“That was a loosey-goosey attempt at restricting free speech,” said retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts after the Nov. 4 meeting of the Greensboro City Council.
Pitts was referring to the council’s apparent reluctance to enforce new rules on what the public can say from the podium at town hall meetings. This code of conduct, announced last month, prohibits speech criticizing specific city employees, such as accusing named police officers of brutality or their commanders of lying, as well as discussing matters under litigation. On Monday, Mayor Nancy Vaughan repeatedly told several speakers they were violating those rules but did not cut them off or have them removed.
When Pitts took the podium, he announced his intention of defying the rules the mayor devised with the help of city attorney Chuck Watts. Pitts then did so by talking about the lawsuit brought by the parents of the late Marcus Deon Smith against the city and the Greensboro police officers who fatally hogtied their son at the 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival.
While the new rules make such subjects out of bounds, Pitts was neither removed from the room nor arrested.
“Had my bail money and everything,” he joked afterward.
More seriously, he stated his belief that arbitrary enforcement of the rules “is even more insidious” than enforcing them against everyone.
“Having the rules in place, but only using them to silence those who the mayor or other council members decide, at any particular moment, is safe to silence, is extremely dangerous.”
That nobody was ejected may have been less due to reluctance on Mayor Vaughan’s part than to the council’s controversial decision to hold five town hall meetings outside of the city council chamber, which in this case made it difficult for anyone to hear her or other council members while speakers were at the podium. Monday’s meeting was in the gymnasium of the Griffin Community Recreation Center, where there was only one microphone, which could not be cut off by city officials or administrators.
As previously reported, this meeting, like the previous four town hall ones, was not televised or streamed live, and video of it will not be available on the city website until Saturday, Nov. 9.
Pitts also spoke about the request by survivors of the Greensboro Massacre and ministers of the Pulpit Forum that the city council issue a more substantive apology than the one made in 2017, when the then-council voted to “apologize for the massacre,” but issued no official statement and never addressed how the GPD colluded with the attackers or subsequent misinformation from the city and police. These issues are examined in last week’s cover story on the 40th anniversary of the massacre and Friday’s article debunking persistent myths about it.
“That type of apology is what people want to hear from you, not just that you’re sorry it happened,” said Pitts, who with Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office of Chicago, successfully sued two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant for the wrongful death of Dr. Michael Nathan during the massacre.
Pitts called Mayor Vaughan’s rules “preposterous” and quoted Dr. Frayda Bluestein of the University of North Carolina School of Government as saying they were unconstitutional.
Pitts then said, “I’m going to violate them right now,” to applause from the spectators.
Pitts accused the city of “having spent, of taxpayer’s money, $181,286 for attorney fees for pin-striped patronage, paying lawyers $300 an hour to fight the lawsuit brought by Marcus Deon Smith’s grieving parents.”
Pitts was the last of six speakers to defy and denounce the council rules. The first was frequent council critic Hester Petty.
In her speech, which can be watched on YouTube, Petty said “Mayor Vaughan, your attempt to regulate the content of my public comments is unconstitutional and self-serving” and that “your new rules are meant to limit public discussion of subjects you and some council members simply don’t want to hear about.”
Petty then named GPD officers Lee Andrews, Michael Montalvo and Justin Payne as the ones who applied the restraint that killed Smith and said they should be fired, along with Cpl. Douglas Strader and Sgt. Christopher Bradshaw, the two ranking officers on the scene. She also said that Chief Wayne Scott should not be allowed to resign, but should be fired for perpetuating the cover-up.
“It is a legal issue and is being decided in a court of law,” Vaughan said.
“And I have a constitutional right to talk about it here,” said Petty, to applause from the audience.
Petty also stated that she is still waiting on responses to public information requests she filed back in July, one about the restraint used on Marcus Smith and one about GPD training protocols regarding its use. The requests, No. 1029 and No. 1039, can be seen on the city’s PIRT site.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation assistant professor Dr. Justin Harmon said that some city council members appear to “prefer the citizens of Greensboro . . . sit on their hands and bite their tongues, and become good little supplicants, embracing the image of voice and fellowship in a city where both the past and present often indicate otherwise.” Harmon’s speech, which also addressed matters of “civility,” can also be watched on YouTube.
Working Class and Homeless Organizing Alliance members Luis Medina and Billy Belcher also condemned the council and the new rules, drawing comparisons between the Smith case and the Greensboro Massacre. In his speech, which is on YouTube, Medina called the massacre “a state-sanctioned hit,” which “never ended.”
A segment of Belcher’s speech is also on YouTube, in which he compares the findings of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Committee to the current council’s reaction to Smith’s death, and asks council members if they have read the GTRC Final Report.