. ... They can be walking down the street, [the police] pull over, hop out of their car. 'Can I talk to you for a minute? You got some ID?' Anything like that, and they just walking down the street. Not disturbing nobody, not doing anything, just walking down the street."
Asked how he feels about that, he says it's just life.
"That's what you've been living, that's the norm," Torrez says. "It's normal to see the police hop out and harass somebody. It's normal to see them jump out and be like, 'You fit the description, can I get your ID?' You don't even have to fit the description. You don't even have to be doing anything, but they'll tell you anything just to stop you and run your name, do anything and take you to jail."
Devanta Nixon, 19, walks up and casually chimes in. The tall, lanky teen is in gym shorts and sneakers, and he's bouncing up and down on the sidewalk as he exhales from the now-lit cigarette Torrez has given him.
"That's what they did to me that night, for no reason," he says.
Nixon says he was returning home from work at the Kirkpatrick Recreation Center a couple of blocks away when police rode up to him on bicycles, asking him why he had run from them.
"What do you mean, run from you," he says, recalling the incident. "I just got off work. I just got back over here."
He says they took him to jail and kept telling him he looked like the person who had run. Police records show Nixon was arrested on March 15 and jailed as a result of two outstanding probation violation warrants.
"They always bothering people for no reason," Nixon says. "It can be a cool day and everybody's chilling, at least one police is gonna pull up and say something. Try to check everybody or do something."
Charles Smith emerges from a nearby residence and walks up to join the conversation. A 35-year-old who seems eager to explain things, Smith starts breaking down the incident that suddenly has reporters showing up in Cayce. He and Nixon were there when it happened, and all three of the men are baffled by one thing in particular — Cammarn's decision to enter the situation alone.
"They just making a big deal out of something that could've been avoided if the police officer just would've done his job correctly," Smith says. "They're gonna do that. Anybody gonna do that. They keep on watching videos of police beating everybody's ass, killing us and shit like that. Yeah, they angry, they frustrated, so that's what they gonna do. They're young, you feel me? It ain't right. No. I'm saying it's not right at all. But guess what though: Police officers, do your job right.
"It's like cause and effect," Smith continues. " ''Cause I came out here like I was Billy Badass, the effect of that was I got beat up.' It's sad, but that's what it is."
"You can't 'Police of the Year' out here," Torrez adds, referring to Cammarn's well-publicized title. "You can't do it by yourself. And then after the situation was all said and done, all the police that do come out here, they want to be hostile."
Smith says his wife, Stephanie Mays, the mother of his children, is being evicted as a result of the incident. Cayce leases, he says, state that residents are responsible for their guests, and Shannon, the man who ended up wrestling on the ground with a police officer, is reportedly her cousin. But Smith says she didn't even know Shannon was there, wasn't even home when the fight occurred and even had surgery that day.
"I understand that you want to make a statement about the projects, but you can't put out people like that," he says. "She's got two kids. And you put 'em out."
Jamie Berry, MDHA's communications director, tells the Scene that as of April 25 four termination of lease notices had been issued to tenants due to the incidents at Cayce Place.
"My thing is, why all of a sudden they start putting people out when stuff starts making the news?" says Torrez. "They've been fighting around here, they fight every day. Before they put them cameras up here it was a fight every day." He points to the MNPD mobile camera unit parked across the street.
"I'm telling you the only reason they making such a big deal out of it is because it made Facebook, and half the world probably done seen it by now."
Torrez says he's tired of some of what he sees in the neighborhood and therefore doesn't mind an added police presence — as long as the force starts leaning more toward protecting and serving.
"I'm tired of walking through the neighborhood with all kind of bullshit going on, I'm tired of seeing it," he says. "So yeah, I'm fine with the police presence. It don't make no difference to me, 'cause I know I'm not doing nothing wrong. But don't come over here and harass or just overdo your job."
Smith says it's actually quite simple.
"When everybody sittin' right here was young, your mama taught you about respect," he says. "Respect others. If you want somebody to respect you, you gotta give that same amount of respect to them. If you come out here and don't show no respect, what make you think you gonna get some respect? 'Cause at the end of the day, you human just like we are. Only thing that separates us is a badge."
The James A. Cayce Homes sit on 63 acres off of Shelby Avenue in the shadow of downtown. The public housing development is home to nearly 1,900 residents, who live, quite literally, on the margins of what is perhaps Nashville's fastest and most famously gentrified neighborhood — East Nashville. Less than half a mile from that courtyard on South Seventh Street, a newly built 2,000-plus-square-foot home can be purchased for more than half-a-million dollars.
The recent tumult in Cayce comes as an ambitious plan to radically redevelop the community inches forward. The $602 million plan, first proposed three years ago, would triple the number of units, adding to the amount designated for low-income residents but also including higher-priced units, creating a larger mixed-income community. Believers say that type of plan can combat the sort of blindness that so often keeps citizens in the city's more privileged quarters from seeing and understanding the plight of marginalized communities. But as poor Nashvillians in every corner of the city continue to see the number of residential spaces open to them shrink, plans for redevelopment also stir up familiar concerns.
That fact could — or at least, should — force the city to reckon with the same questions raised by recent confrontations with the police. Does Metro government, its law enforcement apparatus and the media treat Cayce and other public housing or low-income communities like neighborhoods? Do their issues and concerns garner the same attention and responsiveness as the latest NIMBY outrage — however justified — in Sylvan Park or Old Hickory? And if the question has to be asked, then might it answer itself?
In a lengthy emailed statement to the Scene, Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner — whose office is representing Brian Shannon and works daily on behalf of Nashvillians who have the right to an attorney but can't afford one — presses those questions. Deaner raises concerns about the media's framing of the recent events in Cayce and says that while no one wants incidents like those seen in the April 12 video to happen, she has doubts about the police response. The department's strategy in Cayce, she writes, "will accomplish something, I don't believe it will address the underlying tensions there."
"Serious disparities around race and class still exist in Nashville," Deaner writes. "Nowhere is that more evident than in our public housing areas. Could the events of April 12, including bystander behavior, have anything to do with resentment about living with a constant police presence and hundreds of cameras monitoring residents' every movement from the moment they open their door, and sometimes into their homes? Or with the reality that living in public housing subjects residents, their visitors and even their children, to being stopped, questioned, frisked and searched by police on a regular basis?
"These are the complaints and frustrations Nashville defenders hear from the community we serve, and they are real. The people who can best answer these questions are not us though — they are the individuals living in public housing. They live in an environment most Nashvillians never experience, and if we don't talk to them — and more importantly, listen to them — we may never make progress towards ending violence between police and citizens."
Toward that end, Deaner's office will be holding a listening tour event — part of the office's initiative to improve its own relations with the population it serves — in Cayce next week. And Imhof says he's open to the same sort of effort on the police department's part.
"I think we have to take this as an opportunity, too," Imhof says. "I got an email from [Martha O'Bryan Center CEO] Marsha Edwards yesterday about whatever they can do to help, and I responded saying, one, we would love to open up more dialogue. I would love to be able to sit down — and I know they have an advisory board with Cayce residents — I'd love to go over there and sit down and say, 'What do you think about our response on this? How do you think we did on this response? What would you like to see us do in the future? What do you need from us to help?' "
One wonders if that sort of contact, by way of community gathering rather than a sidewalk stop-and-frisk, might get the city closer to working out what's going on in the Cayce Homes — and might prevent a neighborhood so close to the heart of Nashville from seeming so separate from it.
Additional reporting for this story by Amanda Haggard.
This story has been updated to add information related to Devanta's Nixon arrest.
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