It’s the furor that will not die — and, in an election year, one that may end up having more lives than anybody’s cat.
On Monday, while discussing a variety of issues before the Shelby County Commission, but two in particular — one, a resolution to approve a roofing contract and a second, to authorize the sale of some county-owned tax-delinquent property — Commissioner Henri Brooks ignited a controversy involving relations between whites, blacks, and Hispanics in Shelby County.
And she reignited a long-simmering controversy over her own behavior — one that has potential implications for her political future, both on the Commission and in her ongoing race as Democratic nominee for Juvenile Court Clerk on the August ballot.
Most public reaction to Brooks since Monday’s Commission meeting has focused on her remarks about the status of Hispanics vis-a-vis African Americans — in which she strongly rebuked a representative of the former ethnicity for presuming to compare the lot of the local Hispanic minority to that of the county’s black population.
But there was more to it than that. She also made an impromptu reference to Commissioner Chris Thomas that implied he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and she all but cursed out Commissioner Mike Ritz for attempting to bring Monday’s meeting, which had reached a chaotic impasse, to an end.
To recap the actions of the volatile Commissioner in reverse order:
• The last item on Monday’s agenda — regarding the sale of a tax-delinquent North Memphis rental property to a trust company — had technically been concluded, but a woman, Dorothy Townsel, involved in the ad-hoc management of the facility by a community-based non-profit organization and whose request to speak before the approving vote had been overlooked by Chairman James Harvey, made an ex-post-facto plea that was hysterical, eloquent, and compelling all at once.
As the stunned members of the Commission who remained (others had left the room after the vote) tried to figure out how to react in the apparent absence of a quorum, Ritz, who had belonged to the majority that voted to approve the sale, attempted to wrap things up by invoking a proviso of Roberts’ Rules of Order.
“Can I call for the Order of the Day, Mr. Chairman?” Ritz said to a more than usually confused Chairman James Harvey.
And, before Harvey could reply, Brooks, who had been deploring the “horrible” treatment of Townsel, typical as she saw it of the Commission’s “disrespect” toward blacks, interjected: “Ain’t nobody asked you what the…” a conspicuous silence, clearly representing an unvoiced but familiar expletive “...you called for!” said Brooks, who then resumed her discourse..
• Earlier in the day’s debate, Brooks had broken off some remarks to respond to what she thought had been a sotto voce remark, on the other side of the boomerang-shaped Commission table, made by Commissioner Thomas.
“Excuse me, uh, you over there mouthing something?” Brooks said, turning in Thomas’ direction. “You with the sheet on!” she added, repeating “you with the sheet on” as Harvey tried to interrupt and maintain order.
For comparison’s sake, here is an excerpt from a Brooks response to then Commission chairman Ritz from spring of last year, in the middle of a debate on residency requirements for county employees:
“....I have sat here time and time again — and I think today is the last day that I will be able to do this — and received a number of innuendos that were very close to the line of disrespect and several times it has come from the Chairman….[W]hen you make those kinds of disrespectful remarks directed at me, it makes you look like those people that the Memphis Police Department had to put in a bus and bring on Court Street so that they could sound off.”
This was two days after an organized protest on Court Street by members of the Ku Klux Klan outraged over the city’s renaming of what had been Forrest Park, formerly named in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
• The portion of the Commission meeting that has attracted the most attention occurred during the determined resistance by Brooks and Commissioner Walter Bailey to the awarding of a roofing contract to a company whose work force was 76 percent Hispanic but contained few if any blacks.
Repeated objections by Brooks and Bailey to what they saw as the company’s technical-only compliance with equal-opportunity employment mandates by hiring the Hispanics and not blacks, finally provoked a response from Pablo Pereya of the Hispanic Republic Alliance.
Pereya — who was in attendance to defend the interests, later on, of the trust company involved in the purchase of the tax-delinquent rental property — came to the Commission’s witness table and made a stirring objection to what he regarded as a dismissive attitude toward Hispanics by the two complaining commissioners.
“I’m a little bit shell-shocked, to be honest with you said,” he began. “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 had an answer for that: ”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.”
She continued, wagging a didactic finger Pereya’s way: “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.”
More than the unstated — but tacitly understood — obscenity directed at Ritz, more than the implications that her Commission adversaries are as one with the Klan, more than several other acidly tinged utterances, more than a sporadically imperious manner, it was Brooks’ rejoinder to Pereya that got the most press.
But, as those who follow the Commission regularly know, Brooks — who can be charm itself when she wants to be — is frequently at odds with other members of the Commission and with employees of county government against whom she harbors either a personal or an ideological grievance.
Frequent targets of her wrath in the past have been Bob Nations, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, and Dottie Jones, county Community Services director.
Brooks’ fellow commissioners have generally given her a wide berth, either out of courtesy or from a disinclination to get in the trenches with her verbally.
Though many — of both parties and both races — grumble about her actions privately, including her refusal to intone the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag that begins all Commission meetings, they have historically been reluctant to go public with criticism.
Increasingly, that reluctance is disappearing. Former Commissioner Wyatt Bunker once publicly accused her of racist behavior, and Thomas’s statements have moved in that direction of late.
Ritz, who is term-limited and will leave the Commission after this year’s change-of-the-guard elections, speaks openly of his concerns about Brooks.
“A pattern of our concern is her lack of civility generally,” said Ritz, who termed Brooks “uncivil to other commissioners, to people who work for the mayor and other elected officials, to officials at large, especially those of Juvenile Court, and from time to time with citizens.”
Brooks makes it obvious that she regards herself as a principal spokesperson for the county’s African-American population, but Ritz is dismissive. “That’s a self-image. I don’t think that’s what any of the Commissioners, black or white, think. None of us think she, with her level of conversation, or her language, reflects the black community of Memphis.”
If Brooks seems to have stepped up her outspokenness of late, said Ritz, “That has everything to do with free publicity, with getting her name out front for the election.”
Ritz gives Brooks credit for making good votes on public education, on matters regarding the sales tax, on ethics ordinances, and, “of course,” on Juvenile Court, where her criticism eventually led to a Department of Justice investigation and the DOJ-mandated reforms in the Court, which Ritz, too, supports.
“She’s been all right with her votes, many of them, but not with her leadership. She’s counter-productive that way, and she has very few allies.”
Whatever else happens on the County Commission between now and then, or in the court of public opinion, August 7 — general election day for county offices — will be an ultimate test of how many allies are owned by Brooks, who is opposed by incumbent Republican Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos.