May 17 2014

Regarding Henri…

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County, shenanigans


How the Messenger killed the message…
and perhaps her political fortunes as well

Its a sad but true reality.

Its a sad but true reality.

I’ve done everything in my power to avoid writing this post.

I’ve used my 3rd shift work schedule, and day sleeper status to rationalize the lack of time I have for such an issue.

I’ve avoided as many media accounts as possible of the incident (which in my line of work, is nearly impossible).

I even sat back and hoped that some other individual or group, better positioned than me to speak on the issue would do so in a comprehensive and cogent manner.

Seeing none of this, and against my better judgement, I feel compelled…even though I know someone, or a group of someones will take my words out of context for their political purposes. And knowing full well that as a white man, I have never experienced the world as an African-American…much less an African-American woman.

To wrap up my disclaimer, it is my intention not to further inflame the issue, but to: 1. redirect the focus on the intended message rather than the method or messenger, 2. Look at the way this issue has been used for a political purpose, and 3. talk about remedies, if any.

The Words

The video of the exchange between Brooks and Pereya has been played time and time again. It is dramatic video, that is damning of the Commissioners’ lack of civility to constituents and the decorum of the Commission (a decorum which other Commissioners also regularly ignore ie. Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker, Mike Ritz and of course, Terry Roland, among others).

But maybe actually reading the words rather than hearing them, would give a different perspective. So here’s Jackson Baker’s transcription of the exchange:

Pereya: “I’m a little bit shell-shocked, to be honest with you. I took an oath to protect that flag, domestic and overseas. And I’m reminded: who is here representing the Hispanic folks… Are we going to put up a sign saying, ‘Hispanics need not apply?’ I know what it’s like to be in a minority. I can tell you, growing up Hispanic in Memphis is definitely a minority in the minority… Am I any less American? Am I any less minority?”

Brooks: ”Your experience does not compare to mine. What you are experiencing as a minority probably has been blown out of proportion here,” she said to Pereya, telling him that Hispanic deprivations could not compare to “a history where there is a pattern of intentional discrimination against black folk.”

Brooks continues…: “You asked to come here. You asked to come here. We did not. And when we got here, our condition was so egregious, so barbaric. Don’t ever let that come out of your mouth again, because — you know what? — that only hurts your case. Don’t compare the two. They’re not comparable.”

Brooks’ words took two days to catch on fire, thanks to a selectively edited, though not totally unrepresentative YouTube video of the exchange that circulated on social media.

That fire, turned to a stumbling press conference that chose to take on the universal elements of the debate rather than the actual words themselves.

It was followed up the next day with a competing press conference that defended Brooks’ intent, if not her words…acknowledging that she had gone “over the top”.

Anyone who has watched or covered the County Commission knows Brooks’ proclivity to take her rhetoric to the extreme. This March 2012 column by Wendi Thomas notes that Brooks’ rhetoric is over the top…often by choice. It also notes that Books acknowledges her tactics don’t often reap the intended results.

But my fundamental problem with the exchange is not what Books likely meant (as I put on my soothsayer hat), but the manner in which she chose to attack someone speaking to the Commission. It is for that reason that she should apologize…and barring that apology…possibly face censure, which is really a meaningless move that does nothing but publicly shame Brooks.

No matter what the outcome, Brooks hasn’t done herself, or a deeper examination of the underlying policy any favors.

The Policy

While the SCLC and Rainbow PUSH assert that Brooks’ rhetoric didn’t cloud the issue she was speaking to, it seems they haven’t been watching coverage of the affair. Most has been focused on the lack of decorum rather than the policy that brought on the words.

The application of that policy is an issue…an issue that’s been forgotten completely. That’s unfortunate because its an issue that demands a closer look.

There is no question that some County contractors have stayed within the letter, though not the spirit of the minority contracts policy. Many contractors have chosen to substitute hispanic been charged with substituting Hispanic workers for African-Americans to both cut costs and fall within the bounds of the contracting policy.

Edited to add:This is a charge that has been leveled by some both on and off the Commission in regard to this policy. I neither endorse the charge, nor can I substantiate it.

But it should also be clear that the policy allows for this. If Brooks, or any other member of the Commission is dissatisfied with the way the policy is being applied, they can propose to change the way it is constructed. That will not stop contractors from seeking to game the policy by using the bare minimum allowed, but it will offer some greater inclusion for the spirit of the policy…to ensure minorities of all backgrounds are included, and to what degree. From there it would be up to contractors and their sub-contractors to figure out how to stay within the bounds if they want to work with the County.

Unfortunately, no one is proposing this.

I freely admit that I’m no lawyer. I’m not aware of the legal or practical barriers to amending this policy. But I also know that if the Commissioners don’t seek to do so before the end of this term, the entirety of their complaints/concerns over the policy will be lost. There are plenty of smart lawyers on the Commission that agree the policy is flawed. Surely they can spend some time to propose changes to the policy that would bring the discussion back where it should be.

That doesn’t mean they can dismiss the dismissive nature of Brooks’ comments. It means they will have to acknowledge this, and in tandem seek to amend the policy to get the necessary votes to make it happen…a tightrope that could produce unknown results.

The Politics

While the past several days have been focused on Brooks’ words, something that should not be forgotten is her work to bring about positive changes to help the African-American community, even if the outcome of her body of work has been spotty.

No one can deny her efforts to bring both an investigation, and ultimately an agreement between the Feds and the County Juvenile Court have brought the potential of necessary reform, if not the actual reform itself.

With that, comes the real potential that justice in the Juvenile Court system will be applied more evenly…even though the retiring Juvenile Court Judge said the findings were subjective.

It is this work that is the foundation for her campaign for Juvenile Court Clerk.

With a changing of the guard at Juvenile Court a certainty (Judge Person is not running again) the possibility of reform is very real.

Unfortunately, because of Brooks’ incendiary ways, likely allies will have to keep their distance, lest they too find themselves engulfed in controversy.

The unfortunate truth is, despite the work Brooks has done to bring even-handed justice to the Juvenile Court, that work has been overshadowed by her methods, which are both unorthodox and divisive. She has almost completely ensured little if any cross-over appeal for her campaign, and in what will inevitably be a low turnout election, this does not bode well for the Commissioner.

What’s worse, she has not only become her own worst enemy from a “getting elected” perspective, she’s toxic for any Countywide candidate that might want to team up with her. This election was going to be tough for Democrats anyway, since both the candidates and the party itself are underfunded by comparison. Baring some fantastic turnaround, Brooks’ pathway to the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office has been blockaded by her own rhetoric and methods.

Its an unfortunate reality that Brooks faces. A reality that is not racist, as some might claim, but in line with societal standards of conduct that all people expect from their elected officials…civility, reverence, and active stewardship.

While we can all forgive when our elected officials fail to meet those standards, that forgiveness is much more difficult to come by when the offender is unapologetic. And that is unfortunately where Commissioner Brooks is at this point.

Conclusion

Its my hope that Commissioner Brooks will come around, and while not backing down from her fundamental position on the inherent inequities in the contract awarding system, will choose civility in any forthcoming apology for getting caught up in the moment and in the process derailing the train.

I would also hope that Brooks would not seek to set one group against another. There is no winner in doing so, except for those who would seek to divide people who should be allies, the way the the Southern Strategy cynically worked to turn poor whites against poor African-Americans…with devastating consequences for both.

I won’t be surprised if Brooks chooses stay on her current, and takes her lumps while continuing down her well worn path. Old habits die hard. Its unfortunate that Brooks often mistaken her stubbornness for resolve, and in the process surrendered results to rhetoric.

For more on the issue, check out this well thought out post by Mediaverse.