City Council votes, in black and white

by Jordan Green

When the Greensboro City Council decided in April to oppose the truth and reconciliation process in a 6-3 vote that broke down along racial lines, white elected leaders worried aloud that endorsing the process would reopen old wounds and cause further division.

The fault lines of distrust were easy to see for anyone who studied the bloody history of Nov. 3, 1979 in its barest outline: five communist labor activists ‘—’ four of them white, one black ‘— who had been trying to organize labor unions in area textile mills were gunned down and killed outside an African-American housing project by Klan and Nazi militants in full view of television news cameras, but without police presence. In a nutshell, the killings inflamed painful differences about political ideology, race, class and police accountability.

But the white mayor of Greensboro, Keith Holliday, said the city’s 235,000 residents bear no responsibility for what happened in 1979, and he believed the truth process would cause harm to the city.

‘“Going down that road could lead to the biggest tragedy of all,’” he said in prepared statement. ‘“The events of November 3, 1979 were ugly. I have accepted that day as a horrible day in our history. I believe 99 percent of our population has moved on in time and are looking to the future for a better day and life for all of us.’”

And yet the council’s April 19 vote, coupled with three subsequent public hearings hosted by the truth commission, might have inadvertently exposed divisions in Greensboro more recent than 1979.

‘“In Greensboro we have had our chances to look seriously at ourselves,’” Barton Parks, a Guilford College professor of justice and policy studies, told the truth commission at a sparsely attended public hearing at UNCG’s Elliot Center on Sept. 30. ‘“The 1979 massacre was one, and there have been others, including a committee to study a living wage. An example in which I was involved was a police review board.’”

Parks referenced two initiatives ‘— a proposal to guarantee all city employees and some employees of city contractors a so-called living wage, and a proposal to create a police citizens review board with subpoena power to investigate complaints of abuse ‘— that were both rejected by city council in 2000. The public discourse surrounding the defeated initiatives echoed at least three themes from the legacy of 1979: the prospects of the poor, racial distrust and police authority.

‘“It would be interesting to compare the pattern of voting for the police review board and other efforts such as the living wage and compare it with the recent vote regarding this [truth and reconciliation] commission,’” Barton added. ‘“It appears that our city council has a history of hearing about the difficulties of impoverished communities of color, sanctioning groups to look into them and then rejecting their recommendations.’”

The efforts to launch the truth process, which were initiated by survivors of the 1979 killings, have never been sanctioned by city council, although former Mayor Carolyn Allen serves as a co-chair of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project Local Task Force.

Voting to oppose the truth process in April were Mayor Holliday, joined by council members Tom Phillips, Don Vaughan, Robbie Perkins, Florence Gatten and Sandy Carmany. Phillips and Vaughan, both white, currently serve as at-large members. Perkins, Gatten and Carmany respectively represent majority-white districts 3, 4 and 5.

The three council members who supported the truth process were Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, the sole African-American at-large member, along with Dianne Bellamy-Small and Claudette Burroughs-White, who respectively represent predominantly African-American districts 1 and 2.

The votes on the proposed living wage ordinance and police citizens review board in 2000 followed startlingly similar outlines.

Official minutes for city council’s April 4, 2000 meeting show that six individuals spoke in favor of the living wage following a presentation by Andrew Brod, the director of business and economic research at UNCG and the chair of the Living Wage Study Committee. OW Sweeney, an east side resident, was among the supporters. He expressed the opinion that low-paying jobs correlate with increased criminal activity, higher costs for public assistance and eroding family values.

One person, Henry Stowe, spoke against the living wage, discussing how problems related to the loss of American jobs to other countries might be addressed and speaking out against raising taxes.

The minutes also document a litany of objections among city council members to a proposed living wage: ‘“Discussion was also held with regard to the opinion that the living wage would artificially inflate wages, the understanding that this action would support the expenditure of taxpayer money to fund a redistributive policy, the Council’s desire to recruit to Greensboro industries that would pay living wages and provide better career opportunities for citizens, hope that individuals in unskilled labor positions would take advantage of opportunities to prepare for higher employment and the belief that the free market should set wages.’”

The white majority defeated the living wage measure in a 6-2 decision, with Mayor Holliday and at-large councilmen Tom Phillips and Don Vaughan, along with District 3 Councilman Robbie Perkins, then-District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan and District 5 Councilwoman Sandy Carmany voting against it. Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson voted for the measure, as did then-District 1 Councilman Earl Jones.District 2 Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White was absent from the meeting.

The initiative to create a police citizens review board originated in October 1998 with a grassroots organizing initiative by a coalition of citizens including the Justice for Daryl Howerton Committee, according to a report by a task force created by city council.

A letter to council from the Daryl Howerton Committee outlined several concerns: accountability for the death of Howerton, an emotionally disturbed black man killed by a Greensboro police officer on Phillips Avenue in 1994; a recent military training exercise in Greensboro; and whether the Greensboro Police Department had discriminated against black students by assigning undercover officers to observe a meeting of the NC A&T University History Club.

During Carolyn Allen’s last term as mayor, the city council appointed 13 Greensboro residents to a task force to explore the creation of a police citizens review board, responding to a request from the Daryl Howerton Committee.

‘“We found three to five cities around the country that had police review boards with subpoena power that ended up having the support of their police departments,’” said Parks, who co-chaired the task force and served on the selection committee to hire former Greensboro Police Chief Robert White. ‘“We thought we had an ace in the hole.’”

The task force’s December 1999 report to city council recommended a strong and independent review board with the authority to interview police officers and subpoena documents, and recommended that the board receive adequate funding to hire a director, investigator and clerk.

The report argued: ‘“Research of review boards across the United States and testimony of most guest presenters and citizens were overwhelmingly in agreement that without subpoena power or the ability to compel appearance of parties and evidence review boards are ineffective.’”

The police citizens review board was defeated in a 6-3 decision on June 6, with Mayor Holliday, at-large representatives Tom Phillips and Don Vaughan, along with district representatives Robbie Perkins, Nancy Vaughan and Sandy Carmany voting in the majority. The proposal’s supporters were Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, and district representatives Earl Jones and Claudette Burroughs-White.

Parks, who now leads ‘undoing racism’ trainings for his fellow whites, said he believes the white majority’s votes on truth and reconciliation, the living wage and the police citizens review board reflect a lack of familiarity with the experiences of poor people and non-whites.

‘“Whenever you have the lower classes or the people of color in Greensboro asserting their rights, the behavior of the white members of the city council has reflected the interests of corporate Greensboro and the racially prejudiced middle and upper classes,’” he said. ‘“They have their own way of life and their own culture. They talk and listen to each other and basically cut themselves off from meaningful contact with lower-class people of color’… It’s a combination of considering themselves better people and being fearful of lower-class people of color getting any power.’”

Parks said he hopes newly elected at-large city councilwoman Sandra Anderson, who is expected to be sworn in as the new mayor pro tem on Dec. 6, will break that mold. Anderson did not respond to a request to discuss how she might have voted on the three matters. But interviews with incoming council members Goldie Wells, a retired educator, and Mike Barber, a lawyer, suggest that on matters of class and race, city council votes are likely to continue along predictable racial lines into the next term.

Wells, who will succeed Burroughs-White as the new District 2 representative, said with certainty that she would have voted to support the truth and reconciliation process. She said she didn’t know enough about the police citizen review board to say whether she would have supported it, but she favors a living wage ordinance.

Barber, who takes over representation of District 4 as Gatten moves into an at-large seat, expressed qualms with all three initiatives.

On the truth and reconciliation process, he said: ‘“It’s like, ‘How do you feel about flag burning and pro-life/pro-choice?’ It is a political vote that is absolutely meaningless and is jurisdictionally unsound. Typically those resolutions are there to pin down a politician. The vote’s only purpose is counterproductive.’”

On the living wage: ‘“Wage floors are bad economics. A living wage is another touchy-feely issue. The city has no jurisdiction to dictate any kind of wage issue to business. They do not have that power, and if they attempted to do that they would be successfully litigated against.’”

On the police citizens review board: ‘“There are so many layers now to responses to grievances. You’ve got the courts; you’ve got insurance; you’ve got mediation and arbitration. I don’t believe we need to add more layers or more city-funded appeals. We need to simplify instead.’”

Barber said he believes race is an unfortunate obsession of the media, and he doesn’t think the pattern of voting on the three matters is significant.

‘“Most people have moved on from this race issue in the past forty years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, except for people who want to titillate and exploit,’” he said. ‘“Respectfully, I don’t accept your premise.’”

And yet he said he wasn’t surprised about the 6-3 and 6-2 votes given that Greensboro’s city council districts are drawn up to allow two majority-black districts and three majority-white districts.

‘“If a body is elected in totality in an at-large framework then decisions are made with the best interests of the community,’” he said. ‘“District representatives will analyze the demographics of their district and vote accordingly.’”

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