Henri Brooks' Donnybrook: Has the Outspoken County Commissioner Crossed the Line?

Her behavior in Monday's Shelby County Commission meeting provokes charges of racism and intolerance on her part; and there's a backstory...

Posted by Jackson Baker on Thu, May 15, 2014 at 3:23 PM

Brooks at Mondays Commission meeting
  • JB
  • Brooks at Monday's Commission meeting

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.


Comments (70)

Showing 1-25 of 70

Henri Brooks is a jackass. No doubt about that. Her treatment of the others in office, employees of the city, county, and state, is disgusting. She is a racist thru and thru.

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Posted by Hadji on 05/15/2014 at 4:29 PM

Jackass is too mild a word. Henri Brooks is Memphis' answer to Donald Sterling, and she should be shunned as a pariah, just as he (finally) is...

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Posted by Tennessee Waltzer on 05/15/2014 at 4:45 PM

She needs to step down. This is unacceptable and she has no business working for the county with that way of thinking.

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Posted by locoJuanita on 05/15/2014 at 5:14 PM

Amen friend, she should certainly be sanctioned for such a display. If her actions cause the county to be sued I would bet the plaintiffs will be awarded the amount of the contract and more. How is that taking care of the tax payers??

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Posted by Herbert Robinson on 05/15/2014 at 5:22 PM

What an embarrassment.

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Posted by otha on 05/15/2014 at 5:28 PM

When some guy wearing a sheet accidentally sets fire to the theater with his torch, one should still pay heed when the asshole shouts Fire!

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Posted by crackoamerican on 05/15/2014 at 5:35 PM

I hate to say it but she is out of line. Why, because her feelings are of a personal nature and therefore should stay that way. The thing is that I am sure there are requirements that companies have to meet in order to bid. I don't believe one of those requirements mandate that you hire African Americans or any other group. If the company meet said requirements that's it, take the vote and move on. Now let's look at it from a cultural perspective. Hispanics or people of Mexican descent are doing a lot of roofing jobs here in Memphis. You see it everywhere. She is definitely out of the loop as far as what is going on in Memphis. As a representative she represents a community - a community that consist of many different races. And all I can say to that is get used to it.

M.

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Posted by Simplyme on 05/15/2014 at 6:02 PM

Pay heed? Yes. And then...

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Posted by Hadji on 05/15/2014 at 6:19 PM

It would be interesting to know whether a majority of Ms. Brooks' constituents are as offended by her remarks as are liberal white readers of The Memphis Flyer. I daresay a majority are not, else she wouldn't behave that way or be sitting on the Commission. Which begs the question of whether boosting her career with outrage is an efficient expense of energy.

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Posted by Brunetto Latini on 05/15/2014 at 7:43 PM

Hadji,
Well you get out of the burning building silly. Gee, c'mon you know this.

As for Brooks' harangue, and as referenced by Mr Bailey and many others, the issue is "...technical-only compliance with equal-opportunity employment mandates by hiring the Hispanics and not blacks."

Like it or not, these mandates were won by and for native born African Americans, to address historic and contemporary needs in this community. Not for impoverished immigrant Sicilians, Chinese, Finns, Somalis or even native Caucasians.

The issue if raised by sane folk like Mr Bailey, would be ignored.

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Posted by crackoamerican on 05/15/2014 at 7:49 PM

Sorta like a technical virgin? Really? So your take on this is:
Those Mexicans are just a bunch of racist.

Is that what you mean to say?

Why not just say that?

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Posted by Hadji on 05/15/2014 at 8:15 PM

The thing that Henri needs to accept is that Latinos are now the 2nd largest ethnic group, thus the largest minority in the US. She can't see outside her district, but they have passed blacks and are growing every day.

So, she needs to look in the mirror and come to terms with the facts. It's going to be tough for her to swallow. The alternative is for her to continue to be the black female Donald Stirling.

I applaud the community for the outrage over her remarks. They are despicable and come from an unapologetic, pathetic, despicable, deplorable and malicious racist. I'm glad Henri is being shamed so much over this.

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Posted by bjc123 on 05/15/2014 at 8:54 PM

Why isn't this in the national news. What an awful thing to say.

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Posted by Francisco on 05/16/2014 at 1:14 AM

She embarrasses herself and our community, she disrespects her office and her fellow commissioners, and she does a disservice to her constituents. She hit the trifecta.

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Posted by staythirstymyfriends on 05/16/2014 at 7:13 AM

What Donald Sterling said was atrocious.... What Henri Brooks said was equally stupid, and racist. I see this morning, that the Rainbow Push Coalition is coming to her defense. Why did they not come to Donald Sterling's defense? If they are going to argue free speech and open discussion, then the forum in which she made her statements is much worse than his...

Search your soul, and you will find that both uttered hate speech.. period.

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Posted by tigger123 on 05/16/2014 at 8:17 AM

My guess is that her anti-white and anti-hispanic words are a reflection of her voting base and that she will be re-elected by an even wider margin.

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Posted by Chris in Midtown on 05/16/2014 at 8:25 AM

NOW you ask if this piece of s#!t has crossed the line? Do you not remember anything about her time in state government?

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Posted by any onymous on 05/16/2014 at 8:48 AM

The happiest person concerning this incident is Joy Touliatos who will now likely coast to a second term as Juvenile Court Clerk. Ms. Brooks may have actually said a few valid things. African Americans have had a worse deal than Hispanics in many respects. However, her confrontational and divisive tone and delivery has made her less effective in conveying that message. Henri sounds like someone from Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown era and the Commission will be better off without her.

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Posted by Memphis Democrat on 05/16/2014 at 8:58 AM

Will be interesting to see if she is "Kryptonite" to others on the Dem ticket. Would like to hear what Joe Brown (the boss of the Democrats) and Deidre Malone have to say about this dustup.

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Posted by tomguleff on 05/16/2014 at 9:08 AM

Brooks would have a point if there was a complaint that the bidding company refused to hire black applicants. However, that has not happened. They cannot hire those who do not apply for the job; therefore they are technically compliant!

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Posted by Matthew Davidson on 05/16/2014 at 9:08 AM

The reference to the methods of Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown is important since those of us old enough to remember, know that without radical or even nutty voices raised, scaring the moderates and liberals into action, what progress there was would have been much slower.
The broader issue is not whether there are blacks willing to do hard work or how this ethic may have evolved, but that the introduction of immigrant labor, whether in the 1880's or 1980's, reduces the wage for natives. I think we can all agree on supply and demand.

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Posted by crackoamerican on 05/16/2014 at 9:21 AM

I always thought Brooks LIVED on the other side of the line, so it's hard for her to cross the line when she's perpetually there.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 05/16/2014 at 9:41 AM

If one cannot keep one's private feelings and emotions out of public ear/eyeshot, then one should not hold public office. Period. Very unprofessional, insulting, and blatantly racist and divisive. But, as previously noted, this isn't the first unrational outburst from Ms. Brooks, and won't be the last. And yes, this type of thing will certainly find favor with those of her constituents who are uneducated and inexperienced (and therefore ignorant) in the realm of what is proper protocol in this type of situation.

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Posted by mejjep on 05/16/2014 at 10:06 AM

I might also suggest a short course of study of the actual historical plight of Hispanics, especially that of their native ancestors who weren't brought here, but were already here, and were subsequently wiped out and/or enslaved, and who are, to this day, still having their land stolen from them and their way of life destroyed. It is to weep.

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Posted by Jeff on 05/16/2014 at 11:59 AM

@tomguleff - Brooks or no Brooks, Judge Joe doesn't stand a chance.
Neither does Malone. Luttrell is ineffectual, but he hasn't really done anything wrong. So people aren't fired up enough to vote him out.

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Posted by nobody on 05/16/2014 at 12:26 PM
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