Gang Leader and Candidate Gets Political Education
Jorge Cornell would be the first latino to serve on greensboro City Council
JorgeCornell, the 32-year-old leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings, wasseated at a small table in Center City Park on a recent Tuesdayafternoon bathed in dazzling sunlight while conferring with associateson a cell phone. He wrapped up his call, and eagerly launched into areport on his campaign to win a seat on the Greensboro City Council. He’shad a fair amount of derision heaped on him, particularly on thecomment rolls of local blogs, but he’s also received his share ofencouragement. The most surprising encounter might be from a securityofficer employed by Lankford Protective Services, a company contractedby the city of Greensboro. Cornell’s brother, Russell Kilfoil, wasassaulted by a Lankford officer at the Depot last July. After aninvestigation by the city’s human relations department corroboratedKilfoil’s claim, former City Manager Mitchell Johnson banned ByronMeadows from working on city property and the officer was eventuallyconvicted of simple assault. “I had a Lankford securityofficer, knowing the situation with my brother, who said he’s excitedabout my run, knowing that I’m an everyday person who knows what it’slike to be on the street,” Cornell said. “He said his whole family isgoing to vote for me.” Cornell recalled that the security officerimplored him to not demonize everybody in the company. “That’s fair,” he concluded, “because we have individuals who commit crimes, and want to paint us with the same brush.”
Overthe past 12 months, Cornell and his group have found themselves lockedin a bitter dispute with the Greensboro Police Department’s gang unit.The Latin Kings have accused the gang unit of harassment. Last June,Cornell announced an organization to seek peace among streetorganizations and build unity between the Latino and African-Americancommunities. At the time, a warrant had been issued for hisarrest on a misdemeanor charge, which was later dismissed. In theintervening 12 months, the Latin Kings leader has been shot by anunknown assailant and acquitted of assaulting a police officer andchild abduction. Members of the Latin Kings have a half-dozencomplaints against the gang unit under investigation by the city’shuman relations department, and Cornell has called for the section tobe disbanded. Police accountability is only one of the agendaitems on the Cornell campaign’s “three-point program.” The other twoare “extending opportunities for our youth” and “community standardsfor the economy.” On the issue of youth, he raised the specterof looming cuts in the state budget to programs for children withdisabilities and mental illnesses, discussed his own positiveexperience as a child in a group home in New York state, noted hisservice on the Guilford County Schools’ Safe Schools Committee,expressed a desire to bring neighborhood parks up to the aestheticstandards of Center City Park and called for expanding the city Parksand Recreation Department’s recreational programming for youth. Cornellsaid he thinks funding for the city’s gang prevention efforts shouldredirected. “You’re wasting your money,” he said. “A lot of that gangprevention money could go to more recreational programs and to moreparks.” The candidate’s “community standards for the economy”platform is largely focused on the Urban Loop for the moment, and hejoins almost every other incumbent and challenger in expressing thesense that homebuyers should have received more notification aboutroadway plans. He said he believes the state funding for the loop couldhave been better used to improve public transportation and add bicyclelanes. “We could have expanded our bus routes, have more timeson the schedule,” Cornell said. “I’ve talked to Guilford Collegestudents. They want to see more bike lanes. That’s a way ofsaving money on gas. Nobody should have to fear for their lives theminute they get on a bike that they’re going to get hit by a car.” Onthe matter of police accountability, Cornell has plenty to say. Hesupports a proposal to grant subpoena power to the complaint reviewcommittee, a citizen board that investigates complaints about policemisconduct. Cornell said the city is wasting scarce funding“on the gang unit to sit and wait for someone to get in a car insteadof going to investigate a shooting across town. You could look at theirarrest ratio, but you should look at how many times they obtain aconviction. Those numbers aren’t pretty. I would like to seeeither that we dismantle them or fund a new group that’s going to sitout there and properly investigate and not just target people becauseof the color of their skin. He admitted to having little familiaritywith land-use and rezoning decisions, which often take up more thanhalf of the council’s meeting times. “I can’t speak on thatbecause I haven’t done the research,” Cornell said. “But I will nexttime I see you.” A native of Brooklyn, NY, Cornell moved to Greensboroin 2002 with his wife. Work and family preoccupations took precedenceduring his first three years in Greensboro, Cornell said, but thedissolution of his marriage brought about a greater awareness of thecity and led to his decision to found the North Carolina Latin Kings.In essence, dating led Cornell to a sense of civic engagement. “WhenI was being home with the kids, I wasn’t really seeing the city; Iwasn’t seeing the nightlife,” Cornell said. “I had to find — how to yousay it? — my better half, the woman I’m going to spend the rest of mylife with. I kept not liking what I saw with the police department. Iwas in a bar back in the day in 2005 over there next to the coliseum.
There was a car accident. There were four kids in the car that wereSpanish. They ran away. The cops go into this bar and grab four people.Two of them didn’t even know each other. They charged them for that caraccident.” Cornell said that, based on that experience, he“grabbed some brothers” and “got the authorization” from the LatinKings’ national leadership in Chicago to start a North Carolinaorganization. If elected, Cornell, a Puerto Rican born in thecontinental United States, would be the first Latino to serve on theGreensboro City Council. He opposes the 287(g) program, which allowslocal law enforcement officers to carry out the functions of federalimmigration agents. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office recentlysigned a 287(g) agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security.The city of Greensboro has no authority over the sheriff’s office, butthe city’s human relations commission recently passed a resolutionopposing the use of 287(g) for any purpose other than deporting themost serious and dangerous of criminals. “I’m sick and tiredof seeing Latinos targeted,” Cornell said. “I’m also seeing them get aneducation. We allow them to get a high-school diploma, but we don’tallow them to go to college. We’re turning away some of thegreatest minds. That kid who is an illegal alien, you never know: Hecould discover the cure for cancer.” Cornell’s affiliationwith the Latin King is a significant liability in itself, but hisstatus as a convicted felon and the fact that he has never before votedin a North Carolina election adds to the baggage. For one, hepled guilty to a gun-related crime about 10 years ago in New York. Hesaid he doesn’t recall the exact year, the charge or the circumstancesof the crime. The conviction resulted in his disenfranchisement in NewYork State, so he was surprised to learn that he could not only vote inNorth Carolina after completing his probation, but he could also runfor elective office. “I registered for the first time thisyear,” Cornell said. “I know people are going to say, ‘You nevervoted.’ In New York you couldn’t vote if you had a felony, and Icouldn’t vote for five years anyway because I was on probation. Theynever tell you that you can vote. The beautiful thing is not only canyou vote but you can run for office.” The way Cornell wouldlike to frame the matter, being a felon gives him the common touch.“More people can relate to me because I know what it is to be screwedby the system,” he said. “I know what it’s like to live in a city whereyour own police department can target you and racially profile you. I’myour everyday person. I’m a felon. I believe we’re going to makehistory in more than one way: I’m going to give the youth hope that,‘Yeah, I could do that.’ I’m going to give hope to that felon, that,no, you don’t have to be a number, and still keep going back into thesystem.”