Activist candidate reeemphasizes leftist credentials
Ben Holder was reviewing some of his greatest hits from the “speakers from the floor” segment of Greensboro City Council meetings. He dragged the cursor over a file on his computer and played the video from his opponent, incumbent District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small’s first term. This particular episode showed Holder describing the need for a coordinated community and police response to crack-cocaine-related homicides, and former Mayor Keith Holliday listening intently and then responding thoughtfully.
A tattered map of District 1 lay before the computer monitor in the study at the house Holder recently moved into in Glenwood. A Greensboro native and former Winston-Salem resident who calls himself the Troublemaker, Holder’s back. He hopes to snatch the championship belt from Bellamy-Small, a resilient incumbent with strong grassroots support who survived a recall election and then handily defeated three opponents in 2007. “I’m going to be using everything I learned from watching professional wrestling,” he said. “I’m going to be talking shit and swallowing spit.” Today, he was wearing a kaleidoscope-colored tie-dye that his 8-year old son and 5-year-old daughter disdain and a wrestling-inspired red Fu Manchu moustache with white highlights. Come early next month he promised to organize his supporters into a formal campaign organization and refine his appearance. The Fu Manchu moustache will have to go. But isn’t that part of the wrestling strategy? “Wrestling is all about marketing,” Holder said. “You have to look the part.” He later added,
“Growing up watching wrestling, that was the only time you saw a white guy, a black guy and a Hispanic guy all cheering for the same person.” The campaign action has been mostly pillowstrikes so far, but Holder has made a modest gambit. On July 23, he used his blog to challenge a city policy holding that all information requested by candidates should be provided to their opponents. “It all but eliminates the element of surprise,” Holder complained. “The art of blindsiding is a big part of American politics and should not be taken away.” As anyone who reads Holder’s blog knows, he spends a considerable amount of his time driving around. A recent run took him on a circuitous route around Glenwood. At one corner he slowed his car and watched with interest as a woman knocked on the door of what appeared to be an unused storefront. The woman opened the door and stared balefully back in Holder’s direction before he eased the car around the corner. Then he drove to a duplex on Union Street that has recently been condemned by the city and whose door was standing wide open. Someone had taken a Sharpie and wrote “crackhouse” on the doors of two houses around the corner on Gregory Street. “The kids in this neighborhood don’t need to see that,” Holder said. “This wouldn’t happen around the Friendly Center. It’s not fair, and it shouldn’t be this way.” Blighted properties, the sale of drug paraphernalia, asbestos removal, illegal massage parlors and police protection are a few of the issues Holder has addressed through his activism. The through-line of these campaigns has been his conviction that the city’s powerful and privileged allow these scourges to afflict the areas where poor blacks, whites and Hispanics live, and that the same leaders would never stand for such nuisances in exclusive neighborhoods such as Irving Park. Holder’s relationship with the Greensboro Police Department has been complex and conflicted. He said that in 2003 he began mapping the homicides and correlating them to convenience stores where cheap flowers were sold in plastic tubes. Crack-cocaine users would throw away the flowers and use the tubes to smoke their drugs. Holder presented these drug stems to the vice-narcotics division, and the police soon sent undercover officers to make buys, with arrests following. Holder noted with relish that one of the convenience stores implicated in the sweep was owned by Isa Abuzuaiter, the husband of at-large candidate Marikay Abuzuaiter. Subsequently, the store stopped selling the cheap flowers enclosed in plastic tubes. Holder said he has maintained a friendly relationship with the Abuzuaiter family. Isa Abuzuaiter said one of his clerks pleaded no contest after selling one of the tubes, and that he as the owner of the store was found not guilty. “I don’t know why he’s talking about our store,” Abuzuaiter said. “I think he should go find something else. I think he should leave the small business people alone and go after the drug dealers. We’re trying to make a living like everyone else.” For his part, Holder seemed eager to mend fences. “I support Marikay, and I’m planning on voting for her,” he said. “I didn’t know he owned that store. The police chose that store; I didn’t bring it to their attention. In the at-large contest, I think Nancy Vaughan is going to be mayor pro tem, Robbie Perkins is going to come in second place, and it’s going to be a dogfight between Marikay and Sandra Anderson Groat. I’m voting for Marikay, and I’m encouraging everyone else to, also.” Another time, in 2003, Holder wore a wire for the police during an interview with a nightclub operator while purporting to gather information for a newspaper story. (Somewhat ironically, the location of the former nightclub, called the Game Time Lounge, now houses the Hive, an anarchist community and activist center that is on the candidate’s list of places to visit.) Though at one time he acted as a police agent, Holder is hardly a booster of the department. He supports giving subpoena power to the city’s complaint review committee, which investigates citizen complaints about police abuse. Bellamy-Small, his opponent, rejected the idea in January. “I’ve always agreed with that,” Holder said. “I like to watch and instruct [the police]. I look at myself as their supervisor. A complaint review committee without subpoena power is just another way to pacify a community.” Under a proposal by the human relations commission, the complaint review committee would have the power to subpoena civilian witnesses. Why, Holder asks, should police officers worry about civilian witnesses testifying if they haven’t done anything wrong? And besides, he adds, police officers should welcome testimony from civilian witnesses because it could end up showing they comported themselves professionally. Much of Holder’s recent notoriety has come from his prolific blogging on the subject of an ongoing police controversy revolving around former Chief David Wray’s resignation, the numerous investigations of the special intelligence section and lawsuits by black officers alleging racial discrimination. Holder has consistently argued that the special intelligence section properly investigated black officers because of credible allegations of misconduct, including improper associations with drug dealers. The candidate said he anticipates that the matter will come up during the campaign, but he would be just as happy if it didn’t. Bellamy-Small has hinted that she has no plans to shrink from the subject, listing among her accomplishments on her campaign website that she “advocated for fairness in [the] treatment of black officers involved in the police scandal.” District 1 has the heaviest representation of African Americans in the city, and many of those aligned with Holder on the controversy live in the city’s three majority-white districts. The candidate is savvy enough to know this issue isn’t likely to weigh in his favor. “I’ve always been on the left side with the have-nots,” Holder said. “That David Wray thing was like a civil war. Brothers stopped talking. I had to look at the facts, and say, ‘Hold on.’ I made some sacrifices. I went to hang out with the white boys on the right.” To black voters in District 1 who may not agree with him, Holder has this to say: “How has Ron Rogers been discriminated against when he’s the assistant chief of police?” He continued by asking whether they would want the police department to ignore numerous allegations of corruption by black officers. Holder said he sees a city cursed by a split, with both sides lying to each other. He may be a polarizing figure, but he does have some diversity credentials as a widower and single father to two mixed-race children. “We are a city that has gays, gay haters, blacks, racists, blacks who hate white people, Hispanics, Mexicans that hate black people — we got it all here,” he said. “We can continue to gather our belongings and build fences around ourselves, or we can start working together to make a better city for everyone. We can look out for our own needs in the short term or we can prosper together in the long term.”