365 days of Dirt: The highlights, lowlights and quirky moments of 2005

by Jordan Green

Year 2005 saw revelations of federal spying against activist groups, although the local chapter of Food Not Bombs appears to have been spared, while the intelligence unit of the Greensboro Police Department took on security for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The police intelligence unit raised suspicions before one event when it held a meeting with a church staff without inviting the commission.

Elections caused a third of the Greensboro City Council to turn over, and local politician and businessman Melvin ‘Skip’ Alston to lose the presidency of the state NAACP to a Goldsboro preacher named William Barber. The old city council backed away from a $300,000 subsidy to help bring Wal-Mart to northeast Greensboro after a outburst of citizen outrage. The new city council rejected a similar proposal to buy out slumlord Bill Agapion at a loss of $650,000 as a means to address blight in the Cedar Street neighborhood.

Regrets were expressed and apologies made during the truth and reconciliation process. A former police officer testified that Greensboro police were not on the scene when Klan and Nazis opened fire on communist labor activists in Morningside Homes in November 1979 because of a ‘low profile’ plan that was common knowledge within the department. The truth process also stirred up hostility and harassment among present-day white power activists.

In lighter news, fans of Fantasia Barrino waited in vain for the R&B singer from High Point at a local club after the club owner and Barrino’s brother made a commitment the singer couldn’t honor. The staff of another nightspot walked out contending that they hadn’t been paid in months. An exotic African cat stalked the tony Greensboro neighborhood of Fisher Park. And the year drew to a close with the tragic shooting death of a Greensboro rapper with a promising career ahead.

The news year began for all intents and purposes with activist lawyer Manlin Chee being sentenced to a year in prison in March after pleading guilty the year before to two counts of immigration fraud. Chee had been an outspoken critic of the USA Patriot Act. Earlier in her career she had received the US Pro Bono Award and had been recognized by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

‘“She has been to the mountaintop,’” said her lawyer, Locke Clifford. ‘“She is now in the gutter. It’s a far cry from having the admiration of a US Supreme Court justice and now groveling as a person with no job, no livelihood and no law license.’”

Chee began her sentence at the minimum-security federal women’s prison camp at Alderson, W.Va. on April 22.

March also brought a new development in the case of Gil Barber, a High Point man fatally shot by a Guilford County sheriff’s deputy in 2001. On March 28, Chapel Hill civil rights lawyer Alan McSurely filed an amended complaint in federal court challenging the sheriff department’s handling of emotionally disturbed persons. The case is set for trial in July 2006.

Although the sheriff’s department cleared itself of wrongdoing in an investigation of itself, many of the facts surrounding the shooting remain shrouded in mystery.

‘“The essential thing is why did this cop in less than two minutes kill a guy who was obviously unarmed,’” McSurely said. ‘“But around that the story is like a Russian novel.’”

In April the truth and reconciliation process was thrust into the civic consciousness when the Greensboro City Council voted along racial lines to reject the process, with the white majority carrying the motion. The matter was brought to the council by the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, a group separate from the independent Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The rupture emerged when black councilmember Claudette Burroughs-White ignored a preexisting agreement among council members to not introduce any resolutions because the council was unable to reach a consensus. When Burroughs-White introduced a motion to ensure fairness and equal protection of Greensboro’s public safety services, Councilman Robbie Perkins responded with a substitute motion to reject the truth process.

Meanwhile chatter on the internet revealed that present-day white power activists view the commission as part of a Nelson Mandela-inspired plot to impose South African-style racial justice on the United States. Like the city council, white power activists have had difficulty differentiating between the survivors of the Greensboro killings and the truth commission.

‘“We are still of the same mind and purpose that drove the Reconstruction out of the South after the Civil War,’” Mississippi white supremacist Richard Barrett told YES! Weekly. ‘“We’re going to drive communism, integrationism and subversivism out the same way the redemptionists overcame the reconstructionists after the Civil War.’”

During the first half of 2005 a new alliance of Klan and Nazi activists emerged, including Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin, who was present at the 1979 shootings at Morningside Homes, and the Greensboro-based North Carolina unit of the National Socialist Movement.

On April 29 the commission was alerted to a threatening internet post by Roanoke, Va. white supremacist Bill White. The post listed the names of the seven truth commissioners, Dr. Marty Nathan, a survivor of the 1979 shootings, and consultant Lisa Magarrell, and ending with the comment: ‘“What scumbags. I’d like to reconcile them with the end of my 12-guage.’” Over the past year White has developed a close working relationship with the aforementioned National Socialist Movement.

In mid-May released FBI files revealed that the investigative agency has been paying close attention to left-leaning activist groups opposed to the war in Iraq. An anarchist group called Food Not Bombs seemed to be the object of special interest. A Dec. 7, 2004 FBI report on Denver Food Not Bombs activist Sarah Bardwell notes that three individuals were arrested at an anti-war protest in which Bardwell was listed as ‘“a point of contact,’” and that her home address was associated with both Food Not Bombs and the Derailer Bicycle Collective.

The Raleigh chapter of Food Not Bombs and other activist groups opposed to the war also drew the attention of the FBI and local police with their weekly ‘“Honk For Peace’” at NC State University. The FBI reportedly requested an interview with Campus Greens co-chair Brad Goodnight after the nearby state Republican headquarters was vandalized.

Meanwhile, the Greensboro chapter of Food Not Bombs has been operating since 1995 without any apparent interest from either federal law enforcement or local police.

‘“I requested my FBI file, and I was very disappointed when they told me they didn’t have one on me,’” said Liz Seymour, a New York Times freelance writer and Food Not Bombs volunteer. ‘“My delusions of grandeur were shattered a little bit because I realized I’m not as dangerous as I thought.’”

In June the Greensboro City Council beat a hasty retreat in the escalating war over corporate incentives. They had previously agreed in a non-binding vote during closed session to support a $300,000 grant to buy off easements from area property owners to clear the way for a new Wal-Mart in northeast Greensboro. Mayor Keith Holliday told YES! Weekly he suggested that Dr. Donald Linder withdraw his request for city funds when it became apparent the measure wouldn’t pass. Councilwoman Sandy Carmany, an opponent of incentives, said opposition from her constituents ran 10 to 1 against the grant.

Despite claims by Linder and Councilman Robbie Perkins that the Wal-Mart deal would fail without the city’s support, Linder sold a 22-acre parcel of land to the retail giant shortly afterwards. A new Wal-Mart Superstore is set to open on the site of the old Carolina Circle Mall sometime in the unspecified future, a company spokesman said.

In June a business dispute involving a much smaller company emerged when the staff of the Rhinoceros Club walked off the job after the general manager, four bartenders and a barback had to resort to a lawsuit to get paid. The employees’ suit against the Rhino Legends and manager John Horshok also named as a defendant William Collins, former owner of the Greensboro Hornets/Bats and former CEO of Metrocall Wireless in northern Virginia. Umphenour said the employees were often promised that Collins would see to it that they got paid.

On June 29 broken promises struck again in Greensboro nightlife, although with less serious consequences. ‘“American Idol’” star Fantasia Barrino celebrated her 21st birthday in Greensboro, but failed to show up for a promised appearance at the Sky Bar. Ricco Barrino said he set up the Sky Bar event at the behest of his sister’s record label, which wanted to draw additional money to cover the cost of the birthday celebration. Ricco Barrino brought in 102 JAMZ DJ Waleed Hanhan, and distributed fliers with the radio station’s logo. The Greensboro executive of Entercom, 102 JAMZ’s owner, said the station’s logo was used illegally.

The incident and reporting on it prompted volumes of communication from Fantasia Barrino’s loyal fans. ‘“It’s her birthday and she can do whatever she wants to,’” wrote Hannah of Greensboro. ‘“I don’t blame her; she probably just needed to have her special night to herself or with her friends. She’s a busy star. To me she still [is] Fantasia, the best singer there is right now.’”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission again made news on July 16 when Klansman Virgil Griffin testified that ‘“maybe God guided the bullets’” that cut short the lives of the communist labor activists. ‘“Them communists might be doctors and lawyers, but my people was deer hunters,’” he said. ‘“They knew how to kill their food.’”

Gorrell Pierce, former grand dragon of the Federated Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, conveyed a different attitude. He told the commission, ‘“If I’d been born in New York City I probably would have made a pretty good communist, but being born where I was I made a very good klansman.’” He added later: ‘“I had a lot of respect for the [Communist Workers Party]. I still have a lot of respect for them today.’”

In the same month, CAFTA, a trade agreement with several Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, passed the US House of Representatives by two votes. The three representatives whose congressional districts cover Greensboro ‘—’ Democrats Mel Watt and Brad Miller, and Republican Howard Coble ‘— voted against the trade pact. As a state once dependent on the textile industry, North Carolina was a key battleground for the legislation.

The Charlotte Observer subsequently reported that Rep. Robin Hayes (R-Concord) switched his vote from ‘“no’” to ‘“yes’” at the last minute in return for an unspecified quid pro quo from House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Coble was not so susceptible to pressure from his fellow Republicans, namely President Bush.

‘“I told the president: ‘My mama was a former textile worker,”” he told YES! Weekly. ‘“When I have textile workers coming up to me, specifically female workers, and they’re pleading with me to vote against it, it’s like my mama’s talking to me.’”

In August legislation that would raise the state minimum wage to $6 per hour passed the NC House of Representatives. The Health Insurance Credit/Minimum Wage bill, incorporated earlier legislation sponsored by Greensboro Democrat Alma Adams to increase compensation to the state’s lowest-compensated workers that had previously failed. The Senate has yet to take up the legislation.

During the truth commission’s second set of hearings on Aug. 26, former Greensboro police officer Ramon Bell testified that an administrative operating plan drawn up by Capt. Trevor Hampton called for a ‘“low-profile operation’” to handle the confrontation between communist labor activists and white supremacists that ended in bloodshed on Nov. 3, 1979.

‘“I read the operating plan twice because I couldn’t believe it,’” he said. ‘“A lot of us read it. It didn’t make any sense. You’ve got two extreme ideological groups coming together and you’re not going to have a buffer? We should have been there. That was a big mistake.’”

The hearings were also notable for two apologies by Rev. Nelson Johnson, an organizer of the 1979 anti-Klan march.

‘“I denounced mayor Jim Melvin as a dog and a representative of the capitalist class,’” he said. ‘“I am sorry I used such language. Under any circumstances, it demeaned his humanity.’”

He added: ‘“I very much regret that a flier that was developed in the form of a letter that called the Klan members cowards and challenged them to come out from under their rocks and face the wrath of the people. That was wrong. I do apologize for the letter to my Klan and Nazi brothers and sisters.’”

In October a Goldsboro pastor named William Barber, known for deploying the prophetic language of the Old Testament in his speeches, ended Greensboro businessman and Guilford County Commissioner Melvin ‘Skip’ Alston’s run as president of the North Carolina conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

‘“We’re not a behind-the-scenes kind of organization,’” Barber said. ‘“We’re a thermostat organization that sets the temperature, not a thermometer organization that puts its finger to the wind. We cannot be ambivalent on where we stand on resegregation.’”

In October the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a community dialogue at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Greensboro. Breaking with precedent the special intelligence division of the Greensboro Police Department held a meeting to plan security with the church staff without inviting the commission.

The meeting caused concern for some, including local blogger Ben Holder.

‘“It is my opinion that the police had no business having a meeting without notifying the GTRC staff,’” he wrote. ‘“It makes it look funny as if there are hidden agendas.’”

Sgt. William T. Fox said he had not intended to exclude the commission, and a subsequent meeting was held that included all parties.

‘“It was an oversight on my part, and I regret it because it would have made for a better meeting had the commission staff been there,’” he said.

The truth process came a step closer to reconciliation on Nov. 2, when WXII Channel 12 in Winston-Salem aired a public apology by former Nazi Roland Wayne Wood to Dr. Martha Nathan, whose husband Michael Nathan was killed in the 1979 shootings.

‘“Please forgive me,’” Wood said tearfully. ‘“I didn’t know it was going to happen. I don’t want to die with this truth in me.’”

Commission members and staff have subsequently met with Wood and reported that he again expressed regret for his part in the shootings and said he plans to meet with at least one family member of the slain demonstrators. The commission also met with James Ballance, a retired police officer and critic of the truth process. The commission is currently in the process of writing its report.

On Election Day Greensboro voters ushered first-time candidate Sandra Anderson into an at-large seat. Anderson pulled more votes than any other candidate, displacing Yvonne Johnson as mayor pro tem, who won re-election along with Florence Gatten. The at-large election forced lawyer Don Vaughan out of office. Community activist Goldie Wells joined the council after beating Ed Whitfield for the District 2 seat vacated by Claudette Burroughs-White. And former Guilford County Commission member Mike Barber won his election for the open seat in District 4.

Realtor Robbie Perkins, like Burroughs-White, decided not to run for reelection.

On Nov. 16 the College Libertarians took to their campus to protest UNCG’s restricted free speech zones. The libertarians demonstrated outside the free speech zones, along with members of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, who staged a die-in in an emergency lane. Allison Jaynes and Robert Sinnott, both members of the libertarians, face a disciplinary hearing in 2006.

November also marked the return of Sabre, a serval owned by Megan Morris, to the Greensboro neighborhood of Fisher Park. After Sabre was captured in October and declared illegal by Guilford County animal control, the owner shuttled the cat through at least two counties before bringing it back to Greensboro around Thanksgiving, when it escaped again.

‘“He’s been hospitalized in Burlington because he missed me,’” said Morris, explaining what it’s like to take care of an illegal cat. ‘“It cost me five hundred dollars. It’s been really stressful for him and for me. I’m trying to get out of my lease so I can find a place where I can keep him. The last thing I need is animal control involved. I wish people would just leave him alone.’”

At last notice, Morris said Sabre is being kept at an undisclosed location in Davidson County.

The last month of 2005 brought the sad news that Greensboro rapper Trey Michaud was fatally shot at a party. Only a handful of people were left at the party at about 7 a.m. when the shooting occurred. No clear explanation is available for how or why the gun was discharged that took Michaud’s life. A few elements have emerged that provide context: alcohol consumption, exhaustion and a gun brought by two brothers who fought throughout the early morning hours.

On Dec. 20 the city council voted 8-1 against a proposed plan to purchase land owned by slumlord Bill Agapion in the Cedar Street neighborhood ‘— including burned-out apartment buildings ‘— for $1.65 million. Under the plan, advocated by former Councilman Perkins, the city would purchase the property and sell it to another developer at a loss. ‘“I’d like to see the city not give him money,’” Greensboro Housing Coalition Executive Director Beth McKee-Huger had told YES! Weekly earlier. ‘“He has cost our community an untold amount of money. There’s health care for former tenants, the cost of the fire and police departments risking lives, the amount of time code enforcers spend at his properties and the cost of running the tax values down. I would like to see the city measure how much that costs and say, ‘Mr. Agapion, that’s how much you owe us.””

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