Greensboro City Council considers enforcing ‘civility’ at meetings
Tempers flared at February’s first Greensboro City Council meeting, as at almost every meeting since Marcus Deon Smith died while in Greensboro Police custody on Sept. 8, 2018.
Tensions escalated after police bodycam videos of the incident were made public. As described in “Hogtying, homicide and humanity: DOJ document warns about restraint that killed Marcus Deon Smith,” close examination of the videos contradicts statements from Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott.
In January, a Guilford County district attorney ruled Scott’s officers not criminally negligent in Smith’s death. This increased outrage from some members of the community, who attended consecutive council meetings to request Scott’s dismissal.
Fifteen of the 20 people making public comments at the Feb. 5 meeting expressed such outrage, beginning with Cherizar Crippen, also there to protest being dismissed from the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission (GCJAC) in January.
At the previous council meeting, District 2’s Goldie Wells made a successful motion to remove Crippen from GCJAC, alleging Crippen’s failure to attend mandatory meetings and sign a non-disclosure agreement. On Tuesday, Crippen and Wells had a heated exchange, with Wells snapping “have manners while I’m talking.”
(Crippen’s address to the council, ending with her request to “advise the city manager to fire Chief Wayne Scott,” begins at 1:29 on the online video.)
Fourteen more speakers made this request. Hester Petty, projected the instructions packaged with the RIPP Hobble restraint fatally used on Marcus Smith, which began with the boldface instruction “NEVER Hog-Tie a Prisoner!”
The city council then addressed those requesting they advise the city manager to fire Scott. None expressed an inclination to do so. “I am not going to instruct the city manager to fire the police chief,” said Mayor Vaughan. “One, I don’t think that’s our role. Two, I don’t support firing the police chief.”
District 1’s Sharon Hightower was the most sympathetic to the collective demand. “I am probably the one dissenter out of nine. Since day one, I have not liked the process of how we got to where we got to with the chief of police. And so, while I’m in the minority, I think we have to hear what people are saying.”
In the meeting’s third hour (3:08 of the video), after most of those attending had left, Mayor Vaughan broached the subject of how some in the departed audience had behaved, suggesting that the format of these first Tuesday meetings should be changed to restrict that behavior. “I think the idea of the town hall meeting works, but I think it needs to be tweaked or something needs to change because I don’t believe the meetings are working now.”
District 4’s Nancy Hoffman agreed. “I think it’s been hijacked a bit, depending on the subject matter. We hear the same thing month after month from basically the same people, and basically, there’s no resolution.”
At-large representative Michelle Kennedy agreed, stating “I’m all for the process of people at a town hall meeting sharing their views,” but expressing concerns about “the yelling from the audience, and the kind of agitation and those pieces that are really disarming and make it not really a town hall for everybody, and make it hard for some people to feel like they can come into the space.” Kennedy said that she felt it a priority that the council chamber remains a “safe space,” and “no matter how passionate you feel about an issue, protecting safe space is important for all of the nearly 300,000 people in this city.”
Hightower’s response was the beginning of the final heated exchange of the evening, when she said, “so, you feel like because people have difference of opinion . . .“ before Kennedy cut her off with “I’ll answer your question, here’s the deal, when we start asking questions . . . .”
“Hold on, Michelle,” Hightower said. “I’m still talking. Now, you see, you’re doing what you’re talking about. I was still speaking. If we’re going to lead by example, let’s do that.”
Kennedy said, “I love that people come express their position on the Marcus Smith situation,” and that she was not criticizing any member of the attending public for any statement made during the allotted time at the podium. “I’m talking about when somebody sitting on the fourth row decides to start yelling. That doesn’t bother me personally, but that makes a lot of folks feel like they are not going to come here and talk about ‘I want a playground in my neighborhood,’ or even if they want to talk about the issue that’s being brought to the floor.” But, she stressed, the “rules of order” must be observed. “We need to follow those rules and create a space where anybody in the city – I want to feel like kids can walk in here and say ‘this is happening in my world.’”
Hightower replied that people shouting from the floor are not a new thing at city council meetings. “I’ve been sitting out there, and I’ve seen the folk who come with the landfills and other big issues, when people come for zoning, they get upset. I feel like when you start trying to constrain people, then you start trying to control freedom of speech.
At-large representative Marikay Abuzuaiter agreed with Kennedy. “Freedom of speech,” she said, means “you can say anything you want, but it just has to be in a respectful manner.”
Wells expressed her perception that the people shouting from the floor did not seem interested anything the city council might say in return, and sometimes rose and left while council members were still speaking. “They’ve all got the same theme, it seems. But when it’s time for us to just give our thoughts about it, nobody’s here to listen. I just think that’s kind of disrespectful.”
Nancy Hoffman said she would prefer the council went back to its old way of conducting these meetings, when “we set aside 10 people, 30 minutes, and if there were additional people, they could be heard at the end of the business meeting. Quite frankly, I think I would be in favor of going back to that format, as opposed to setting aside this town hall meeting every month.”
She also said, “I think we’ve just gotten hijacked by one group of people on one subject, and that subject is going to continue with them because it basically is their opposition to the chief of police. So, there’s always going to be something that seems to demand their attention regarding that.”
The meeting concluded with everyone but Hightower seemingly in consensus that “tweaking” the current format was worth considering.
After the meeting, I asked Mayor Vaughan for a statement of her position on this matter. On Wednesday morning, she texted me the following:
“Over the last few months I have gotten increasing concerns from people who feel that the current open format discourages a diversity of opinion or subject matter. We want to engage with residents on issues that are important to them such as reducing poverty, affordable housing, transportation, neighborhood development and crime just to name a few things. We need a format where all feel welcome, heard and respected. As a council we are committed to open dialogue and we want to encourage voices throughout the city. We welcome suggestions from anyone on how to make this public comment period more inclusive and productive.”
Because the discussion had occurred after all the people the council members were complaining about had left, I reached to someone who had, on one occasion, shouted from the floor at a council member.
Abigail Mosley, a junior political science major at Bennett College, had at a previous meeting expressed loud consternation after Abuzuaiter said that the hog-tying of Smith might have been necessary due to the “superhuman strength” given him by the drugs in his system.
On Wednesday morning, Mosley gave me this statement:
“While I do feel there is a need to be respectful, a lot of the people attending are very tired very traumatized. I’m not going tell them they need to police their trauma, or that they need to be respectful. I’ve not experienced the death of a loved one, so I’m not going to say ‘you can’t yell at me, because it makes me uncomfortable and I think you might hit me!’ These people are just mad because it’s literally a life and death situation. There’s a failure on the city council’s part to recognize the intensity of the entire situation.”
Before the meeting, I asked Kim Suber, sister of the deceased Marcus Smith, if she was planning to attend. She did not, but after watching the meeting video, she sent me the following statement:
“The city council is hiding behind some procedural games, and some members of the council are pretending they can’t talk about my brother’s case – where the police broke the law and killed him. They claim that they don’t have the power to influence the police department or fire Chief Scott, even though the Mayor admitted he lied about the facts in Marcus’ case – which was a homicide. But we know that when the council wants to see something done, they can act quickly. They removed the two outspoken members of the police accountability review board when they started pushing for change. The distinction they are making between people they can hire and appoint and people they have to trust the city manager to hire and appoint is arbitrary and seems more like political posturing than anything. There’s no law that says the police can kill people and because your city manager is friends with the chief that you have to shut up about it. That’s just people being cowards.
“If every important personnel decision gets left to the city manager, then who’s holding him accountable? He’s not elected by the people, but he works for the council. So, the only way the people of Greensboro can hold the city manager or the police chief accountable is to hold the city council accountable.
“The community has seen the tapes and knows that the police killed my brother and then lied about it to cover it up. So, we’re just supposed to move on because the city manager decides it’s okay? Even if there’s not a majority of people on council that are willing to talk, someone on that council has to speak the truth! What does it say about you that you are willing to stay silent because it’s not politically convenient to talk? What if you knew him? Someone on that council needs to call for the firing of Wayne Scott.”