Friday, December 04, 2009

NAACP Youth Gathering Holds Promise

Christmas came early for the three dozen or so aspiring young political activists who responded to the NAACP flier inviting them to a primer on building a framework for leadership in the new political landscape ushered in on election day last month, even if the lessons didn’t go exactly as planned.

More than 250 people filled the atrium at Cleveland State’s Levin College of Urban Affairs last night in a pulsing, buzzing swarm that in some ways resembled a political convention. There was an intriguing mix of officials serving as faculty, but the audience included a rich array of political activists whose roots go back to the black community’s heady successes of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and a surprising number of current elected officials whose presence [in a delightful departure from normal protocol, was not officially recognized]. There was also a healthy dose of the hoi polloi, whose dismay at the perceived loss of black political power in the wake of the county’s new charter provided hot sauce for the evening’s brew.

An enterprising political aspirant could reflect on the mixed bag of wisdom that came from the invited panelists [State Rep. Robin Belcher, Lakewood mayor Ed Fitzgerald, Cleveland council members Mamie Mitchell and Zach Reed, Young Democrats president Curtis Thompson II, Jose Feliciano Jr. of the Hispanic Roundtable, and for good measure, community activist Eric Johnson and Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. [State Senator Nina Turner was an invited panelist but chose not to participate.]

Perhaps the most important lesson a novice politico could have learned was the need for patience and composure in the face of the untidy part of public life: when citizens, feeling disempowered and deeply upset with the state of public affairs, take the microphone and say so in all kinds of ways.

Charged with keeping the proceedings under control were recent law school graduate NeKima Hill of the NAACP Youth Council and radio talk show host Basheer Jones. Hill focused on keeping both panelists and audience on point, though her predetermined questions left panelists groping to respond at times. Jones showed promise as a moderator, and earned audience gratitude when he gracefully but firmly forced ever-garrulous Gerald Henley to give up the microphone after an overlong declaration of his intent to run for a seat on the new county council.

Panelists expressed a range of views when asked why Issue 6 had passed. Lakewood mayor Fitzgerald observed succinctly that people had lost faith in the existing system, and expressed it by overturning the existing order. He said, “Sometimes elections are about an idea, and not about the specifics.”

Eric Johnson argued that Issue 6’s mandate was weak because of poor turnout. Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell pointed out that very few of the politicians who stated opposition to the new charter actually campaigned against it.

For Curt Thompson II, three factors contributed to the result: the overwhelming amount by which Issue 6 proponents outspent the opposition, the ongoing corruption revelations and allegations, and a lack of engagement by Issue 6 foes. Speaking to The Real Deal in a post-forum analysis, he said matter-of-factly, “there is no more Issue 5 or Issue 6. Issue 5 is dead and Issue 6 is a law. We must concentrate now on putting people into office who will concentrate on progress and growth.”

Councilman Zach Reed was blunt in his analysis. “Issue 6 passed”, he said, “because the Plain Dealer wanted it to pass, and they took advantage of the corruption issue.” He said several times, in apparent reference to Republicans and their allies, “the people who couldn’t get in the front door came around the back door.”

Reed did have some cogent advice for those young people who want a place set for them at the table. It’s about power, he told them, and it’s not in the nature of power to yield except in the face of a greater power.

Among those on hand, possibly to recruit new blood or take the measure of potential rivals, were Cleveland council members Mike Polensek, Eugene Miller, and councilman-elect Jeff Johnson; mayor-elect Gary Norton of East Cleveland, and Highland Hills councilman Kenneth Roberts. Also in attendance was former county commissioner Tim McCormack, giving fuel to talk he may be considering a run for county executive.

Other public officials observed at the forum were former election board chief Jane B. Sheats, former Cleveland safety director James Barrett, chief Cleveland Municipal Court referee Greg Clifford, former Central State University board chair Betty Pinkney, and deputy county administrator Lee Trotter.

• • •

The Plain Dealer account of this event reported attendance as “more than 100” and seemed to suggest that the event was a downer because many older citizens lamented the passing of the old order.

In fact, more than 125 attendees signed in according to the organizers, and at least an equal number did not.

Whether or not a sizable number of young people attended depends in part not only one’s ability to guess ages, but also how old you can be and still qualify as young. I saw a vibrant mix of young and old, tried and true, straight and crooked. There was pessimism yes. There was despair, yes. But when I left after 90 minutes, finally tearing myself away from a fascinating evening to keep a commitment a few blocks away, I left feeling that I might be witnessing multiple manifestations of the law of unintended consequences. First, that a ballot initiative developed with the intent by at least some of its partisans to diminish some segment of the electorate, might prove a galvanizing force to greater involvement by that very segment. Second, that the evening’s takeaway for a young leader could plausibly include receiving not only a realistic dose of what his or her constituents likely feel, but a commitment to work to channel the intensity and depth of those feelings in positive ways, and to feel supported in that quest by the veteran troops who came out to be a part of a night for the new and the young.

Kudos to the NAACP, its Youth Council, and its executive director, Stanley Miller. Here’s hoping they do it again, east side, west side, all around the town.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Déja` Vu Act Ignites Vision of Era’s End

There is no surprise in the despicable attack by George Forbes upon state senator Nina Turner in the pages of the Call & Post. Forbes has a long and practiced history of vulgarity. His attack upon Turner’s intelligence and character is no different than his calling [then councilman] Jeff Johnson a “mulatto punk” a political lifetime ago. It parallels his routine denigration of the entire community back in the days when he performed as a shock talk jock on radio while running Cleveland City Council. Déja` vu.

We’ve seen this act countless times, sometimes disguised, often not. Sometimes toned down, sometimes not. Forbes is an equal opportunity offender. He has cursed white folks for whiteness and black folks for blackness.

The man long ago showed he had no shame in his game. And this community has repeatedly shown him he didn’t need to be ashamed for his behavior, even though his contempt for the community he has purported to serve has never been hidden.

The true shame in this stale scenario belongs to the community that has tolerated it for so long. And nobody is innocent. Why does a community with upwards of a thousand active local graduates of a program called Leadership Cleveland repeatedly turn to the same negative sources for positive solutions? Can we possibly expect different results?

It cannot be a failure to understand. Forbes’ public tactical practiced and public use of anger, ridicule, and scorn has always and only been directed at carefully selected targets for well-defined strategic goals. Those goals have always been related first and foremost to the accrual and preservation of Forbes’ personal political power.

Forbes is a past master at invoking the downtrodden and abandoned as props to show that leadership in the black community must continue to be trusted only to him. “Fifty thousand black schoolchildren are suffering.” “The police want 9mm ammunition to gun down black people.” “White folks won’t treat black people fairly.” “Black businesses can’t catch a break.” Forbes is always willing to step up and negotiate with wealth and power behind closed doors in the name of the community to protect the community.

The chief benefactor in these situations has always been George Forbes. He entered into personal business transactions with Jim Stanton, denounced as arch-nemesis to the black community in the 1960s and 70s. Forbes did legal work for multi-millionaire developer Dick Jacobs. He was confidant and mentor to former Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor, and current lame-duck US Senator George Voinovich. Despite the careful public posturing, Voinovich — who may be on his way back to town to run for county executive — has never been a friend to the black community. But he is a friend to George Forbes.

The pattern of personal gain as public denouncer and private negotiator has continued apace since Forbes became local NAACP president. He was legal counsel to Shell Oil when that company was gouging the community he claimed to represent. This summer he served as personal escort to Dan Gilbert’s triumphal march through portions of the black community, dispensing confections and reassuring words about future African American involvement in his casino business. But Gilbert uttered not one firm, enforceable commitment.

[A new form of gaming has already come to the black political community, as wags place wagers on where, how, and when Forbes’ law firm will appear as counsel to which company tied to Gilbert’s burgeoning empire, now enshrined for life into the Ohio Constitution.]

This structural pattern of designated spokesmen negotiating in private as nominal representatives for a vast and diverse segment of the community can only exist when the community stays in shadow. If any potential dissent emerges, its champion must be isolated, ridiculed, and rubbed out by any means necessary, including page one cartoons and editorials.

Nina Turner’s public defection from plantation politics represents a core threat to Forbes’ status as black political broker and overseer. He knows better than anyone that suburban mayors, business leaders, the regional GOP and statewide politicos will no longer employ him as a toll booth if alternate routes — more modern, straighter, less treacherous — are readily available.

A Better Future
One consequence of county charter reform, possibly unintended is the probable emergence of black political leaders who are not beholden to plantation politics. For example, serious citizen thinkers and activists like former Cleveland municipal judge Ellen Connally and Shaker Heights councilman Earl Williams are considering running for the new county council from the new county District 9. These potential candidates, like Turner, inner ring suburban activist Julian Rogers, and rising Collinwood resident Curtis Thompson II, are building coalitions and political paths independent of the black old guard.

Of equal consequence, other voices are bubbling to the surface. Brian Hall, a voice of quiet authority in Cleveland’s tiny black business community for decades, and a leader by example, took the unprecedented step of circulating a community letter denouncing the work of the Call & Post and calling upon Forbes to resign as NAACP head. As a result, 500 people who have joined the Facebook page “ We demand an apology”. Boyd’s Funeral Home has pulled its advertising. Local corporations and businesses are being asked to declare there will be no support for the NAACP’s 2010 Freedom Fund dinner if it does not stand up and denounce the Call & Post for its use of the Aunt Jemima image.

Forbes will no doubt display a steely resolve and attempt to turn aside the disgust he has generated in the black community by his disrespect of Turner and the symbolic use of its ugly racial imagery. He will bring out the hostages — Cleveland’s schoolchildren — and say this is what we should focus on.

Those schoolchildren are involuntary testimony to the power relationships that exist in our community: within the black community, between the City of Cleveland and its more affluent neighbors, and between private self-interest and public duty. The opportunity is at hand to re-structure some of those relationships, to set a broader table for public discourse, and to call an end to the era of I-win-you-lose political relationships.