Flush from the exhilaration of large-scale street actions in Greensboro to protest the one-two punch of grand-jury decisions letting officers off for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a couple hundred people jammed into the basement of Genesis Baptist Church to figure out what comes next.
The atmosphere in the room gave the sense of a movement taking shape, with citizens expressing anger and resolve, raising related and intersecting concerns, and breaking out into committees to undertake specific tasks. The galvanizing events were the officer-involved deaths of Brown and Garner, both young, unarmed, black men, from different parts of the country.
People at the Dec. 4 community meeting in Greensboro wanted to talk about excessive force by police officers, public access to police footage of officer-involved shootings, police citizen-review boards, reasonable suspicion for traffic stops, municipal policies, state laws and Supreme Court decisions. Underlying all of the discussion of police practices, legal standards and remedies was a sense — underscored by the lived experience of countless people — that the criminal-justice system discriminates against black people, from the police to the courts to prisons, as part of a vicious, closed loop that disrupts families and prevents black men from maintaining legitimate employment. And when police deprive citizens of their rights, that there seems to be no accountability.
A thirtysomething father and ex-offender who lives in the Cumberland Courts apartment community asked the assembled group if there was any way to do something about at-will firing, explaining that he had recently been terminated from his job and has been struggling to provide for his children. He said he feels like he’s “between a rock and a hard place” — whether that is continuing to seek employment and further his education or doing whatever he needs to do legal or otherwise to support his family.
As some in the assembly hall offered encouragement, an epiphany struck others as they contrasted the man’s account with the demonology of black teenage boys that engenders fear and supplies a misplaced justification of self-defense to their killers.
“They treat our boys like men,” several people murmured. “And they treat our men like boys.”
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a veteran human-rights activist in Greensboro, gave a rhetorical overview of a system that young men of color must avoid at all costs by minimizing interactions with police, or failing that, by demonstrating exceeding courtesy and deference.
“People are bleeding bail money,” Johnson said. “If you’re poor they give you a lawyer that pushes you into a compromised position. And then they shove you in prison. It’s slavery.”
Graham Holt, a local criminal defense attorney (disclosure: Holt is an occasional contributor to Triad City Beat), rose to give a report about a complaint submitted to the Beloved Community Center, where Johnson serves as the executive director.
“At the second meeting, they asked if anyone would be willing to frame complaints,” he explained later. “So I stepped forward and volunteered.”
The complaint involves Erik Salas, a young African-American student who drives a green motorcycle. Salas was visiting a friend at a UNCG residency hall when he saw police officers surround his bike. Holt said the police had recently been outrun by an unidentified person who also drove a green motorcycle. Salas was arrested even though he didn’t match the physical description of the suspect, and Holt said the motorcycles “were obviously of a different make; it doesn’t pass the laugh-out-loud test.”
Holt said the charges were eventually dropped, and Salas recovered his motorcycle from impoundment with the fee waived due to his innocence. He received an in-person apology from a UNCG officer, although not the one who initiated the action.
“This is like some elementary-school revenge,” Holt said. “You see, Erik had a previous run-in with UNCG police. They caught him playing basketball with a group of friends on campus, and said they were violating a rule against unauthorized parties. I didn’t even know such a rule existed. But Erik is a very courteous young man, so he spoke with the officers and immediately agreed to stop the basketball game.”
The complaint may eventually wind up being heard by the Greensboro Interim Citizens Police Review Committee, an independent review board. The committee meets monthly on the campus of NC A&T University, and its members have pledged to bring checks the next time they convene to establish an operating fund. In contrast to the city of Greensboro’s official citizen review process, which always seems to absolve the department of wrongdoing, the interim citizens police review committee will “come out with the people’s determination.”
“We’re here to change the fact that if you complain to the police agency, the police agency can say, ‘Nah, your complaint’s not valid,’” said James Mayes, a member of the interim committee who teaches criminology at A&T. “My mind’s made up. We’re gonna change this. This is our community.”