On trust, truth and tall tales

by Eric Ginsburg

We’ve dedicated a significant amount of space over the last several weeks to reporting about police surveillance of activists, the public response and the role of Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter. After all that’s been written by us and other outlets, it seems necessary to address this from an editorial perspective as well.

Only a small part of the article focused on Abuzuaiter’s role, but readers seized on it with mixed responses. It is hard to reconcile the two roles she appears to have played — a dedicated public servant and social-movement participant while simultaneously providing intelligence on different grassroots organizations. She may have meant no harm and it’s hard to say if she caused any, but the issue is bigger than that.

The extent of the intelligence gathered isn’t the point — what seems abundantly clear, and has since we first read these files, is that in some cases Abuzuaiter passed information along to the police without the knowledge or consent of the subjects of the intelligence. Regardless of her motivation — whether it was out of concern for public safety and she was acting as a “mother hen” as a supporter suggested or whether it was more malicious — the files show she was providing information to the criminal intelligence squad of the department.

The gulf between acting as a volunteer police liaison and sending information about community organizations without their knowledge to the officers responsible for investigating them — be it Det. Finch with criminal intelligence or Capt. Wolfe who oversaw the gang squad — is significant. Sharing such information even with the best intentions is a tremendous breach of public trust, a concern both because of her role in grassroots organizations and as a city council member. We must hold our elected officials in particular to high standards of transparency, and the information about her role flies in the face of that.

Maybe more concerning than the revelations about her actions is Abuzuaiter’s denial. We have a saying around the office: “The cover up is worse than the crime.” I find it difficult to believe Abuzuaiter’s version of events. To assert that public records were altered or that someone is framing a council member to destroy her reputation by hacking her e-mail account is a pretty serious charge — one that has no evidence to support it and that has no solid ground to stand on when Abuzuaiter won’t call for an investigation.

Chief Ken Miller said he is willing to turn over files and fully cooperate with an SBI or Secret Service investigation into whether the e-mails actually came from Abuzuaiter, but that will only happen if council instructs staff to conduct one. If they truly aren’t from her, will fellow council members believe her and call for an investigation? Why wouldn’t Abuzuaiter want to clear her name and get to the bottom of this?

A few of her supporters have alleged that I have been overly trusting of the police by relying on these documents, a claim that has certainly never been leveled against me before and that would likely make police laugh. The person it takes a giant leap of faith to believe in this circumstance is Abuzuaiter, a leap that some supporters are willing to dive into but that as journalists we cannot justify.

It’s difficult to process that someone who is so honestly engaged in social justice work, who is so genuinely committed to improving our city, would do something like this to undermine her efforts. Rather than sitting with the cognitive dissonance created by the dual roles Abuzuaiter played, some of her supporters have turned to conspiracy theories or opted to attack the messenger. So let’s set a few things straight on our end.

We didn’t publish this information about Abuzuaiter for any reason except pursuit of the truth and public interest. We treated her differently than the other informant named in the files we received because she is a public figure, and we discussed this numerous times before publishing it. We found this information accidentally, in a public records request where we didn’t expect to stumble across her name. Nobody approached us with files. Once we saw an e-mail — by chance — that identified her as a confidential informant, we put in a request with her e-mail address as the search term and came up with a trove of information.

The city’s attempt to block the article from distribution partially affirms Abuzuaiter’s role, because the other details about informants was scant. We’ve released it online for those who are interested in seeing just how minimal it is. The city affirmed that information about informants was a primary reason it sought a restraining order against YES! Weekly.

We didn’t write about this because we took some sort of pleasure in it, or because we had political differences or an axe to grind. This is our job: to be watchdogs, not fan boys. And just because my politics align with Abuzuaiter’s on most issues or because we’ve endorsed her or all like her on a personal level doesn’t negate our role.

And that’s the key issue here: Abuzuaiter didn’t understand her role as a participant in and advocate for community groups in Greensboro. Her communication with police put her outside of the bounds of her role.

We understand our role clearly, even if others do not. We can endorse candidates, cover grassroots movements, write editorials and politically align with people or causes, but our job is to strive for accuracy and pursue the truth. That’s exactly what we did here, regardless of whether some critique the article as divisive or whether the news is unpopular. An inconvenient truth does not cease to be true just because it may disrupt alliances between a council member and the grassroots.

We agree with those who say the bigger issue is police surveillance of activists and not Abuzuaiter’s role, but we’ve been forced to clarify and revisit that portion of the story by Abuzuaiter and her supporters. Last week we ran another article focused largely on her version of events and released several relevant documents, some that she denies sending. This week we have an interview with Chief Miller, but we would like to echo the call for more transparency on whom the department is surveilling and how it justifies this use of public funds.

We fully expect the city to be far more restrictive in future public-information requests. Instead of shifting the blame onto YES! Weekly for publishing information we obtained legally or focusing too heavily on Abuzuaiter (who played a minor role in this larger saga), the focus belongs on the city. It should be held accountable for criminalizing people who stand up for what they believe in and who are trying to make our city more livable, accessible and just.

Surveillance is just one aspect of the larger issue of transparency and police accountability, one that has plagued Greensboro recently and historically. The city is unwilling to face its role in the Greensboro Massacre (and many roll their eyes at the mere mention of it) even when a court found the city liable for wrongful death and when even Rhino Times Editor John Hammer recently wrote that police failure that day contributed to the casualties.

Today the department is troubled by lawsuits, community claims of racism and excessive force, allegations of corruption and a secretive squad that monitors activists. The way to deal with these problems isn’t to double-down and deny them into obsolescence. Hiding behind personnel privacy laws and tightening public records requests only increases public mistrust.

The chief said the department has made dramatic improvements in recent years, but his explanation of Finch’s relationship to Occupy Greensboro is questionable at best. Finch’s e-mail conveys he was directly participating in an Occupy meeting, and at least one member recalls him asking her questions at the encampment without identifying himself. The chief may have been honest, but the lack of clarity and refusal to let Finch comment directly doesn’t inspire public trust.

People regularly contact me with stories of police misconduct — lying during a traffic stop, failing to investigate a crime, excessive force or racial profiling. I’ve had Greensboro and UNCG police officers lie to my face. Even if we accepted the “few bad apples” logic, a system devoid of public accountability (not an internal review process) protects police abuses. Regardless of the validity of the claims, there is a lack of public trust that isn’t enhanced when police investigate themselves or refuse to provide answers.

My concerns transcend the fact that I feel we’ve been the target of some unjust or inaccurate criticism. Will the people who are so up in arms about the information in the article — regardless of their interpretation of it — seize this opportunity to push for transparency and against state repression, or will interest wither as the issue becomes falsely crystallized as a battle between a newspaper and a council member?