Changing course, council takes part in truth process

by Jordan Green

Chuck Assenco, a beefy guy wearing a A&T athletic sweatshirt, took a seat in one of the folding chairs lining the wall of the plaza-level conference room of the Melvin Municipal Auditorium, wearing an expression of expectation as members of the Greensboro City Council nervously filed in and took their places at the big wooden table.

Assenco, a retired Kent County Sheriff’s deputy who moved to Greensboro from Grand Rapids, Mich., said he believes the city has never taken full responsibility for the deaths of five communist labor activists who were gunned down by white supremacists as the Greensboro police officers waited nearby back in 1979, said “Just come forward and share the information you have so you can put it behind you,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the young guys coming into the department that have to live with the stigma.

“This would have never happened in Grand Rapids,” he added. “Those guys would have gotten disciplined; but here it seems like they got promoted.”

Moments later the informal meeting began, and the city council for the first time fully engaged with the truth and reconciliation process, addressing Assenco’s concern about police accountability – by turns with awkwardness, passion and indignation. Despite threats to boycott the July 18 meeting, all members attended with the exception of at-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten, who had to leave town to attend to her ailing mother.

Beyond that, the council took a step few observers could have predicted 15 months ago when a majority vote led to a rejection of the truth process: they discussed tasking the city’s human relations commission with leading a forward-looking citywide conversation on race and inequality that would encompass immigration as well as more deeply rooted issues of black-white relations.

One member, District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, suggested conducting a cultural audit to examine various inequalities throughout the city and implementing measures to ensure that the killings of Nov. 3, 1979 are never repeated. No official motions were made at the informal meeting.

Mayor Keith Holliday said he has been struggling with the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s finding’s with regard to the police department. The majority of truth commissioners concluded that “the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of police.”

Holliday said the report’s focus on the police “has hurt my credibility.”

“I do encourage the council members to read the full report,” the mayor said. “I am looking to bring some closure, but there are some things we’ve got to deal with, not for us but for the next generation.”

At-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson said the focus on the conduct of the police department was appropriate.

“This is the first city for the police department to be found civilly liable,” she said. “I think the majority of the police department is fantastic. Because we were found civilly liable, I think you have to ask the question about any institution: Is there a possibility that a small group of people didn’t do what they were supposed to do?”

District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, a former Greensboro police officer, said “there are many voices speaking to us from this report,” and warned that if they were not heard, the city risked repeating past mistakes.

“You might go back and look at the police’s charter and see if they lived up to it -‘ and they didn’t,” she said. “The police played politics in this, and they shouldn’t have.”

A murmur of agreement rose from the audience, many of whom were longtime supporters of the truth process.

“Thank you,” Assenco said.

Bellamy-Small and the other two black representatives on council, Johnson and Wells, formed a caucus of support for the truth process. At least two of their white colleagues, including the mayor, appeared ready to listen.

“I can understand how one-on-one reconciliation can happen, but how can it happen in a whole city?” asked Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Groat, a low-income housing developer by profession. “I know a lot of the inequities in Greensboro because I’ve seen them. I want it to happen. I don’t know how it happens.”

Holliday reviewed a public statement made about the 1979 killings in April 2005, largely standing by his original words, but revising some positions.

“I believe this was a confrontation between two extremist groups,” he said. “I value human life, and I acknowledge the pain and suffering. I resist the belief that that this event contributed in a large way to our racial issues.”

Events have led him to look differently on at least one aspect of the truth process.

“I was wrong,” he said. “I do recognize that this has opened the doors to reconciliation and healing. I have said that harm can come from inaccurate ‘truth.’ I think the jury’s out on whether the truth and reconciliation process has negatively impacted Greensboro.”

The three other white members of the city council remained mostly silent during the discussion.

District 4 Councilman Mike Barber smiled at moments and proposed that the council recognize former elected officials and others associated with the truth process – a suggestion shot down by the mayor, who noted that the council had a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time.

District 3 Councilman Tom Phillips, a vocal opponent of the truth process, made two appeals for council members to curtail the discussion, propose recommendations they liked from the truth report and put them to a vote. He lent some support to the idea of having the human relations commission initiate a broader discussion, saying, “We need to pick out things we agree on and give them a specific charge.”

District 5 Councilwoman Sandy Carmany, whose husband is a retired Greensboro police officer, sat through the discussion silently with her lips pursed.

Wells said the city could enhance its image – and bring healing -‘ by embracing the truth process.

“We represent the people,” she said. “If we could begin the reconciliation, it would flow to the whole city. When the head’s sick the whole body’s sick. We can help each other.”

Carmany shook her head in disagreement.

Another person connected to the police community also listened quietly to the discussion. When he got up to leave, Greensboro lawyer Locke Clifford was angry about what he’d heard. He met former Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White outside of the elevator.

Noting that the mayor had asked whether the city council would be discussing the 1979 killings if the defendants been found guilty, he turned the question around.

“Would we be here today if the five defendants were killed by the communists?” he asked. “Everybody would have said, ‘They got what they deserved; they lived by the sword and died by the sword.’

“I hated the Klan,” he added, reminiscing about his childhood in South Carolina.

“I respect the fact that you hated them too,” Burroughs-White replied. “They didn’t come to your neighborhood though. You didn’t have to be afraid of the Klan like I did.”

Clifford said he came to monitor the discussion to see if his client, former police Chief David Wray, would receive recognition from the council. The city is currently looking into allegations of racial discrimination within the police department during the period of Wray’s leadership.

He noted that Wray oversaw the police presence at a November 2004 march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1979 killings.

“David Wray has not gotten credit for an almost flawless execution of a plan to protect the city from two extremist groups,” Clifford said.

Other observers came away happier at the tenor of the discussion.

“Here’s the first time we have seven people doing independent research for two years,” said Frank Kelleher, a member of Baha’i Faith in Oak Ridge who participated in the nomination process to create the truth commission. “I can honestly say now that the police were negligent at best and complicit at worst. If you’re communists, labor organizers or black, you don’t have the same rights of protection that the rest of us might have.

“Me as a white man, I see this as a redemptive process,” he added, “for what we’ve done as the white power structure so I don’t have to pass on that legacy to my grandchildren.”

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