by Eric Ginsburg
A city-run meeting designed to address police/community relations on Monday night fractured as Greensboro residents challenged the process and questioned if real change is possible, but the evening concluded with an agreement for continued dialogue.
Looking at one of the folders handed out by the city of Greensboro at the beginning of a community meeting on policing, city spokesperson Donnie Turlington joked with a member of the press while standing in the lobby not to call the promotional material about the police department “propaganda.” But that’s exactly what plenty of residents, who attended the forum Monday at Bennett College, considered the beginning of the meeting to be.
The tension in the packed auditorium was palpable even before the program began, with most of the few dozen uniformed officers in attendance standing in a ring at the back of the room. But it didn’t burst forth until Bennett President Rosalind Fuse-Hall welcomed the city’s new police chief, Wayne Scott, and several people loudly booed.
After a few introductory comments from city staff members, the Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center stood up from his front-row seat and approached the podium, asking if he could speak before Chief Scott addressed the gathering. A strained exchange ensued, with Scott agreeing to let Johnson speak after his remarks.
“We want to strengthen trust between the police department and our communities,” Scott said as he opened, shortly before an audience member interrupted to say that if Scott meant what he said, he should step down and let Johnson speak. Scott persisted, presenting a PowerPoint presentation on crime-reduction stats much like one would expect to see at a city council briefing.
Scott acknowledged that the number of sustained allegations against the police department rose considerably from 28 in 2012 to 44 in 2014, a number that could rise after an additional unresolved 15 allegations are adjudicated. In addition to highlighting several new and existing police programs such as Coffee with a Cop and a mediation option for complainants, Scott talked about the department’s efforts for a more diverse class of recruits, mentioning that of the newest group of 34, 10 are black, 19 are white males, two are Hispanic men, two are Asian men and one is a white woman.
Scott handed over the mic to Johnson, a longtime advocate for police reform, but hovered near his side, drawing ire from several audience members who said Scott should back off.
“Chief, I’m going to say what I need to say. Just give me a little space, man,” Johnson said. “I respect you, I respect [Human Relations Director] Dr. Crossling, but I just don’t want to see a process where the community, unfiltered and unfettered, are not really available to the people.”
While emphasizing a desire to work with the city and chief, Johnson said that systematic inequity including significantly higher arrest rates and poverty rates for black residents of Greensboro could lead to an explosive situation like what occurred in Ferguson, Mo.
“You’re building into the groundwater the potential for an explosion,” Johnson said to applause. “I’m tired of going to a meeting where y’all manage the whole meeting. Don’t try to pressure me like this. I’ve been doing this for too long. All I’m trying to do is argue for a process that allows for a better process than the one we’re able to have.”
Following comments by activist Darryl Baskerville, who spoke from the back of the auditorium, and Mayor Nancy Vaughan who joined Johnson at the podium, Johnson reiterated his concern that longtime proponents of police reform had been excluded from the planning process for the police/community dialogue.
“We’ve gone through this two times now,” Johnson said. “I have a right to be suspicious.”
“You do,” Vaughan affirmed, before turning to Baskerville. “We are here to hear you. Darryl, if you think there’s a better way that this meeting should be run, we are here to hear you.”
Baskerville suggested scrapping planned panels and breakout groups in favor of an open forum in the auditorium where people could ask questions or make comments. After meeting facilitators pushed to stay on agenda and follow the pre-planned process, another black audience member asked the white people in the room if they could feel the anger in the room and asked whether they could understand the frustration.
“Do you hear it boiling?” he asked. “It’s boiling. It’s bubbling and you hear it.”
The room continued to flare, but a suggestion by community organizer TC Muhammad to let activists co-facilitate the planned small group discussions ultimately prevailed.
Before the audience split for several side rooms, another audience member stood and pointed out the need for the community intervention, noting that of more than a dozen city-chosen facilitators, none were black men.
Baskerville wound up co-facilitating one of the conversations, in which several attendees — most of them white — harped on the their feeling about the importance of being polite and civil rather than yelling or interrupting. Baskerville defended the actions that he and others took, saying that it was necessary to gain a seat at the table rather than continuing to be sidelined by the city’s process.
Human Relations Director Love Crossling had emphasized at the outset of the event that the goal was to generate potentially actionable ideas to improve police/community relations, and several specific suggestions emerged from the group co-led by Baskerville, including calls for improved officer training and that police forge connections with the areas they serve in by attending different church services .
At a few points during the conversation, Baskerville offered his own thoughts, and partway through other attendees and facilitators pushed back.
“It’s not your show; it’s the residents’ show,” Human Relations Commission Chair Kevin Williams said after Baskerville interrupted him. The tension crackled again, with black police officer MF Pollock breaking through, addressing Baskerville and saying that his generalizations about police were “offensive” and “incorrect.”
Other attendees offered their perspectives as well, with one saying that an understanding of white supremacy is necessary for a real conversation, another encouraging dialogue and describing her positive experience with a neighborhood-watch organization and a third arguing that the issue of police mistreatment extends beyond the black community.
Deputy Chief James Hinson, a veteran black officer who had been sitting in the room, was given the floor for a closing comment.
“This is home for me,” he said. “When I see the divide, it hurts me.”
Hinson recounted a story about encountering Baskerville and other Black Lives Matter demonstrators blocking Elm Street downtown, saying that both parties were able to approach each other “with dignity and respect” and suggesting that interaction as a model. But when Hinson said he hears Baskerville and understands where he is coming from, Baskerville disagreed.
“I don’t think you do,” he said.
“He does,” Councilwoman Sharon Hightower chimed in from her seat nearby.
As residents left the meeting room to head back to the auditorium for a large group discussion, where other residents challenged Chief Scott, Baskerville and Hinson embraced and then stepped to the side to continue talking.
But the meeting in the main room wasn’t as convivial at times, as several people with years of experience in such meetings expressed their frustration with a lack of change over decades.
Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes, who also leads training on racism for individuals and institutions including the Charlotte/ Mecklenburg Police Department, said there has been no shift in consciousness or culture since the same issues were discussed in Greensboro 20 years ago.
“This feels like such a waste of time for so many people who have been there, done that,” she said.
Numerous audience members applauded or subsequently voiced their agreement, including TC Muhammad who said the disparate understandings of policing in the city comes from different lived experiences. He called it a “tale of two cities.”
“Black people are catching hell and you may not understand this,” he said. “Don’t overlook the reality. Unless we have some real conversations with some real change, we’re playing.”
By the numbers
The city asked audience members to weigh in on four questions about Greensboro police performance but did not share the results at the forum. Here are the top three results for each.
Overall impression of the GPD: 35 percent “neutral,” 22.5 percent “positive,” and 20 percent “negative.”
GPD are effective in making the city safer: 33.3 percent neutral, 25.6 percent for strongly agree and agree (15.4 percent disagree).
GPD is responsive to community issues: 39.1 percent agree, 21.7 percent disagree, 19.6 percent neutral.
Greensboro police are professional: 44.9 percent agree, 26.5 percent strongly agree, 14.3 percent neutral.