Stefano Gaudiano

On Saturday morning, even before the most recent meeting for the NAACP chapter began, the event had disintegrated into a shouting match. About 30 members had gathered with the hope--albeit slim--to resolve several issues that, for the past year, have been tearing apart the local chapter of the renowned civil rights organization.

As current board members settled into their seats, one man, casually dressed in sweat pants and a fishing hat, barked from the back of the room, "Anything that happens here is not official." From there, the meeting spun out of control. The meeting adjourned 15 contentious minutes later, after only the decibel level--and no real issues--had been raised.

Five months after the annual elections for president, treasurer, and other key posts in the local chapter of the NAACP, the results remain ambiguous and hotly contested. In November, the NAACP held routine annual elections. At the time, Roy Jay, a local businessman, held the post of interim president; he slid into the position eight months ago when the former president resigned.

Opponents claim that in November's election, Jay unscrupulously tried to grab hold of the organization's key posts. They say his supporters intimidated opponents, side-stepped established election rules, and bum-rushed the ballot box by quickly signing up new members so that their side could overwhelm opponents. One candidate claims she received threats and, even months later, remains afraid to leave her house at night.

"There were irregularities from the opening gate," explained Robert Larry, the NAACP member leading the fight against the election results.

If the national elections for the U.S. President seemed to stretch to absurdly humorous lengths, the local NAACP elections have gone past the point of humor; the prolonged debate threatens the continued existence of one of the oldest NAACP chapters west of the Mississippi. To resolve the election results, 39 members of the local chapter have requested the NAACP State Conference Internal Affairs Committee look into the election. A verdict is expected in mid-April.

While surface-level squabbles are contentious, the underlying issues are even more heated. What's at stake, say members, is the very personality and purpose of the NAACP. "The NAACP has been misused and misrepresented so much over the years," laments Larry.

Opponents to the current interim--and many say lame-duck--president claim that Jay has recklessly mishandled the hefty name-recognition that the organization carries to further commercial development interests in Northeast Portland. (Jay also serves as the President for the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Portland.) At the same time, they say, the NAACP has cold-shouldered needy individuals in the African American community, like Dora McCrae, a 68-year-old woman who was put in a chokehold by a police officer during a routine traffic stop.

During the two years that McCrae appealed for the city to investigate possible police misconduct, she also asked the NAACP for support--but received little recognition. (The student chapter of the NAACP at Portland State University, however, did show up when City Council voted 3-2 that insufficient evidence existed to review her case; while the verdict was being read, about 70 students walked out of the room.)

In contrast, point out opponents, Jay lobbied vigorously last autumn for a Safeway store in a predominantly African American neighborhood to retain its license to sell beer and wine. After police uncovered five incidents where employees at the MLK Blvd Safeway store sold alcohol to minors, they recommended that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) not renew the store's license. Although it is rare for the OLCC to stand against such recommendations, in October Jay spoke in front of an OLCC panel reviewing the case and lobbied for Safeway. On tapes obtained by the Mercury from that meeting, Jay represents himself as a spokesperson for the NAACP. In turn, the OLCC took the unprecedented step to refute the police recommendation and retain Safeway's license.

Opponents say that such screwy priorities--where effort is put toward retaining a liquor license but not for an elderly African American woman complaining about police brutality--misrepresent the essential mission of the NAACP. Outside the recent NAACP meeting, Jay forcibly exclaimed that he was troubled that members were lobbying for McCrae, who is not a member of the NAACP.

Disturbed by the lack of attention to McCrae's plight from the local branch, Larry and other NAACP members circumvented the local branch and took McCrae to the Seattle chapter in mid-February. There, they submitted a resolution asking the NAACP National Legal Council to take further action, such as a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city. The request passed unanimously and now goes to the national chapter.