Protestors follow Greensboro City Council to Barber Park
Editor’s note: The figure depicting the combined cost of legal fees, “$87,787,” had an extra “0” at the end. The typo has been updated and corrected in the online version of this article.
Monday’s Greensboro City Council meeting at the Barber Park Event Center was the first in years not to be streamed or broadcast live. As previously reported, Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced in June that the first meetings of July through November will be held in each the city’s five districts, beginning in July with District 1. According to City Manager David Parrish, moving out of the downtown council chamber makes live casting impractical.
Shortly before the meeting began, District 1’s Sharon Hightower told YES! Weekly she was troubled by the decision.
“It doesn’t allow people an opportunity to be heard live other than in this room. And if I hadn’t asked them to video-record it, the only thing we would have is an audio tape. People have the right to be heard, even if we don’t like what they’re saying. In this day of technology, we ought to be able to live stream, even from here. All of our city buildings should offer us upgraded live streaming technology.”
Hightower did not say whether or not she thought the move was a deliberate attempt to keep critics of the city council from being heard live. But Rhino Times writer and editor John Hammer has alleged that council members told him “off the record” that one reason for the change was to discourage those protesting the Greensboro Police Department’s fatal hogtying of Marcus Deon Smith from speaking at meetings.
Seven of the 17 speakers from the floor talked about Marcus Smith’s death and the Smith family’s lawsuit against the city.
These included retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts, who was part of the legal team that in 1985 won the federal civil rights case that found two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant liable for the wrongful death of one demonstrator and injuries to two others in the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.
Pitts accused the city of seeming unconcerned about Smiths’ death until the lawsuit was announced. “And then our city council swung into action and hired a local big shot law firm to twist and distort the law in defiance of common decency to argue that case should be thrown out.”
The city’s recent response to public information request #9892 states that in the case of “Marcus Smith, et. al. vs. City of Greensboro, et. al.,” the “City of Greensboro and the eight officers are represented by attorneys with the law firm of Turning Point Litigation. The billing rates are as follows: Partners- $300.00 per hour; Associates rate- $230.00 per hour; paralegal rate- $90.00 per hour. The firm has the following fees and costs; May 20, 2019, $27,064.60 in fees and costs and, June 10, 2019, $59,716.93 for fees and costs.”
The combined fees and cost for May and June billing of $87,787 substantiates Pitts’ claim that the city “has paid over $80,000” to defend itself from the lawsuit.
Other public speakers with concerns about the Marcus Smith case included Hester Petty, a member of Democracy Greensboro, said that, in November, her organization and four others had “asked for a clear answer as to whether GPD officers are trained to hogtie people and if they are trained about the life-threatening dangers associated with these restraints” and that the city has yet to respond.
She also accused the council of neglecting the “deteriorating” SCAT system and other public transportation “in favor of expensive parking decks” and “a baseball-themed streetscape near the ballpark, whose only purpose is to beautify Roy Carroll’s Eugene-Bellemeade business.”
Retired UNCG professor Mary Wakeman said that the council should fire Chief Scott and “compensate the Smith family financially for burying their son.”
Zalonda Woods of the Homeless Union of Greensboro requested that GPD “get training in regards to systematic racism and how to treat people with mental illness” and cautioned other speakers about calling homeless people “thugs,” adding that most Greensboro crimes are committed “by people working two or three jobs who still can’t pay their bills.”
Four of those making public comments talked about crime in their neighborhoods. One echoed a familiar demand from the Smith protesters when he called for Chief Wayne Scott to be fired, albeit for a very different reason.
This was Maurice Warren, who identified himself as vice president of the Windmill Parking Housing Association, and who said the council should “fire Chief Scott or give him more power.” Warren complained about young men on four-wheelers racing through his community while engaged in criminal activity and alleged that police were refusing to pursue them. He said he and other residents were considering taking action on their own if the police did not.
Dorothy Lassiter, who said she has lived in Greensboro for 53 years and seen many changes, stated that crime was a constant problem in Dudley Heights, and also complained that city codes were not being enforced there. She said there are “gang shootings” every weekend, and that she and her neighbors are frustrated by the lack of information on whether any of the shooters are ever arrested or charged.
District 1’s Sharon Hightower said, “I’m going to ask Trey Davis, the Assistant City Manager of Public Safety, to get with you on this, and hopefully, some things will change.”
Tamsin Ettefagh, who unlike Lassiter and Warren, is a resident of District 3, said her house has been broken into multiple times and she’s had cars stolen, both recently, and before that, over the Thanksgiving holidays in 2017. She said she’d been told by responding officers that “we don’t have enough police,” and stated her frustration with “judges who let the criminals out as quickly as they show up in the courts” and “the lawmakers who make it easier, not hard, to commit the crimes.”
Trey Davis said he’d speak with her after the meeting but stated that, contrary to the claims of “not enough police,” the GPD is “at full capacity.”
Michael Kersey talked about violence, gangs and trash on sidewalks, yards and the road at 2330 Kersey St., which he stated was owned by a “slum lord.” Sharon Hightower responded “I’m tired of it, too” and that “I went to code enforcement manager Troy Powell and I demanded that something gets done, and I’ll share [the results] with you.”
Catherine Holcomb criticized the council for their response to criticism during meetings. She alleged that she’s heard council members say, “I’m tired of hearing the same things week after week, month after month” and “you’re in my district, so you should just trust me to do the right things; I’ve studied this, and you don’t know.” Holcomb said that, as a 65-year-old citizen of Greensboro, she was shocked to hear council members speak to their constituents that way. “What do you think that good citizens are to do? We learn that in fourth grade. You speak up, and you keep speaking up. You don’t give up after one time if nothing happens.”
“I have a suggestion,” Holcomb said. “If you care that we trust you to do the right things after you’re elected, what I’d like to see is a monthly list of your successes or your effective steps you’ve taken toward making progress for the needs of the people. I’ve heard, we’re working on affordable housing, we’re working on it, it’s in the works. That’s all I hear; I don’t see any specific steps that you’ve taken.”
Marianne Hill addressed the problems faced by “Greensboro’s underserved indigent women.” At-large representative Michelle Kennedy said that there are indeed significant concerns, but explained that “85% of Greensboro’s homeless community consists of working-age black men,” which was why so many programs are aimed at that demographic.
Scott Jones, executive board chairman of Tiny House Community Development, alleged that he couldn’t get the community to meet with him about his plans to build a development at Gillespie and Peachtree streets.
Sharon Hightower replied by saying the people in that community had not been listened to. “It would be nice to have a conversation with people as a representative to those communities, but not for things to happen and then to come to tell us what we need . . . it’s called respect for the community.” She said that, as long as she was the community’s elected representative, “I’m going to speak for them if they ask me to,” and that, “while we certainly need all types of affordable housing, let communities decide how they want to live.”
Both Ryan Tardiff and Eddie Brewer, long-time critics of the city’s response to the Marcus Smith controversy (Brewer, who has been homeless himself, was a friend of Smith’s) described the difficulties they experienced arriving at the meeting on time via public transportation.
Tardiff questioned the utility of “a meeting that will only air once, nearly a week later.” He said that “it’s great to see such a sizeable crowd,” and “I guess they haven’t been intimidated, as Justin Outling has said, by the local activist community.”
District 3 representative Outling was not in attendance at the meeting, but a cellphone had been placed on the council table when it started, and Mayor Vaughan announced that Outling “is joining us” by it. Outling made no responses via the phone, even when residents of his district spoke from the podium, until the end of the meeting, when he said he had no comments.
District 5’s Tammi Thurm and At-large Representative Nancy Hoffman were also not in attendance, Thurm due to having recently experienced a death in her family.
Afterward, Mayor Vaughan told me, “I think the meeting accomplished what we had hoped.” She said that she liked the casual atmosphere and the way people stayed around and talked to council members afterward. “It was attended by many community groups from District 1 and people spoke directly about concerns in their neighborhoods. I was told by many residents that this was much easier than going to MMOB” (the Melvin Municipal Office Building downtown).
According to city communications and marketing director Carla Banks, the video of the meeting at Barber Park Event Center will be available online “by the end of the business day” on Wednesday, July 10, and will air on GTN (Channel 13 on Spectrum cable) on Saturday, July 13, at 10 a.m.