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Candidate Whitfield has long history of political engagement

by Jordan Green

Ed Whitfield stood on the steps of Faith Community Church, microphone in hand, after performing with a thunderous drum ensemble, and hammered home one of his signature themes at a hurricane benefit and speak-out on a recent Saturday afternoon.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was a political and social tragedy brought about because of lack of preparedness, and lingering racism and class division, he said, adding that the same corporations that profited from the human misery in Iraq, companies like Halliburton, were set to profit from reconstruction efforts on the Gulf Coast.

For regular readers of Whitfield’s column in the Carolina Peacemaker the District 2 city council candidate’s focus on neglect of the poorest of citizens and favoritism towards powerful corporations will be familiar ground. A co-chair of the Greensboro Peace Coalition and former WNAA FM talk radio host, Whitfield is one of the city’s most prominent social critics. And stepping forward as an organizer and emcee for the Beloved Community Center and Greensboro Community Arts Collective-sponsored ‘Hurricane Benefit and Anti-Racism Speak-Out’ was not out of character for the 56-year-old Whitfield, who works as an electronics technician at Lorillard Tobacco.

Despite his national and international analysis of political events Whitfield ‘— who is running against community activists Goldie Wells and Toni Graves Henderson, and against barbershop owner Lewis Byers ‘—’ has consistently applied himself to local activism since he left Cornell University in 1970 to work for the now defunct Malcolm X University in Greensboro.

Whitfield ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 seat in 1983, when city council districts were first drawn up to allow proportionate African-American representation. In 1990 and 1992 bids for Guilford County School Board followed. In 1994, he managed District 2 Councilwoman Alma Adams successful campaign for NC House of Representatives. The council passed him over and instead appointed Claudette Burroughs-White to fill the vacancy. Two years later he launched an unsuccessful bid to unseat Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston.

Whitfield said he would like to see the city council take bolder positions on social justice issues. He wants the city to create a citizens police review board to investigate complaints of brutality ‘— many of which emanate from the black community ‘— to replace the complaint review committee under the city’s Human Relations Commission. He added that he is disappointed with the council’s April vote to oppose the truth and reconciliation process.

‘“They’ve taken shortsighted positions that don’t reflect the best long-term interests of the city,’” he said. ‘“To oppose the truth and reconciliation process is to stand in favor of lies and contention. Eventually I think the city council will come to embrace it much the way it has embraced the sixties sit-in movement. So I think real leadership is embracing it now rather than in hindsight.’”

A nine-year veteran of the city’s Redevelopment Commission, he criticized past community development efforts for displacing the poor.

‘“More care needs to be taken in allowing people to stay in their homes,’” he said. ‘“It could come through the form of various housing subsidies. That is done, but too often there’s just a wholesale clearing of neighborhoods, the removal of people. People tell me not to use big words, but all I know to call it is gentrification.’”

On the subject of retail development and job creation, he suggested previous efforts have been hasty and sometimes misguided.

‘“There are some cooperative businesses that have emerged in Winston-Salem,’” he said. ‘“I want to draw the community into this process. The city council didn’t break it and it can’t fix it by itself’…. One of the problems is that people have looked at instant solutions. Wal-Mart brings more problems than it solves. It’s out of frustration that people latch onto it.’”

In campaign literature, Whitfield has embraced a one-sentence dismissal of him as ‘“a ’60s radical’” by Rhinoceros Times Editor John Hammer. Whitfield, a native of Little Rock, Ark., is famous for leading a student takeover of the administrative building at Cornell University in New York as part of a campaign to demand a black studies department. A photograph of Whitfield emerging from the building with a rifle in hand by the Associated Press’ Steve Starr won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 and became etched into the public consciousness as an iconic image of the black power movement.

‘“The image of a black man with a gun in 2005 is not the same as it was in 1969,’” Whitfield said. ‘“That was the year after black students were shot and killed at Orangeburg, South Carolina for trying to integrate a bowling alley. It was shortly before students at Kent State were shot and killed by the National Guard. Students felt very much threatened and under attack.

‘“That picture is something I’ve never been ashamed of,’” he added. ‘“It’s meant different things to different people.’”

Whitfield said the details of his political commitments have evolved in the 35 years he’s lived in Greensboro, but the spirit has been consistent, whether it meant supporting local labor struggles or the efforts of blacks in southern Africa to free themselves from European colonialism.

‘“The concern has always been for building in more democracy into political processes,’” he said. ‘“It’s been about listening closely to the voices of those who have much and those who have little.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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