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.


david said...

Yes, there is a lot to think about, with much past practice repositioned right in our faces. True, Mr. Forbes, and Connie Harper who ultimately made the call on this cartoon, are "old guard" community leaders who've not been as dynamic or as visionary as we need these days.

Yet there are a couple of truths that we might address as we digest yet another phase in this ongoing crisis of leadership for the "black community" First, it is a political cartoon. Thus by definition it's satire, and made to provoke. Second, there is always a kernel of truth in satire, and Ms. Turner's stand was with the powerful white elite, and indeed was in many ways another challenge to the City of Cleveland's central political power. ( A point pretty much articulated by the long, agonizing to watch, contortions that characterized Rep. Fudge's position on Issues 5-6) We should be clear that Turner's position was not in a random political vacuum, given the state's omnipotent challenges to Cleveland participatory democratic power (read: black community) with school governance, residency requirements, oil & gas drill siting etc. etc.

So the anger at Mr. Forbes seems to have hit a sort of steam release valve of pent up dissatisfaction at his well chronicled manipulations, and at the Call & Post's general marginalization and ineffectiveness. If the Call & Post were a little more viable as a journal of "these days", it'd have more wiggle room.

Richard said...

You make several valid points, David, especially with regard to the regular use of satire in cartoons. As a friend of mine noted today, American history is replete with examples of vicious attacks on political foes in news stories, editorials, and cartoons.

That said, there are community standards, and Mr. Forbes and his paper seem to have violated them. We would be outraged if the daily paper or the local news characterized any member of our community as the Call & Post did. How can the paper claim exemption to behave outrageously. Does it stem from the presumed stature of their “chief legal counsel”? Is it conferred because he is president of the local NAACP.

My sense [and hope] is that the affront perpetrated by the paper will prove to a final straw providing the additional weight necessary to trigger some serious structural changes in Cleveland’s African American community.