East Greensboro residents ask questions, push back on Michelle Kennedy

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(photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

East Greensboro residents put at-large Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy in the hot seat over the city’s handling of the police homicide of Marcus Deon Smith and other issues pertaining to racial equity on Monday evening. 

A handful of Greensboro residents gathered at the Interactive Resource Center for a community conversation with Kennedy which marked the first in a series of events that will be hosted by the councilwoman in each of the city’s five districts.

The first gathering focused on District 2, which covers northeast Greensboro, from Church Street to East Market and Huffine Mill Road. The district is represented by Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who attended the latter half of the meeting.

Kennedy spoke with about eight different residents, who sat facing each other at tables situated in the middle of the room. Over the course of the two hours, most of the conversation centered on racial justice and how the city can promote equity in the city.

Carla Banks, communications and marketing director for the city, brought up two questions Kennedy’s office received prior to the meeting from those who could not attend. Both pertained to the Smith case and whether or not any action would be taken against Chief Wayne Scott and what the details of a 3 a.m. phone call that Kennedy received on the night Smith died were.

“That ultimately rests with the city manager,” said Kennedy in response to whether or not Scott would be fired. “He has the ability to hire and fire. That’s the truth.”

With regards to the late-night phone call, Kennedy said she was contacted by Scott because he was trying to identify Smith the evening he died after being hogtied by police. She said the phone call only lasted about two minutes.

Kennedy works as the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center and explained that she knew Smith well because of his time at the center. She admitted that his death was difficult.

“It’s painful and it’s hard,” she said. “It’s a tough loss.”

Later in the evening, community member Sarah Sills asked Kennedy if she thought an independent investigation could be initiated by the city council for Smith’s case. An internal investigation by the Greensboro Police Department found no violation of directives and returned the officers to regular duty in November 2018.

“Any of us could make a recommendation,” Kennedy said. “Whether it carries any weight depends on who agrees with it. I’m in a place of finding out what’s possible and what is the next best step and I don’t think I know what that is right now.”

Ryan Tardiff, a member of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, asked Kennedy whether there was a mental-health team being put into place to deal with future cases like the one with Smith.

“I don’t believe you can police your way through mental illness,” Kennedy said.

Instead, she said she prefers working with trained clinicians. Right now, she said the city refers people to social workers from various community organizations like the IRC, who can send employees to respond to persons having mental health crises, but that they’re typically only available between the hours of 8 and 5 when the organization or nonprofit is open. Kennedy said that the city is currently working on a project that would put in place a 24-hour system that could deploy mental-health workers at any time of the day.

“The critical hours are after 5 p.m.,” Kennedy said.

Under the current model, city police also have the option of calling on social workers employed by the county to come after hours in emergency situations. However, this approach takes too much time, said Kennedy.

“There are a lot of steps in between and the turnaround time can be a lot longer,” she said.

Kennedy also noted that the new system would allow the city to directly dispatch mental-health workers instead of calling on police first.

Omarius Jones and others asked Kennedy about economic incentives and how to boost the district’s economy.

“Downtown development is bolstering; it’s at an all-time high,” said Jones who grew up in Greensboro. “There’s the parking deck and the Tanger Center but certain portions of the community are like, ‘Where’s our development?’ I remember when downtown was desolate. When is enough, enough?”

Kennedy agreed with Jones’s frustration and pointed to the recent closing of the Renaissance Co-op Market.

“We want to make sure that something goes up in that space,” she said.

Kennedy also noted the construction of the urban loop and the recent #100Homes campaign which aims to help convert renters into homebuyers and rebuild east Greensboro after the tornado that took place in April 2018.

While mentioning some of the initiatives that help the district, Kennedy also acknowledged some of the city’s shortcomings.

“Greensboro is a minority-majority city,” Kennedy said. “But the way we distribute incentive is white-centric.”

To combat this, she said the city recently joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network that works to achieve racial equity across the country. She noted that after Asheville joined the alliance, the city saw a significant increase in people from minority communities becoming firefighters.

“Change isn’t something that happens unless it’s intentional,” said Kennedy.

However, for many of the questions that pertained to topics like urban gardening, recycling, and even violence, Kennedy said there weren’t concrete plans in place but that she would try to talk to her fellow councilmembers about enacting change. She said that these monthly meetings were a chance for her to hear directly from community members about issues that they cared about.

“People are more honest when they’re on their home turf,” she said during the meeting. “It’s great that we have offices but that’s not where the change takes place.”

At the end of the two hours, community members had varying responses.

Jones said he felt optimistic about the dialogue and it made him understand Kennedy’s actions more as a member of city council. He said more intimate conversations like these are different than just showing up and speaking at city hall.

“I think it went great,” Jones said. “Open dialogue is great. I like to know a full scope and what led them to that decision.”

Kennedy herself said that she thought the first meeting went great.

“I felt like people asked legitimate questions and we’re compiling an answers list,” she said.

Still, others like Gene Blackmon, who brought his son and raised concerns about violence in the city, remained skeptical.

“That’s what our section of District 2 deals with,” said Blackmon, who has lived in the district his whole life. “If we’re not talking about equity, we’re not talking about anything and there’s no reason for us to be at the table.”

He argued that if the same kind of violence that burdens east Greensboro was happening in areas like Irving Park or Lake Jeanette, city council would move faster.

“I know the city could work it out if they wanted to,” he said.

When asked if he would return for subsequent meetings, Blackmon said that was up to Kennedy.

“There’s a lot of things that sound good, but I like to see action to see whether this was productive or not,” Blackmon said. “If there are some proper representation going forward, I will continue. Like her advocating for some of the things we asked for.”

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