A week after the officer-involved deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the mass killing of Dallas police, Greensboro residents came together to mourn, vent, listen and try to organize at Bethel AME Church on Monday.
Despite the best efforts of the evening’s conveners, no particular unified message emerged from an emergency community meeting on race and policing held at a church near downtown Greensboro on Monday night.
The capacity crowd at Bethel AME Church responded most enthusiastically to an audience member’s passionate metaphor comparing the need for “black lives matter” versus disingenuous responses that “all lives matter” to a house on a street burning down. She borrowed from a cartoon circulating social media with the same imagery, arguing that there’s a pressing need to focus on the lives under assault — or the house on fire — rather than the fire department spraying water on all houses in the neighborhood.
But many of the people who approached microphones placed throughout the room wore down the patience of the audience, running long despite repeated moderator requests to remain brief, a pattern that suggested that more than a dozen people had something to get off their chest in light of recent tragic national events. Attempts by two of the events hosts, Joyce Johnson and the Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, along with retired civil-rights attorney Lewis Pitts to galvanize attendees to pressure Greensboro City Council over access to police body-camera footage received a tepid response.
After more than a year of pressuring the city to take a more open stance towards releasing the body-cam footage to the public, advocates including Pitts who want it to be considered a public record have been unsatisfied with the council’s response, decrying council’s stance as undemocratic and lacking the transparency originally lauded as the reason to purchase the cameras.
The lukewarm response from meeting attendees might be due to a lack of awareness of the matter, but it is also likely connected to the fact that Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed HB 972 into law, severely restricting public access to such footage and tying the hands of local governments such as the Greensboro City Council. Pitts and the Rev. Johnson called for the council to pass a resolution opposing the new state law and approve an ordinance they’ve been pushing in defiance of the state General Assembly and governor.
Joyce Johnson, one of the evening’s moderators, repeatedly reminded the crowd that they wanted people to turn out in support of the proposal at the July 19 city council meeting, and while about two dozen people raised their hands to indicate they could attend, the public comments and applause indicated minimal interest in the action request.
The speakers from the floor — as is often the case — were disjointed but touched on a few themes: personal stories of alleged police misconduct or interpersonal racism, fear from — or for — young black men about police violence, calls for unity and arguments from black men in particular that blamed disrespectful black youth, neighborhood gun violence or divides within black communities in part for the current crisis.
Byron Gladden, a black Democrat running for Guilford County School Board’s District 7, talked about divides within black communities during a long speech that ranged from sexism in churches to racism in policing.
“Before we tell the white man downtown that Black Lives Matter, black lives have to matter to black people,” he said.
A few audience members made similar remarks, but most shared perspectives that ran counter to the narrative and focused on institutional racism. When it came to calling for specific changes, the most common refrains appealed for police departments to stop protecting “bad apples” and for increased police training.
Alfonza Everett, the pastor of New Goshen United Methodist Church and a retired state law enforcement officer, may have been the evening’s second most popular speaker from the floor, opening by saying he feared doing a funeral for young people in his church. Everett said young black people in particular often don’t know why police are stopping them, saying that while he has plenty of friends who are police officers, a few “bad apples” can spoil the whole bag if they aren’t removed.
Everett added that he took a psychological exam when he became a pastor to determine if he was fit for the role, and that similar added tests were necessary before sending officers out on patrol.
A speaker following Everett expressed a sentiment shared by several others who spoke, saying, “As a 28-year-old black man, I’m scared every day of my life,” adding that he feels threatened by police as well as street violence but concluding that if people stick together, they can make the world safer.
One black woman, who identified herself as a 26-year-old educator, challenged the idea presented earlier in the evening about disrespectful black youth, saying as a teacher, she’s seen just as many rude white kids. After relaying a story of alleged police harassment while driving and saying, “I could’ve been Sandra Bland,” she asked what else she could do after complying with the officer’s orders to exit the car.
“Pray,” several people in the church pews murmured.
There were several Christian prayers as part of the official program at the beginning of the evening, as well as a song. The meeting came one day after a prayer vigil held by the Greensboro Pulpit Forum and two days after a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Greensboro. When one commenter — addressing other Christians present and criticizing the hypocrisy of racist so-called Christians — said, “We’re all Christians,” someone in the audience quickly and loudly responded, “No we’re not.”
A few actionable next steps were put forward beyond police reform, prayer and the call for body-camera footage transparency, including invitations to connect with Black Lives Matter Gate City, undergoing an anti-racism training and joining the League of Women Voters’ social justice roundtable. Tawana Sampson, who is appealing her lawsuit against the sheriff’s office for what she says was a “brutal” jail beating, even called for Sheriff BJ Barnes’ resignation.
Not too long after, the Rev. Johnson took center stage to say that he knows some of the comments so far that night may have made some people uncomfortable.
“Get used to it,” he said, adding that while people didn’t gather to denounce a specific person but instead to uproot a culture, that being uncomfortable would allow people “to walk towards each other.” That’s how, he said, the city can address a crisis in policing and race relations that dates back long before the recent tragedies to the beginnings of slavery.
“We have a capacity to make a new Greensboro,” Johnson said, but only by sticking together.