Greensboro’s leadership has failed us

by Jordan Green

Filing does not open for Greensboro’s municipal elections for another two months, but campaigning has already begun. The reason for this is clear: The mayor and city council have failed abysmally to effectively address the fouryear-old police controversy, and their lack of leadership has left a malignancy that has distracted them from pursuing any kind of economic or social vision. Four years ago, Lt. James Hinson leveled accusations that a group of white police officers were selectively investigating black officers with the blessing of Chief David Wray. When Wray resigned about six months later, council members hammered home a unified message: Trust that city administration is handling this appropriately, let all the investigations run their course and then we’ll disclose everything to you. We still don’t have an answer. We don’t know if, as 39 plaintiffs contend in a lawsuit against the city, black officers were subjected to inappropriate and endless investigations for the purpose of damaging their reputations and hindering their advancement. Alternately, we don’t know whether the chief took reasonable action to ensure the integrity of the department in the midst of credible allegations that black officers were engaging in corrupt activities. We’ve been told repeatedly to let the criminal process run its course, and that process boiled down to a single charge — accessing a government computer — for which Detective Scott Sanders was acquitted. And yet a civil suit with 39 plaintiffs is pending against the city of Greensboro; Lt. Hinson and former Chief Wray are also suing the city; and yet another black officer, Julius Fulmore, is poised to file his own lawsuit against the city. And not one, but two Justice Department investigations of the city and its police department are underway. When the news media asks council members about the circumstances surrounding the police controversy, they seem to not remember the details. They grandstand about transparency, and then act put upon when they receive polite reminders about their commitments. They apparently take us for fools and consider us children unable to handle the truth. Because we really don’t know what happened, we have no basis for trust in our political leadership and among ourselves. We don’t know who is telling the truth and who is manipulating the facts for their own benefit. How can we possibly develop more affordable housing, revitalize blighted sections of the city, improve K-12 education, engage the passions of our college students and ensure that all people are treated fairly if we don’t know who to trust? Make no mistake, the news media must shoulder its share of blame for the confusion that surrounds this controversy and the lack of credible information. We have not been aggressive enough in demanding answers. The line from the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming” surely applies: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We left it to people with self-serving agendas to shape the outlines of this story with selective leaking and slanted reporting, while the rest of us stood on the sidelines and waited for the city to release information at the appropriate time or pulled our punches to avoid alienating our readerships. Now that a city manager who displayed courage in addressing allegations of racial discrimination has been fired, Councilman Mike Barber has come to the illogical conclusion that the black officers should drop their suit, and let the city move on. No, the closure we need is precisely the kind that can be rendered when an outside, independent agency that is untainted by local prejudices completes an investigation. Council, don’t feel sorry for yourself that the Bicycle Hall of Fame chose Davis, Calif. over Greensboro, or that we lost the NC Marathon to High Point. Don’t cry about the unfairness of Charlotte and the Triangle receiving the greater share of the state’s urban growth or that the Guilford County School System announced that for the first time in nearly a decade enrollment is expected not to grow. Don’t ask why Garrison Keillor paid tribute to the state in a performance in Durham on May 9 without once mentioning a cityin the Triad. All along we’ve needed leadership that forthrightlyaddressed problems brought to the city’s attention, communicatedclearly with the public about what had happened and outlined concretesteps for correcting abuses. That kind of maturity would have won therespect of the citizenry and attracted positive notice from the rest ofthe nation, including from business people who are making decisionsabout where to invest their money. Councilman Mike Barberscolded the mayor and the chief of police for discussing Greensboro’sproblems at an academic forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Governmentin Cambridge, Mass. last year, saying, “It is important that we nottreat the challenges we continue to face as some social experiment thatwe can discuss in an academic setting for personal benefit, but insteadrecognize that this severely damages the way other people perceive ourgreat city. It is important that we not take these issues on the road,just as we don’t like surveys in national magazines that do anythingbut applaud the great place this is to live.”

Barber’sattempt to impose a premature resolution on the police controversy isreminiscent of the way the city responded with evasion and dishonestyin the aftermath of the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings, in which the policedepartment was curiously absent when white supremacists opened fire onantiracist labor activists in a black housing project. The mistake ofour current leadership is that they care more about image than justice.

To paraphraseAlcoholics Anonymous, they never can bring themselves to make asearching and fearless moral inventory of their city. Like a long lineof Greensboro politicians, including Keith Holliday and Jim Melvin,Barber seems to believe that pretending the city has addressed itsproblems will protect its reputation. They have it exactly wrong; theirparochial insistence that all is well and nothing needs fixing, infact, discredits the city and drives away investment.