Anti-Democracy Scandal Hits NAACP
Narrow Prejudice 1, Democracy 0
by Hanno T. BeckIt could have been the biggest game in town, but instead it was a fiasco and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is now embroiled in a scandal of the worst kind -- one involving prejudice and exclusion. The organization that has been a national leader for over 90 years in the fight against prejudice and exclusion now must explain its role in those very same activities.
Here is what happened. On September 26, 2002, an event called the "2002 Maryland Gubernatorial Candidates Debate" was held in Baltimore and was sponsored by the NAACP. ("2002," of course, refers to the year, not to the number of candidates. The number of gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in Maryland is three.)
The two big issues of the night had nothing to do with the Democrat or the Republican, who spent their time in totally predictable ways -- sniping at each other, avoiding and dodging questions, bragging about their backgrounds, making accusations, reading their prepared but vacuous statements -- they packed no surprises and brought little of value to the event.
Instead, the major topics were these -- an unruly, sometimes rude audience that frequently interrupted the candidates with cheers, boos and applause, and the exclusion of one of the candidates for governor.
Let's talk about the audience first. Most of them tried to cooperate with the event organizers. They arrived early and patiently endured a wait of over an hour as the organizers finished preparing for television coverage.
Then NAACP national president and CEO, Kweisi Mfume, falsely told the members of the audience that they would be participating in that night's debate. Lord knows what he had in mind, but he was contradicted just minutes later, when the debate moderator explained that no questions would be accepted from the audience. No follow-ups from the audience. And, amazingly, audience noise would not be allowed until the very end!
It was grossly unfair for the organizers to have waited until then to notify the public that they were, essentially, banned from the event. Of course, had the public been forewarned, the sponsors would have faced an empty auditorium. The individuals who had come to the event were being disempowered, insulted and treated as nothing more than a prop to set the scene for a television show. I hope Mfume meant more than this when he promised "participation" to the crowd.
The members of the audience were victims of a set-up, and they realized it. Drive through the rain, wait for an hour, then shut up, then go home. Why were audience members being treated like liveried servants?
Some of them may have been genuinely interested in witnessing a debate as they decide for whom to vote in November -- and instead they received a watered-down negativity contest between only two candidates. But nearly as bad, hundreds of audience members weren't even there to listen; they came, holding signs and T-shirts, already decided on the candidate of their choice. They weren't attending in order to learn something, they were brought to the debate in order to cheer their pre-chosen candidate and overwhelm that candidate's opponents. Imagine the shock they felt when informed that cheering was banned.
Authoritarian behavior toward a group of people tends to result in their seeking freedom. Apparently this is news to the NAACP. But no one else was surprised when the audience did erupt in applause, cheers, and boos during the event. The sponsors then had the nerve to chastise the audience for doing what an audience does. Next time the sponsors will be smarter; they'll either be less authoritarian and more respectful toward the public, or go all the way and use chains to restrain them.
At the same time that the fake debate was dragging along, twelve times as many people were attending the Baltimore Orioles-Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. Neither team has any chance of reaching the playoffs and the Orioles lost their ninth game in a row. Why do people attend such a game? Not to witness a couple hours of dull, predictable "going through the motions." Could it be to have fun and participate, even if only by making noise? Of course! Even a profit-soaked private monopoly like Major League Baseball seems to do a good job of attracting audiences, exciting them, and letting them yell -- so why can't the NAACP loosen up and give democracy a chance?
Now let's move on to consider the biggest mess-up of the night -- the exclusion of one of the candidates. Spear Lancaster, of the Libertarian Party, was not invited to the event. The Baltimore NAACP web site says "ALL REGISTERED CANDIDATES ARE INVITED." That is simply false.
Libertarians, rebuffed after several requests to the NAACP, planned to protest outside the debate. But here's a wrinkle. Said one Libertarian spokesperson, "Our planned protest is not of the NAACP, but of the two candidates forcing us out of the debating events." Libertarians suspect that the Democrat and Republican campaigns colluded and issued a decree that if all candidates were included, they would not attend the debate. What are they afraid of?
This possibility of collusion is not much consolation for the poor NAACP, however. If NAACP officials were not guilty of actively planning to exclude one candidate, still they gave in to the pressure to do so. When basic American values such as democracy are involved, don't give in to anti-American pressure. Were secret threats from two candidates really more powerful than the national NAACP? If the libertarian theory is right, then that is how it seems. In the old days, the NAACP would challenge the powerful; now they seem to bow low and say "yessuh."
The Progress Report contacted the national NAACP, and also the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP on Monday, September 23, asking for their side of the story, an explanation of the exclusion policy. No response was received from either office. The Progress Report also telephoned the Baltimore NAACP and sought an explanation from chapter president G.I. Johnson. Although a response was promised, the phone call was never returned.
After the debate, a radio talk-show host worried aloud that more than two candidates would mean less speaking time for each during a debate. Too bad! Democracy is not always convenient! It is a good thing, not a bad thing, if debates last a long time and if we have more debates, not fewer. Debates are not an inconvenience or an interruption -- they are part of democracy.
Like the NAACP, the radio commentator was far too ready to sacrifice democracy just for convenience.
Why are powerful people so fast to declare that other people are idiots? They think that you would be confused by a ballot listing more than two candidates -- but most countries have that. Even here in the USA we have lots of votes requiring "choose four out of seven" and so on. And if you've ever watched the Miss America pageant or a similar event, you know that it's possible to judge among 51 candidates. But as soon as you suggest that American voters are capable of counting higher than two, the powerful interests say no, no, it's just too difficult.
Although I do not expect Mfume to resign over this travesty, he certainly owes an explanation to his NAACP colleagues and an apology to every citizen of Maryland.
The NAACP must hang its head in shame. But it can recover from this mess, and the road to recovery begins with rebuilding credibility. The NAACP must prove that it can stand up strongly for democratic values, for inclusion, for participation. Hold another debate, and this time include all the candidates and stop silencing the audience! Don't be afraid of American democracy!
Some will claim that at least there were no acts of violence at the event, but we know better. Democracy was bound, gagged and beaten last night, and the witnesses will remember.
Hanno T. Beck is the publisher of The Progress Report.
What's your opinion? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?