by Eric Ginsburg
Clergy with the Greensboro Pulpit Forum urge city leaders not to ignore what they say are persistent police abuses and simmering anger in black communities stemming from a host of racial inequities and marginalization.
What began as a press conference and community meeting to address several instances of alleged police abuse quickly turned into a warning call.
The Rev. Greg Headen — one of about a dozen members of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum sitting at a long table at the front of a room at Bethel AME Church near NC A&T University — may have summed up the message most succinctly.
“There’s fire underground that’s ready to erupt,” he cautioned.
A whole host of issues are fueling that fire, other attendees of the May 28 meeting elaborated, from persistent racial inequities in many facets of life including treatment by local police.
Amos Quick, a Guilford County School Board member and associate pastor at New Light Missionary Baptist Church, said it also includes disparities in education, such as which students are criminalized at school. He was one of several speakers to criticize racism within policing and the legal system, including incarceration rates.
“It bothers me that there is clearly a line of distinction between poor and minority communities,” Quick said. “The jails are full, yet the problems continue. It’s time for a different solution.”
Clergy made initial comments about the case of the Scales brothers — one of whom was arrested while crossing a residential street near his home, the other arrested after filming part of the incident — and drew connections to other incidents of alleged police misconduct such as the handling of a 2014 Bennett College graduation party. City Manager Jim Westmoreland sent a letter apologizing to the Scales for the handling of the incident on behalf of the city, and all charges were dismissed in the case.
“What we have in the Scales case is a microcosm, a living tissue of a larger culture within the Greensboro Police Department,” the Rev. Cardes Brown, the senior pastor at New Light and a fixture in local organizing, said.
In a prepared statement, clergy and community members said they would seek compensation in the Scales case and invited the broader community to join them in pushing for a shift in policing and the establishment of a mechanism to hold police accountable. Brown and many others present have been part of a push for a citizens review board of the police department with greater powers, criticizing recent changes to the city’s process as inadequate window dressing.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center and Faith Community Church quickly related local problems to eruptions of anger and frustration over policing and a lack of opportunities among other issues in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, and Ferguson, Mo. When police abuse persists unchecked and people feel powerless, packing in their pent-up anger about a society that seems to have no place for them, an explosion starts to become inevitable, he warned.
When the clergy opened the floor to a few dozen attendees, several of them younger black men, audience members picked up Johnson’s thread and communicated what would happen if the clergy’s calls for dialogue and change went unheeded.
A few said they didn’t have the same patience or commitment to nonviolence as many in the Civil Rights-era generation who came before them, adding that they were willing to protect themselves and their families from police abuse if need be but would proceed — for now — with deference to the clergy.
“This is a war on young black males,” one man said. “I’m willing to die for what I believe in, which is justice.”
Later Johnson referred to the comment, saying, “Young people are not the only ones willing to die,” to a murmur of “amen,” but he added that nobody wants to see existing deep tensions boil over in a violent way here.
But without meaningful change, many warned, feelings of hopelessness will translate into rebellion and a potentially dangerous situation for police. Matthew King, who received a master’s degree from A&T and helped launch the Mobile Oasis farmers market to address food deserts in Greensboro, spoke to that fear and feeling of powerlessness.
“If I can get a million degrees and they can still kill me, what’s the point?” he asked, adding that based on his locked hair and appearance he might be just as likely as a serial criminal to be gunned down. A systematic solution that deals with the root of the problems is needed to truly ameliorate the situation, King said.
Another attendee summarized the desire of those gathered: “All we really want is the opportunity to be free in America,” he said.
Some people try to paint people organizing for police accountability in Greensboro as anti-police, Headen said, but he argued that their drive for justice would also stave off violence directed at police, thereby keeping officers safer.
Dressed in uniform, Deputy Chief Brian James listened intently from one of the round tables in the room. James was one of 39 of black and Latino officers who sued the city for racial discrimination in 2009. Brown acknowledged James’ presence and thanked him for attending, adding that plenty of black officers know the issues raised are true but are unable to speak up. James didn’t make any public comment at the meeting.
Johnson and the Rev. Alphonso McGlen — the senior pastor at Bethel AME Church where the May 28 meeting occurred — encouraged Greensboro to be proactive in transforming its policing and accountability, leading the nation rather than always bringing up the rear. We don’t need to wait until people are in the street, or the city is burning, or people are dead to get active and work for change, McGlen said.
Plus, Johnson said, uprisings like those seen in other cities aren’t aberrations and will continue until the problem is dealt with, adding that it could easily happen here. Clergy, including Johnson, invited residents to join their struggle while vowing to push forward.
“Mark this date in your calendars,” Johnson said. “This meeting today represents a re-energized community. Summer is coming. We have young people who are ready to get in the streets and organize.”