Greensboro Police Department surveillance targeted black leaders

by Jordan Green

A frank acknowledgement by the Greensboro Police Department that one of its non-sworn employees attended and recorded community meetings, and recorded private conversations with prominent African-American pastors and businessmen, along with leaders in the truth and reconciliation process stunned many of those who had been under surveillance.Race ‘— including contests for power between black and white leaders ‘— and discomfort with efforts to examine the cause and consequences of the violence in Morningside Homes 26 years ago appear to be elements in the spying efforts. And the revelations seem to have only added to the atmosphere of subterfuge and slippery truth that has accompanied efforts by the city to unravel the skein of wrongdoing under former Chief David Wray.Among the pastors who learned he had been under surveillance was the Rev. Nelson Johnson of Faith Community Church, who is a prominent figure behind the local task force of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project. Johnson said he learned that lawyer Joe Williams, ophthalmologist Dr. Thomas Brewington and the Rev. George Allison, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church ‘— all of whom are black ‘— were also targets of the police spying campaign. ‘“We basically exchanged stories about what happened, about the fact that this is totally unacceptable,’” Johnson said. ‘“This kind of systematic invasion of privacy, frankly, to me is baffling in a sense.’”Johnson said interim Chief Tim Bellamy visited him at the Beloved Community Center, which houses the pastor’s church and offices for various social justice initiatives, on April 18. After contacting other community members whose conversations were secretly recorded, Bellamy issued a public statement that the recordings had surfaced in the course of the ongoing investigation into the administration of Wray, his predecessor. ‘“I asked the chief what I should do,’” Johnson said. ‘“He said, ‘Do what you want to do.’ He offered no suggestions. He said there had been some discussion and they felt it was their duty to let us know what had occurred.’” Johnson said he was told by the chief that a police employee taped one or more meetings of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project’s local task force, which are held in the church sanctuary, and had taped a private conversation with the pastor in his office.He said he doesn’t recall what was discussed at the local task force meeting, but talk at the meetings generally revolves around how to support the process of seeking truth and reconciliation in relation to the police and other law enforcements’ role in the violent confrontation in 1979 between Klan and Nazis on one side, and communist anti-Klan demonstrators ‘— of whom Johnson was an organizer ‘— on the other side. Johnson said he believes he was also recorded during a private meeting with two women ‘— one black and one white ‘— who came to his office to discuss a need for counseling. The subject of the Violent Crime Task Force, a police-community collaboration, came up, but nothing about the meeting struck him as particularly significant.’“I think the person was saying I should be part of it,’” Johnson said. ‘“I was saying I didn’t see how I could add anything else to my plate.’”One of the few, if not the only white person recorded by the police, was Jill Williams, director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent body distinct from the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project. Williams said after speaking with Bellamy on the phone she came away with the impression that she had been recorded during a face-to-face meeting with someone employed by the police.The commission worked closely with the police department’s now-disbanded special intelligence section to arrange security for a series of hearings in the summer of 2005. Williams said the majority of her conversations with special intelligence officers were about logistical matters, but she did have in-depth conversations about the 1979 violence with one officer who had been on the police force at the time. She also spoke to members of special intelligence about what they gathered from testimony during the hearings.’“It just feels like a breach of trust,’” Williams said. ‘“I’ve been acting in good faith with the police department in my interactions with them. And it leads me to question whether they were acting in good faith with us. I have no idea whether they are trying to cover something up with regards to Nov. 3, 1979.’”The commission is due to release its report on the 1979 confrontation next month.City Manager Mitchell Johnson, reached by phone a day after the spying revelations, said he was told by Chief Bellamy that it could take several months before the police investigation of the current administration’s practices brings answers to questions of why the various community members conversations were taped. ‘“The circumstances around this are very unclear at the moment,’” Johnson said. ‘“That’s very true for me. I do not have any reason to know why they were done. Clearly if you’ve got an investigative reason or if there’s someone ongoing intelligence need, okay. Had these been recordings of individuals who were involved in activities in our community that could become very volatile and we need to record the conversations so there was no dispute about what was said, I could maybe understand.’“If there was a rationale maybe it will become clear to us at some point,’” he added. ‘“I haven’t seen any rationale that I’m comfortable with.’”Neither Wray nor former Deputy Chief Randall Brady, who oversaw the special intelligence section, could be reached through their lawyers on April 20. Ken Keller and Locke Clifford, two Greensboro lawyers who represent Wray, did release a public statement on Wray’s behalf.’“This press release continues a practice through which it appears to us that the city is attempting to damage the character of David Wray by releasing an isolated piece of information, without detail, without context, and then precluding any attempt to obtain detail,’” the statement reads.Wray has made one public statement since his resignation but has declined to answer questions or respond to calls from reporters. Keller and Clifford’s statement indicated that the former chief plans to make one exception to his practice of circumspection.’“Jerry Bledsoe came to us and said he was in the process of writing a comprehensive story,’” the statement reads. ‘“He asked our permission to interview David Wray. Because of Mr. Bledsoe’s reputation for fairness and objectivity we agreed.’”Bledsoe is a former News & Record reporter who now makes his living as an author of crime novels. Wray’s lawyers have lobbed barbed criticisms at the daily newspaper for declining to share a leaked copy of the city’s ongoing investigation of the former chief’s administration.In the three-way contest to shape perceptions about the nature of the past police administration’s activities, only one participant seems willing to outline a theory explaining the motive of the police spying.’“It’s absolutely connected with the truth and reconciliation process,’” Rev. Johnson said. ‘“It seems to me very clear that African Americans were the target of it. And so it’s connected with the question of race in something.’“My own sense is that it’s an attempt to get black leaders compromised, a search to find some kind of violation of the law,’” he added. ‘“I haven’t heard about anything like that happening. It seems like it’s probably not just gathering information; that doesn’t make sense. I think it might be anticipating a larger unity: If you have people in compromised positions you can freeze them in place.’”Wayne Abraham, vice-chair of the city’s Human Relations Commission, said the recordings probably were not illegal, ‘“but it was a dirty thing to do.’“What the people who were involved may say is that they were conducting an investigation into possible criminal activity,’” he said. ‘“There was no excuse. It’s just they did it. They weren’t investigating them. And if they were, for what?’”Abraham said he views Rev. Johnson’s theory with skepticism, but he can understand how the revelations would stoke speculation.’“It just blows my mind,’” he said. ‘“I think surveilling the truth and reconciliation people is just stupid. Let’s just make all the various conspiracy theories come true. ‘“Apparently it’s a lot easier for government to go nuts than we thought,’” he added, ‘“so it just goes to show what we’ve known all along in America ‘— that we need oversight.’”To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at