GPD Special Units: History of Civil Rights Violations

By Signe Waller Foxworth, Ph D

Presented to the Greensboro City Council October 4, 2018

The history of special units or divisions within the Greensboro Police Department, units that combine intelligence gathering and field operations, is long and shabby.

The Greensboro Police Department Directives Manual states that among the duties of these units is “ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”

Their actions, however, are often better described as suppressing people’s constitutional and civil rights, such as the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

They protect the wealth, property and power of the one percent and keep in check the ninety-nine percent.

Their actions block people from making changes to the social and economic status quo that could lead to more democratic arrangements, to new structures that would, in truth, ensure “the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”

This has become clearer in the recent fiasco in which the Greensboro police sent its Civil Emergency Unit (CEU) to Chapel Hill to assist with managing protests at UNC steming from the dismantling of a symbol of racist oppression on the campus.

Tonight we are addressing the historical context and meaning of special units like the CEU.

In 1978 and 1979, one such special unit was the Criminal Investigation Division in which the police spied on workers and social justice activists who were organizing trade unions in local textile mills.

This special unit—the activists and organizers called it the “Red Squad”—went so far as to have police officers go to Cone Mills’ parking lots to copy down the license plate numbers of workers who were attending labor union meetings.

The attendees were breaking no laws, only exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of assembly when their right to organize was violated!

The police helped the mill owners’ efforts to shut down organized labor so that workers would find it harder to fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions and owners and shareholders would become richer at the workers’ expense.

And then the Red Squad went further.

The head of Intelligence for the GPD at the time, Captain B. L. Thomas, authorized paying Klansman Eddie Dawson to be an informant for the police.

Dawson told the police which Klan and Nazi groups would be present on November 3, 1979 to confront a pro-labor, anti-racist assembly that was scheduled to hold a militant but peaceful rally and then an educational forum about how racism is used to divide workers and defeat labor organizing.

The upshot of this police activity combining intelligence gathering and field operations gave us the Greensboro Massacre in which five people, Sandy Smith, Bill Sampson, Mike Nathan, Cesar Cauce and Jim Waller, were murdered and eleven wounded just a couple of miles from where we are now.

Survivors waged an uphill struggle for justice in a corrupt judicial system.

Six years later, in 1985, in a civil rights suit that was supported by many local residents, a glimmer of truth and justice emerged.

Several police officers, Klan members and Nazis were held jointly liable for the wrongful death of one of the demonstrators.

The City of Greensboro paid the penalty for the police, the Klan and the Nazis. No one found liable went to jail. No liable police officers were disciplined.

You may not be accustomed to thinking about the Greensboro Massacre as an example of local police collaborating with a right-wing death squad, but that’s exactly what it was.

It all starts with the suppression of the constitutional and civil rights of ordinary people who want a more just, sane and equitable society for their children and grandchildren.

Another special unit, the Gang Enforcement Unit, was established in 2007.

It did not defend the democratic principle of equality before the law and we are not aware there is any evidence that it reduced the threat of gang violence.

What it did do was persecute poor and mostly black and Latino youth who belonged to the Latin Kings, a street organization led by Jorge Cornell.

Cornell had broken with the national Latin Kings’organization’s past practices of violent and illegal behavior.

Instead, he negotiated a peace treaty among his and other street groups that often had been hostile to one another.

Under his leadership, the youth were prohibited from starting violence or engaging in illegal activity; if they failed to comply they were dismissed from the organization.

Cornell encouraged members to finish school, get a job and do community service.

He himself was a community organizer who opposed racism and helped black, brown and poor people to be treated with respect and have equal opportunities.

He ran, unsuccessfully, for city council twice.

The GPD’s Gang Unit made the Latin Kings the focus of an unrelenting harassment campaign.

These young people were constantly harassed without cause, on the roads, in their homes, at their jobs, and in public parks as they were playing sports.

They faced one baseless charge after another.

Cornell alone was charged with more than fourteen felonies in an eighteen month period, every one of which was either thrown out of court or defeated in court.

There was, indisputably, gang activity and violence involving gangs happening in Greensboro at the time.

However, conscientious citizens of Greensboro who knew Latin Kings members personally knew they were not part of the violent or illegal activity.

These citizens worked hard to set up channels of communication with the GPD and its Gang Unit.

At one private meeting several clergy persons had with the GPD, the then-Chief of Police Bellamy responded to a question about whether the Latin Kings were known to be violent by saying that they were not known to be a threat in Greensboro.

Why then was the group being harassed and charged, it was asked.

The interesting reply was that they seemed to be better organized.

As the harassment persisted, in the fall of 2010, a multiracial delegation of 37 people from Greensboro met with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

The delegation went with the purpose of obtaining help from the federal government to rein in our local police whose tactics of persecution were driving the youth further into poverty and desperation, not stopping crimes.

This delegation included seven clergy, ten students, several college professors, four current and former police officers, Jorge Cornell and four members of his street organization and some community leaders.

Meanwhile the local police and its gang unit were lobbying the federal government to intervene to help them.

Eventually, the Justice Department gave our local law enforcement establishment what they wanted.

Jorge Cornell and other impoverished Latin King members were charged and railroaded under the RICO statute (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act).

A sickening travesty of justice followed.

There is no time to recount it here. The upshot is that Jorge Cornell, who had not committed the crime with which he was charged or any other criminal act, for that matter, was sent to federal prison for 28 years and is imprisoned to this day.

And now we have the Civil Emergency Unit, a special division within the GPD that apparently is concerned with civil emergencies, but the real question is whether they are there to help resolve a civil emergency or to create one.

We have an increasingly militarized police force that is being provided with the weapons of war by the federal government.

Free speech, when it takes the form of dissent from government policies, is being treated like an act of enemy aggression.

What are the police for in a country that calls itself a democracy?

According to the Greensboro Police Department Directives Manual, “the role of police in a free society is the protection of constitutional guarantees, maintenance of public order, prevention and suppression of crime, and dutiful response to the needs of the community.”

The Manual further states that police officers are accountable to the community for their decisions and that their authority is drawn from the will and consent of the citizens whom they serve.

Here in Greensboro, the Chief of Police is accountable to the City Manager who is hired by the City Council, which represents and is accountable to the people of Greensboro.

All these governing entities are supposed to be servants of the people, guardians of the peoples’ civil and human rights.

They are not supposed to be oppressors, tyrants and murderers.

They are not supposed to make war on their own city residents and citizens, or put them in jail for speaking out, assembling or organizing.

We do not want the weapons of war here.

In fact, the majority of us do not even want them used “over there,” in countries across the seas, against countries that are no threat to us, that have not committed aggressive acts against us and whose people are human beings like us who would rather live in peace and harmony than hurt and kill people.

The crimes against humanity we are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, are actually crimes against humanity here.

The weapons we send abroad that kill and maim innocent people are bound to do the same here.

The chickens will come home to roost.

So where is all this going?

Will ramming peaceful demonstrators with bicycle handles and spraying pepper spray be sufficient to stop people from challenging racism and a dying capitalist order of greed and massive destructiveness, or will it lead to the use of armored vehicles, tanks, drones and other weapons of war against Americans by Americans?

A social and political revolution is happening right now all around us.

Women, children and people of color, mostly, are leading this revolution.

Speaking to Council members now and telling you to do the next right thing by disbanding the Police Department’s militarized Civil Emergency Unit and divesting the police of all militarized equipment is our revolutionary act for the day.