Greensboro truth commmission not the first to spark controversy
Greensboro City Councilman Tom Phillips opened the floodgates of heated public discussion when he noted his puzzlement over Mayor Keith Holliday and Councilman Don Vaughan’s votes in favor of putting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the council’s agenda in a March 18 blog entry.
A seemingly straightforward question about political motives on the City Council by Phillips prompted a flurry of comments from local bloggers over the following weekend. Many of the voices in cyberspace spoke out in favor of the truth commission’s mandate to examine the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, and urged Phillips to explain his stance against it.
‘“My primary reason for being opposed to this since day one is I believe Nelson Johnson is simply trying to rewrite history and we do not need to rehash something that occurred twenty five years ago,’” Phillips wrote in response.
The comment spurred immediate exasperation in the blogosphere.
‘“Tom, what part of 5 people killed by the klan/Nazis and no one convicted is Nelson trying to rewrite?’” asked a blogger identified as ‘Jeff.’ ‘“The point of the commission is that it’s not Nelson making the report. It’s been 25 years and you are still blaming Nelson Johnson and defending not putting this to rest. Can this not be more obvious as to the need?’”
The councilman is not alone in his objection that Rev. Nelson Johnson is trying to rewrite history through the Commission, however. Retired police officers have said the same thing. So have local business owners.
Johnson, who as a Marxist-oriented labor and civil rights leader organized the 1979 ‘Death to the Klan’ march that ended in the deaths of five of his colleagues, remains a lightning rod for fear and hostility toward the Commission’s work. Johnson knows this better than anyone else.
‘“As one who is fully aware that I am often the object of fear and speculation about motives, I want to assure each of you, and every citizen in this city, that I will do my very best to overcome any spirit of revenge or retribution,’” Johnson told the City Council on March 15.
Public dialogue amongst bloggers also reveals lingering confusion over the distinct roles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (an independent body impaneled through a broad-based public input process) and the Truth and Reconciliation Project (a group of community members, including survivors of the 1979 massacre, who made the initial call for the public inquiry). The confusion over the two entities roles has fueled skepticism about the Commission’s objectivity.
‘“For me, the ‘project’ vs. ‘commission’ relationship is part of the problem,’” Councilwoman Sandy Carmany wrote on her blog on March 18. After four days of online dialogue, she remained unmoved, writing: ‘“I still have grave concerns about accuracy and bias and have NOT moved from my original position.’”
The controversy surrounding truth inquiries is not unique to Greensboro, said Lisa Magarell, a consultant with the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, who has advised the Greensboro commission. Truth commissions in other parts of the world have also struggled against perceptions of bias.
Perhaps the most ambitious and well-known truth commission is South Africa’s, which examined human rights violations by the all-white apartheid government and the multiracial African National Congress that carried out a guerilla war, along with violations by other armed actors. South Africa’s truth commission offered reparations to certified victims of human rights violations, and offered amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for their testimony. The Greensboro truth commission, in contrast, has no government backing that would allow it to compel testimony from perpetrators and no resources to make reparations to victims.
Similar to South Africa, Greensboro’s truth and reconciliation process has been propelled forward by an aggrieved group and resisted by a group that has traditionally held power, namely the local political and business establishment. Support and opposition to the truth process in Greensboro has likewise tended to break down along racial lines.
‘“Truth commissions often spring out of a push from sectors of society that have been closest to the issues and feel that there has been an injustice done,’” Magarell said.
Unlike South Africa, whose truth commission was established by the post-apartheid government in the wake of the African National Congress’ victory over apartheid rule, no such handover of power preceded the creation of the Greensboro truth commission.
‘“In a lot of countries it’s kind of a victor’s truth commission,’” said Emily Harwell, who as research director for the Greensboro truth commission will write the final report. ‘“The political context in Greensboro is much more confused than that. It’s not the people in power wanting to give people who were victimized a voice.’”
Harwell previously served as a senior researcher for the East Timor truth commission, which investigated massacres and other human rights violations by the Indonesian military and paramilitary groups from the time of Indonesia’s occupation of the tiny Southeast Asian country to East Timor’s independence.
‘“There hasn’t been this big transition of government institutions and there hasn’t been this wide-scale flight of perpetrators. There were trials, and there were indications that those trials were flawed. The question is, did the justice system deal with them adequately? Were there procedural violations?’”
Harwell added that while the Greensboro truth commission is drawing on the experiences of South Africa and East Timor to create a model of restorative rather than criminal justice, that should by no means imply that what happened in Greensboro comes close to the gravity of human rights abuses in those countries.
Harwell said she is not surprised that a figure like Johnson would become a lightning rod of controversy for the Commission.
‘“There’s always power struggles, different political agendas that come into this,’” she said. ‘“And larger-than-life charismatic figures are not unique.’”
The distrust of Johnson, who is black, by political and business leaders, many of whom are white, in Greensboro echoes a similar skepticism by whites in South Africa to that country’s truth and reconciliation process.
‘“It is something of a pity that, by and large, the white community failed to take advantage of the truth and reconciliation process,’” wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the forward to the commission’s final report. ‘“They were badly let down by their leadership. Many of them carry around a guilt which would have been assuaged had they actively embraced the opportunities offered by the Commission.’”
According to its final report, the South Africa truth commission had to overcome skepticism and distrust from many camps.
‘“There were those who saw the Commission as the instrument of an ANC-led government and a witch-hunt,’” the final report states. ‘“Others perceived it as perpetrator friendly, insensitive to the plight of victims and biased towards the former regime and security forces, and some simply saw it as a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money.””
Even the African National Congress, it turns out ‘— which led the government that created the commission ‘— objected to the final report. The ANC tried unsuccessfully to suppress the final report until it could impose revisions placing it in a more favorable light. Then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki contested the Commission’s ‘“general implication that any and all military activity which results in loss of civilian life constitutes gross violation of human rights,’” a notion he dismissed as ‘“erroneous.’”
Harwell said the citizens of Greensboro can likewise expect an impartial final report from the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
‘“I hope that people would keep an open mind and judge us by our results rather than hardening into firm positions early on,’” she said. ‘“I have experience cross-checking stories, not necessarily just taking for granted anything that falls out of somebody’s mouth. I don’t have any axes to grind.’”