A new group pledging to back progressive city council candidates joins forces with the movement for police accountability in Greensboro.
A grassroots movement for police accountability and electoral organizing collided during a community meeting last week at the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro.
The Police Accountability Community Safety and Healing Initiative, or PACSHI, has been meeting for at least three years to address the abuse of police power by advocating a police review board with subpoena power and pushing for public access to police body-camera video.
Democracy Greensboro began as an informal gathering of people, many of them Bernie Sanders supporters, who started meeting for coffee and bagels at Glenwood Community Book Shop to talk about how to advance a progressive agenda after their candidate conceded the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton. Formerly known as the Nov. 9 Ad Hoc Committee, the group has been quietly discussing plans back progressive candidates in the Greensboro City Council election later this year.
The two groups had scheduled meetings for the same night, but Democracy Greensboro ended up canceling their meeting so they could show up for PACSHI’s twice-monthly confab. The Rev. Nelson Johnson and NC A&T University student Nhawndie Smith co-facilitated a discussion about the impact of Trump’s election on the movement for police reform and PACSHI’s objectives for the new year. Then they turned the meeting over to Democracy Greensboro.
The electoral organizing group came with some immediate credibility for the police reform advocates. One of its members, Gary Kenton, had been arrested the day before in a civil disobedience to protest the city’s refusal to release internal investigative documents related to an altercation between former police Officer Travis Cole and Greensboro resident Dejuan Yourse. City council voted in September to release police body-camera video that showed Cole, who is white, punching Yourse, who is black, and then throwing him to the floor while Yourse sat on his mother’s front porch in a well-to-do neighborhood in southwest Greensboro. Cole resigned amid two investigations, one internal and one criminal, but the Guilford County District Attorney declined to prosecute him.
Police reform advocates in Greensboro have questioned why so much time elapsed between the June 17 incident and Aug. 9, when Chief Wayne Scott allegedly learned about it, and have sought access to investigative files to understand whether officers in the chain of command responded appropriately to Cole’s use of force.
During a meeting in October, city council voted 5-4 to not review the files in closed session, turning down a request by District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower to look at the documents. Voting to keep the files closed were at-large council members Mike Barber and Marikay Abuzuaiter, District 3 Councilman Justin Outling, District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann and District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins.
Hightower’s colleagues eventually relented and allowed her to review the files, but in December a motion by Hightower to publicly release the files failed in a 7-2 vote. Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson joined the vote against disclosure. District 2 Councilman Jamal Fox stood with Hightower in support of releasing the files.
On Jan. 18, Kenton and six other Greensboro residents were arrested for second-degree trespassing while demanding the release of the files at the city manager’s office. The action was carried out by GSO Operation Transparency, a separate police reform group.
Bill Hurd, a member of Democracy Greensboro who co-owns Glenwood Community Book Shop, said their group started with a broad goal of electing a more progressive city council, but the split on council over release of the investigative files provided them with an effective litmus test.
“We wanted to start a movement to change city council,” Hurd said. “The city council did us a favor of giving us a list of five to four. Now, it’s seven to two. We don’t actually know if we can replace seven council members. Some council members may be more vulnerable than others. We have to find candidates, or candidates have to find us.”
Hurd said he’s in the process of getting Democracy Greensboro certified as a political action committee so it can raise and spend money to support candidates.
While transparency has become Democracy Greensboro’s primary issue, Hurd said the group also favors free public transportation and broadband access.
The group is eying the District 5 seat occupied by Tony Wilkins, the sole Republican on the nine-member body. Michael Roberto, a Democracy Greensboro member who recently retired as a professor at NC A&T University, said the district “has a large Latino population that is not represented and has never been represented.”
Kenton said after the meeting that even if Democracy Greensboro fails to win seats, running candidates should at least have the effect of influencing more moderate incumbents.
“The sprint is to get some new faces on city council,” he said. “At the very least, we’d like to put some pressure on Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffmann from the left so they’re not just worried about their opposition on the right.”
Hurd acknowledged a risk that by targeting a candidate like Abuzuaiter, who is progressive on most issues but tends to take more conservative positions on matters involving the police department, the effort could inadvertently provide an opening for a more conservative candidate to flip the seat. But he said the group hasn’t reached the stage where it’s ready to make those kinds of tactical calls.
“It may be that we only have three viable candidates,” Hurd said, exploring a hypothetical. “Maybe we want to run somebody against Barber, but we can’t find anyone who wants to do that.”
Lewis Pitts, a member of PACSHI who has also attended the Democracy Greensboro meetings, cautioned that most of the people involved with the electioneering group are older, white men, echoing an acknowledgement by many members that Democracy Greensboro needs to become more diverse to effectively drive citywide change. (Almost half of the people who identified themselves as members of Democracy Greensboro at the meeting were, in fact, white women, so the group appears to have diversified across gender, if not color lines.)
Hurd said Democracy Greensboro plans to canvas public housing communities to find out what issues residents think are important, and the group will hold its first meeting outside of Glenwood Community Book Shop at McGirt-Horton Library in northeast Greensboro on Feb. 2.
The members of PACSHI gave a relatively warm reception to Democracy Greensboro’s proposal for electoral mobilization.
Johnson said the inauguration of Donald Trump presents progressives with a “historic moment.”
“The energy is produced by the obvious oppression,” he said. “I think this is an unusual moment and we have to throw ourselves into it with energy and resolve.”
Several people in the meeting argued that now that Republicans have a lock on the federal government and largely still control the state government in Raleigh, cities are in a unique position to set the standard for progressive public policy.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had as good a possibility to put in a people’s platform,” Pitts said. “Now is the time for cities to come up.”