Organizers set an ambitious goal to assemble 1,000 Greensboro voters in August and ask city council candidates to respond to a people’s platform, but questions about Democracy Greensboro’s political identity and constituency remain unresolved.
What would come to be Democracy Greensboro began last summer as a group of Bernie Sanders supporters met at Glenwood Community Bookshop looking for a way to remain engaged after their favored candidate conceded in the Democratic primary.
As the November 2016 election approached, they began to set their sights on the 2017 Greensboro municipal elections. The initial group, which skewed white and older, began working on outreach to diversify its ranks, and over time embraced the cause of police accountability and reform. At a May 11 general meeting at Central Library the 40 or so people in the room, including both committed members and people wanting to learn more about the group, were split roughly equally between black and white residents. The meeting drew two elected officials — Greensboro Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Guilford County School Board member Byron Gladden — along with former Councilwoman Goldie Wells.
Their idea is simple — develop a platform by the people and compel candidates to respond to it — but discussion at the May 11 meeting suggested that execution will require dealing with messy questions about what the group stands for and who decides its priorities.
“Our goal is a collaborative citywide platform that reflects the values of the people of Greensboro as whole, not just a few individuals with money and access, but everybody living in Greensboro,” said Susan Pharr, who co-facilitated the meeting. “By developing [a platform] first, we can have the individuals running for office speak to the ideas that they represent, that came from the community — speak to our priorities. And we can use what they say to evaluate them in November when we vote.”
Speakers articulated varying notions about whether the purpose of the project was to build a progressive force in local electoral politics or promote a more ideologically inclusive vision.
“The idea is we want a truly progressive city council,” said Larry Morse, a member of the steering committee. As an example of a political decision that might have gone differently with a more progressive council, Morse said the current council reduced funding for affordable housing in the 2016 bond referendum from the $34 million recommended by staff to $25 million, while maintaining the downtown infrastructure allotment at $25 million.
Lewis Pitts — a retired civil rights attorney, frequent face at city council meetings and an active participant in the group — suggested a more elastic conception.
“Talk about a big tent — how do we get the ones who aren’t self-labeled as ‘progressive’?” he said. “Let’s forget about left-right, liberal-conservative. I’ve got people in my family that I suspect voted for Trump, but I’m not willing to write them off, because I know they believe in fairness, equality and a decent wage. It’s just gotten so confused by all that dominant culture imposed by what — the corporate world.”
He added that people don’t have to agree with his analysis of the current political stalemate in the United States to join Democracy Greensboro.
Meanwhile, as Democracy Greensboro’s organizers wrestle over how to identify their politics, public sentiment in the city appears to be rapidly polarizing over the question of police accountability.
Democracy Greensboro’s preliminary platform, which was printed as a tri-fold brochure and distributed at the meeting, calls for civilian oversight of the police that includes “full investigative and subpoena power” and for the disbanding of the department’s civil emergency unit.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson held up the campaign to support Jose Charles, a 16-year-old who became a focal point for recent police accountability efforts in the city, as an example of how Democracy Greensboro should operate.
“The picture I want you to see is that whenever people work together, there was natural rivalry,” Johnson said. “We humans are incapable of doing things without it. But somehow we were able to tame the egos, [and] walk together, believing that if we did this together that this mother’s child would not have to go to a training camp for a year, where she cried because she believed he would never return alive because of his condition.
“And I want to say it was a multitude of activities, but I do want to point out that it was the young people who got a thousand names on a petition, and they stood like Moses, saying, ‘Let my people go,’” Johnson added. “And I think when you get clergy and Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ groups and young people, students, and focused on a cause, it happens. What I want to say to you tonight is that’s our challenge, our opportunity.”
Almost as a matter of political physics, conservative backers of the police have become increasingly vocal as a countervailing force to the growing support for Charles’ cause. As a likely indicator of sentiment within the police department, and among retired officers and their supporters, retired Deputy Chief Brian Cheek took aim at Johnson, civil rights leader the Rev. Cardes Brown and Mayor Nancy Vaughan in a recent post on the Greater Greensboro Politics Facebook page following a May 2 city council meeting taken over by Charles’ supporters for almost 30 minutes.
“Nelson Johnson and Cardes Brown are the two biggest race hustlers in this city, and the mayor with her weak leadership has emboldened them,” Cheek wrote a day after a contentious city council meeting devolved into shouting, with Charles’ supporters taking control of the council chamber for almost 30 minutes. “Shame on all of them.” (Cheek prefaced the statement with a broadside against two Greensboro journalists: Triad City Beat Senior Editor Jordan Green and News & Record columnist Susan Ladd; he wrote, “I don’t know who is more biased in their writing (not reporting): Jordan or Susan Ladd.”)
Adding to the confusion about Democracy Greensboro’s agenda, the group has scheduled a meeting at the Central Library on June 3 to draft a platform, even though the brochure distributed at the May 11 meeting already includes a 21-point platform with items addressing economic justice, social justice, criminal justice and environmental justice. One member of the audience expressed confusion about whether the June 3 meeting would be open to the public.
“I think we need to make it clear that this June 3 meeting will be for two or three representatives from various already-formed groups and not open to the general meeting where everybody can come, although I hate to be un-democratic,” said Bob Foxworth, a longtime participant.
Pitts contradicted Foxworth.
“I think you should come if you want to come on June 3,” he said, adding that there would be no credentialing process.
“Please show up,” Pitts continued. “We don’t want to assume that Democracy Greensboro, our group, is the lead point.” He added that the name of the group might even change on June 3.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, who expressed agreement that the June 3 meeting should be public, set an ambitious goal.
“If we can get 200 people by June 3, and then if we have a platform conference in August at one of these high schools where we can get a thousand people in the auditorium,” he said. “We need at least a thousand people. And then you don’t have to look for any candidates. [Mayor Pro Tem] Yvonne [Johnson] will testify to this. Wherever there’s a thousand people, [candidates] will come. And actually they speak to the platform. And you have to feel the process in order to believe it. And I’m saying this with a certain amount of energy because I want you to feel it.”