Citizen Green: Nelson Johnson: The agitator becomes the conciliator

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Photo: Claude Barnes and Jeff Thigpen present a list of proposals for Greensboro City Council.

by Jordan Green

The Rev. Nelson Johnson has probably been waiting 30 years for a moment when his would not be the most strident, militant voice in the room.

The fellowship hall at Shiloh Baptist Church on the evening of Nov. 18 vibrated with anger and hope — that rare feeling of not only desiring change but believing there is a ghost of a chance of achieving it.

The group dynamics were a community organizer’s dream: a collective welling up of determination and creativity springing organically from the conditions of the community, so that the organizer can fade into the background and become redundant to the process. There was the plumber who eloquently opined that police work for the citizens, and they should be fired, along with the chief and city manager, if they trample on the citizens’ rights. There was the young man who said, “We can’t beg for the devil to change his tactics. We have to recognize that we are all God’s children.”

And there was Taryn Muhammad, dressed modestly in a hijab, who stood face to face with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and asked whether there was a timeframe for implementing reforms in the police department.

“I wouldn’t say that there is a date-specific timeframe, but it is with all deliberate speed,” Vaughan answered after an uncomfortable silence. (The mayor may not have been aware that the phrase “all deliberate speed” comes from the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, and Greensboro public schools ran out the clock, taking 17 years to implement the 1954 court order.)

“Now this is the problem with not having a date-specific timeline,” Muhammad said. “The problem is that for 50 years our community has absolutely said these things were going on. And for 50 years our community was told that, absolutely these things are not going on. You all have some bad people out there, and that’s why we need these big policemen — because they’re here to deal with the bad people. And like I told you directly: We hear about the good police, but I want to talk about all of the good people that don’t need to be over-policed. And we need a timeframe to stop overzealous policing.”

Until recently, the Rev. Johnson’s relationship with the city’s political establishment could best be described as strained. He once called former mayor Jim Melvin a “dog.” But this past April, he and Mayor Vaughan stood in the back of an auditorium during a volatile community meeting at Bennett College, each worried that the city they love was coming apart at the seams. They started meeting every Monday at 8 a.m., and each invited 10 people to what became known as the Community-City Working Group.

Now, eight months later, in the fellowship hall at Shiloh Baptist Church, the working group was unveiling four proposals.

With three other city council members in the room, their group called on city council to take immediate action to implement changes in policing, including halting the practice of “contact” policing, described as “a disguised form of racial profiling”; doing away with the charge of resisting arrest without an underlying offense; de-prioritizing marijuana possession as a justification for over-arresting young black males; and revamping anti-bias training.

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April Parker of Greensboro Black Lives Matter

Not everyone was happy with the process. April Parker, a leader of Greensboro Black Lives Matter, charged that young, working-class people had been excluded from the dialogue. She then proceeded to list a handful of additional requests: a public apology from the city for the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, the removal of the city manager and police chief, eliminating police surveillance of social media and moving the meetings to a time when people with 9-5 jobs can attend.

Towards the end of the public discussion portion of the program, a white woman offered a “small, pragmatic suggestion” to consolidate the requests of Black Lives Matter with the four changes proposed by the Community-City Working Group and submit it to city council with a timeline.

The proposal to expand the list received a hearty endorsement from the Rev. Daran Mitchell.

“My sister, you actually stole my thunder,” he said. “That’s the reason I stood.” He echoed her call for a timeline and suggested a “collaboration,” arguing both for a comprehensive agenda and cooperation. He concluded, “Therefore, I’m calling on Rev. Nelson Johnson to call us together to make a decision before we leave here tonight.”

Johnson seemed to stall for time. In that moment, he might have capitalized on the spirit of militancy that had seized the room and put the comprehensive list of demands to a vote. Whatever his personal feelings, there’s no greater political cover than the will of the people. But he pulled back.

“The world is fractured and divided,” Johnson said. “And actually it’s the easiest thing to do — to divide ourselves. It’s hard to push and respect everybody. And I want to do that. And I want to say how much I appreciate the voices tonight — all the voices.

“There’s a space for anger; there’s a space for being urgent, you know,” he continued. “But, actually, there’s a space for deliberation, there’s a space for pulling yourself together, there’s a space for thinking through stuff. So to take the Black Lives Matter list tonight, I think we need to receive it, and sit down with it and work with it.”

Johnson called for a vote on the four original proposals while deferring the Black Lives Matter request for further discussion. The “ayes” resounded through the room.

And before anyone noticed that the “nays” had not been polled, Johnson called up a singer to close the meeting with a hymn.