Confrontation, Walkouts at Panel Discussion

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Ed Gordon and Omarosa Manigault Newman were publicly in confilct for about 33 minutes. (Credit: Richard Prince)

Ed Gordon and Omarosa Newman were publicly in conflict for about 33 minutes at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans. Retired Los Angeles Police Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey is at right. (Credit: Richard Prince)

Confrontation, Walkouts at Panel Discussion

“It was a hot mess” was the most common phrase used to describe a confrontational panel discussion Friday at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans, as presidential adviser Omarosa Newman joined an exchange that began with the relatives of black men killed by police and ended with NABJ’s president Sarah Glover defending the association’s decision to invite Newman.

In between was a heated back and forth between moderator Ed Gordon and Newman over whether Newman should be asked to defend President Trump’s policies. Gordon maintained that she should be, while Newman said she was there to speak as someone whose family members had been killed, though not by police.

Newman did answer questions about Trump, however, saying that she disagreed with Trump’s recent remarks that police should not be so “nice” to suspects taken into custody. She also insisted that, as she is often the only African American at the president’s policy table, it is important that she be there to transmit black anger over such statements.

“If you’re not at the table, you are the menu,” she said.

Watching was an overflow crowd in a room only half as large as could accommodate those who were lined up to attend. Many were enticed by an overheated Page Six story in the New York Post that reported “heavy drama” at the convention because of Newman’s scheduled appearance. Of those who were admitted, eight stood and turned their backs to the stage. They were reported to be activists.

“New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was scheduled to moderate a panel on police brutality on Friday, which featured Valerie Castile, Sandra Sterling, and the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb. Hannah-Jones and Cobb pulled out of the panel, and Bounce TV’s Ed Gordon stepped in to serve as the event’s moderator,” Carlos Greer reported in the Post Thursday. His piece was headlined, “Omarosa causes uproar at National Assoc. of Black Journalists conference.”

Convention chair Ryan Williams considered the story over the top. He told Journal-isms Friday morning, “I have seen nearly 3,300 black journalists looking to excel in their careers; I don’t see ‘uproar.’ ”

Valerie Castile is the mother of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man and longtime school cafeteria worker who was shot and killed in Falcon Heights, Minn., in July 2016 by Officer Jeronimo Yanez. In June, Yanez was acquitted of all charges by a Minnesota jury.

Sandra Sterling is the aunt of Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, La., the same month. According to police, officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake saw Sterling, 37, outside a convenience store after it was reported that a man had threatened someone there with a gun. Police said Sterling, who was selling CDs outside the store, fit the description of that man, Matt Zapotosky and Wesley Lowery reported in the Washington Post.

The NABJ plenary session, “Black and Blue,” this year’s effort to honor the memory of sociologist, intellectual and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, opened with a video of an emotional Castile declaring that her son’s killer “got away scot-free.” His guilt “was just as clear as the nose on his face,” she said, warning viewers that what happened to her son “could happen to you: “That’s who make the laws.”

Sterling, wiping away tears, urged the media not to “re-victimize the victim” and to investigate the backgrounds of police officers just as vigorously as they do the victims of police violence. “Put everything out there. Do it all,” she said. Asked by Gordon how she feels seeing the video of her nephew’s shooting replayed over and over, she said, “it’s like I died every day with him for 365 days.”

Gordon told the audience when the afternoon session began that he knew of the “800-pound gorilla” in the room — Newman’s scheduled appearance. He urged “a little decorum,” and declared that no stipulation had been placed on him stating what he could ask. Gordon said that Newman had requested not to appear by herself and would join a group discussion.

Newman entered to polite applause after a second panel was introduced that included retired Los Angeles Police Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey, author of “Black and Blue”; political analyst Jason Johnson of Morgan State University, who is also political editor of TheRoot.com; Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed,  a former gang leader now a motivational speaker, and BuzzFeed writer Joel Anderson.

Newman said she wanted to talk about the impact of losing relatives to violence, saying that most people “just don’t know me.” But was not long before Gordon turned the conversation to Trump. Newman tried in vain to return to the subject of slain relatives.

As Adrian Carrasquillo, Anderson and Darren Sands reported for BuzzFeed, “Asked specifically about Trump’s recent comments suggesting police officers should be rougher with suspects and if she spoke to the president about what he said, Manigault said that she would not ‘disclose confidential conversations’ with Trump, but that she has invited law enforcement to the White House to discuss the issue.

“’I’m not going to stand here and defend everything about Donald Trump,’ she said.

“As she fended off questions about Trump, Manigault at one point accused the moderator of being ‘aggressive,’ took the microphone and decided to stand up and walk the stage. . . .”

Gordon, too, became more animated, insisting that questions about Trump were fair game and asking whether Newman was aware of “the depth of feeling” against the president among African Americans when he makes such statements as his July 28 remarks to Long Island, N.Y., law enforcement officers. When arresting “these thugs,” Trump said then, “Please don’t be too nice.”

Law enforcement officers around the country denounced the statement, and the White House responded that Trump was joking.

Newman told Gordon that nothing she said would appease him, and asked whether the panel had become simply a dialogue between the two of them.

She also said, “no black boy should be treated the way Freddie Gray was, or any of these other young men were treated,”  referring to the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2015. Asked for his response, Reed said, “first of all, Freddie Gray was not a boy . . .

Pressed for her own responses to such deaths, Newman advised the audience to Google “Eric Garner” and her own name.

“Look for yourselves,” she said. The suggestion was met with groans.

Along the way, three, then four, five, six and finally eight audience members stood with their backs to those on stage. Others walked out.  The BuzzFeed report said, “Brittany Packnett — a Ferguson protester who rose to prominence inside the Black Lives Matter movement as a part of the policy group Campaign Zero, and a well-respected activist on race, justice, and policing — was among the less than ten protesters who stood with their backs to Manigault as she spoke. . . .”

When Gordon asked whether the White House was aware of “the anger that some of us feel,” Newman replied, “I think they see it. We’re very keen on that,” and noted that the administration had invited civil rights leaders, the Congressional Black Caucus and other African Americans to come to the White House. The Congressional Black Caucus has refused.

Rep. Cedric Richman, D-La., the Caucus chair, told NABJ’s opening session on Wednesday, “We’re not going to the White House for a social gathering.” He wrote to constituents in June, “We gave the administration a 130 page document. No Response. We sent 8 letters. No Response. We have had zero meetings with cabinet secretaries.

“And when he [Trump] didn’t take us seriously, we declined a second meeting. Because we have to get his attention.”

Newman said at the panel discussion, “When you don’t come to the table, decisions are made whether you’re at the table or not.”

Eventually, Newman left the stage.

Glover stood in front of the audience to explain that NABJ felt obligated to to invite members of the Trump administration to the convention, that Newman had accepted and that Friday was the only day she was available.

Gordon, still on stage, replied that organizers had discussed Newman’s appearance for an hour and a half and that “it would be foolhardy to assume that we would sit here and not ask certain questions.

“Let us close this out. I’ll see you at the White House Christmas party in December,” Gordon concluded, raising his fist.

NABJ issued this statement:

“As an organization of professional journalists, NABJ seeks to have candid and frank conversations with newsmakers. For years, the NABJ has invited the White House administration to partake in the annual convention. We appreciate that the Director of Communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Newman is participating this year and has come to share her perspective on issues that are critical to our members, and moreover, critical to the communities that we serve.”

Hannah-Jones, who watched the proceedings from the audience rather than the moderator’s perch, told Journal-isms as she left the discussion, “You can see that I made the right decision.”

Cobb wrote on Facebook, “A man does not grow up on the South Side of Queens in the crack era without learning to recognize a set-up when he sees one.”

He elaborated, “Under other circumstances, maybe. But NABJ was talking some craziness about her being there as someone who has been impacted by violence, not as a member of the administration. So it wasn’t even clear we would actually get to discuss anything important. More likely it was going to devolve into precisely the kind of fiasco that wound up happening. So basically, the idea was to get people with good standing in the community and reputations for doing serious work and drag them into a gutter of ad hominem insults.

“I can play the dozens with the best of them (Drew Hall, 87-88) but not in my professional setting, not when I’m sitting next to the grieving mothers of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, not when we’re dealing with an ignorant administration that has used insult and distraction to its advantage so shamelessly. And not when I’m there with someone whose whole agenda is to turn a serious forum into reality tv.”

At the annual NABJ business meeting earlier Friday, Glover and Shirley Carswell, interim executive director, announced that the convention had attracted 3,289 registrants, an unaudited Thursday figure, of which 2,554 were paid. The figure tops last year’s 3,225.

Gregory Lee, Finance Committee chair, reported:

“NABJ total revenue $3,407,000 an increase of 63% from the previous year.

  • “NABJ expenses were down 15% percent from the previous year.
  • “Convention registration was $830,001, an increase of 86% from the previous year.
  • “Convention sponsorship was $1,310,432, an increase of 60% from the previous year.
  • “With the 2016 victory in hand, the committee submitted a series of recommendations to help set up the association with its over $1.2 million dollars in excess revenue for the year.”

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