Featured photo: Luis Medina of GSO WHOA speaks out against Dustin Jones during the June 6 city council meeting (photo by Todd Turner)
At the beginning of every Greensboro City Council meeting, Mayor Nancy Vaughan states newly enacted rules.
“In order to maintain a safe space for all speakers, members of the audience or speakers from the podium who intentionally disrupt the meeting or ridicule other speakers will be given a warning, and if unheeded, they will be removed from the meeting. That person will be suspended from in-person participation for three months,” she states.
The council chambers saw their inaugural ejection on Tuesday, less than two months after these rules were first put in place.
Luis Medina, a longtime organizer with WHOA — or Working-class and Houseless Organizing Alliance — was kicked out of the Sept. 5 council meeting after delivering an impassioned speech about the city’s treatment of the unhoused population and smacking the microphone, which triggered the mayor’s response.
“Mr. Medina, I’m going to ask you to leave,” Vaughan ordered.
Vaughan said afterwards that Medina was kicked out for “what he did to the podium.”
In previous incidents where people have been removed from the chambers, it was never for what they were saying at the podium, Vaughan told TCB in July. Instead, Vaughan said that it was “always because they were being disruptive.”
“They were either shouting out from the audience, or they were speaking over the speaker,” Vaughan noted, adding, “It was not for the content of what they said; it was just for disrupting a meeting.”
Medina has been banned from attending city council meetings in person for three months but can still view meetings virtually.
As Medina attempted to exit the chambers, he was flanked by security guards and police officers.
“Don’t follow me!” he shouted, adding, “You got a gun?”
WHOA is a local advocacy group that distributes food every week to the city’s unhoused. WHOA organizers often speak during the public comment period, airing a number of different concerns from housing insecurity in the city to police brutality from the city’s police department.
Medina’s comments, history of new rules
On Tuesday night Medina brought up the ACLU’s Aug. 29 letter to the city regarding an incident on Aug. 23 when GPD notified unhoused people living under a bridge that they had seven days to leave and that any belongings left behind would be removed by city operations.
Medina brought up additional actions taken by the city, such as new signs that discourage charitable distribution, erecting tents or storing personal belongings in two city parks where the unhoused often take refuge.
“Why is this happening?” Medina asked during the meeting. “Why can’t our city do something? It’s very clear that the houseless population is growing because of an economic situation.”
It isn’t “drugs,” “laziness” or a “lack of jobs,” Medina said. “It’s that this economic situation generates poverty.”
“The rich don’t want to see the poverty they create” and want to “dissociate from the poverty,” Medina said, adding that at the bare minimum they should be “forced to be faced with the poverty they create.”
Medina and Vaughan have verbally sparred on more than one occasion in the council chambers.
As for whether he believes he was judged more harshly than others would have been due to his history with Vaughan, he said, “Absolutely, because she knows I’m committed.”
Medina told TCB that officers from the Greensboro Police Department showed up on Wednesday evening to hand-deliver a letter from Deputy City Manager Chris Wilson informing him that he has been banned from physically entering any city council meeting through Dec. 6. Medina no longer lives at the address listed on the letter.
Afterwards, officers showed up at Medina’s new address, although Medina wasn’t home.
His roommates contacted him saying that police were at their door, and Medina let them know where he was. Police then went to that location to hand-deliver the letter. Medina said the officers showed up armed, in vests, in unmarked cars.
City Attorney Chuck Watts said that the letter is “simply a courtesy.”
As for whether future offenders will also be served hand-delivered letters, Wilson told TCB that the city will “continue this practice.”
However, Watts noted that since this is the first time the policy has been used, they are “building the procedures” as they go. Watts added that he would “not count on it being the same going forward.”
Changes to the public comment rules came about after a city council meeting in June, in which dozens of attendees flooded the council chambers following the firing of former Greensboro firefighter Dustin Jones due to his racist and transphobic comments online. Many shouted loudly from the audience at speakers.
Vaughan said that the new rules were not a direct result of incidents that occurred during that meeting, but that it was something that had been “building over time.”
“Clearly it’s an intimidation tactic,” Medina said of the letter and GPD’s visit.
“I didn’t get banned because I hit a mic, I didn’t get visited by two police officers because I’m aggressive or disruptive, it’s because of what I’m talking about,” he said.
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