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Local NAACP leaders' news briefings with police prompt criticism

Such appearances could damage the civil rights organization's reputation as an adversary of law enforcement racism, an expert said.
Image: Rock Hill protests
A protester confronts police officers in riot gear in downtown Rock Hill, S.C., on June 24.Tracy Kimball / The Charlotte Observer via AP

After a bystander posted a video on Facebook showing police in Rock Hill, South Carolina, forcefully arresting two Black brothers, tensions flared and days of protests followed.

City leaders responded like countless officials around the country facing similar circumstances: They held a news conference.

Police Chief Chris Watts and Mayor John Gettys urged calm. They were joined in spreading that message by the local leader of an organization that historically has served as an adversary of racism and brutality by law enforcement -- the NAACP.

“The officers that are called to serve and protect are not the officers that were out on the scene yesterday,” Norma Gray, president of the Rock Hill NAACP branch, said during the June 24 news conference. “We are asking you to protect them. Black Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. These officers need to go home to their families unbruised, unharmed.”

Gray was at least the second NAACP branch president since mid-June to stand side by side with city leaders and a police chief after incidents involving officers were captured on camera.

News conferences involving municipal officials and civil rights watchdogs like the NAACP are occurring more often while the country grapples with racial tension amid high-profile police actions caught on video, experts said.

Two academics, including one who is a former police veteran, said these collaborative conferences generally benefit only the police and harm the credibility of advocacy groups that participate in them.

“Those press conferences represent more of the interest of the police, or city or state officials, than it does the people most aggrieved by police abuse,” said Yasser Payne, associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Delaware. “What we’ve seen is more assimilated, a compromise, that has lost any real integrity.”

Representatives from historically Black organizations who have participated in such news conferences have been viewed harshly by some within their communities, particularly by grassroots groups, he said.

Gray said this week that she understands some Rock Hill residents may perceive her participation in the city news conference as contrary to the NAACP’s mission. She said she hadn’t heard the comments but recognized her actions could spark criticism within her organization.

She has kept an eye out “every day in my email,” expecting to hear from critics, she said, but she has a responsibility to call for orderly protests and to stress that violence toward police is not the answer.

“When it comes to matters of calling for calm in our city, they needed a voice that was respected in the community,” she said. “My message is targeted to everyone because the mission and vision of the NAACP is the equity rights of all persons. … So, I felt very comfortable sandwiched between a white mayor and a white police chief.”

The unrest that followed the emergence of the video showing officers struggling on the ground with the two brothers June 23 led some demonstrators to throw rocks and bottles at officers and to set a small fire outside a building. Eleven protesters were arrested June 24.

Watts said at the news conference that two of his officers were placed on leave and an independent investigation will be conducted. One of the brothers, who was charged with resisting arrest, was punched in the face and repeatedly in the thigh.

Gray said she has built capital in the community challenging police. She said during the news conference that investigators needed time to sort through the arrests.

“We’ve called for transparency, and we’ve been given that transparency" she said at the time. "Allow us to be transparent with you as we are given that information.”.

Earlier last month, Denise Williams, president of the NAACP branch in Springfield, Ohio, joined city officials in a news conference, in which she promised to keep pressure on law enforcement during an independent investigation into a police officer's actions.

Dashcam video showed Officer Amanda Rosales driving over shooting victim Eric Cole, a Black man, on June 13 with a police SUV. Cole, 42, died shortly afterward.

Police Chief Lee Graf said during a tense conference attended by Cole’s grieving relatives that Rosales had been placed on leave. He also emphasized that Rosales did not intentionally strike Cole.

At the news conference June 16, Williams asked the community to be patient and addressed Cole’s mother, Regina Wilson.

“I understand the emotion. I get it, Mom,” she said. “This is why Springfield has an NAACP. The baddest, biggest, civil rights organization in the world. We will make sure of transparency. That is part of our job. … We are going to stay with you, Mom, until the end.”

Williams said this week that she has a strong working relationship with Graf and other city officials. She said she asked them to join the news conference.

“My standing up there doesn’t mean that I work with police, that I agree with the police," she said. "It means I’m there for a press conference.”

A representative with the national NAACP did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tom Roberts, president of the Ohio Conference NAACP, said he encourages branch presidents to work with police.

“She was at a press conference to explain the NAACP’s position as it relates to the death of a young man,” Roberts said.

Thomas Nolan, a retired 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, said the presence of NAACP branch presidents at such news conferences gives off a perception that runs counter to what the organization has stood for.

Nolan, an associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College, said police are “co-opting the moral authority that the NAACP has in communities of color.”

“If the NAACP is standing at the podium with law enforcement and city officials, who is left to call out officer wrongdoing and officer excess?” he said. “The visual is unmistakable. If they’re standing there, and even if they are articulating the position that, ‘We will hold police accountable,’ were nonetheless standing side by side with them in offering and supporting a narrative of what occurred.”