Starting Over 

Can the NAACP Climb Back Into the Driver's Seat?

Last Wednesday evening, about 120 African American community members gathered in the King Neighborhood Facility to vent their simmering frustrations about police brutality. Just three weeks earlier, police had responded to a 3 a.m. call, where a 27-year-old African American man, Byron Hammick, was allegedly abusing his three-year-old son. When they arrived at the Southeast Portland hotel, the man was reportedly banging his son against a wall; according to official reports, police said they had no choice but to shoot Hammick.

While Hammick may not be a poster boy of innocence, his death has dredged to the surface prickly concerns about how police deal with African Americans in Portland. Last week's meeting was energized by excited worries and free floating fears. "We must give unified support," said one attendee.

But, for the most part, these anxieties were not focused on any definite goals. In addition to sizing up the concern about police brutality in the city's African American community, the meeting made evident both the need and opportunity for secular leadership to step forward. Although the meeting was organized by a coalition of ministries, no clear leadership stepped up to take the reins. At the meeting's conclusion, it was announced that a march would be held to protest the police shooting; an exact start time for the march was not yet known, and the location was iffy.

Over the past two years, the local branch of the NAACP--one of the oldest civil rights chapters west of the Mississippi--has steadily disintegrated. Scores of members have voiced concerns that ranking officers were failing to address community problems; they also have complained that the elected leadership was using the NAACP's venerable name to advance personal business deals. Routine monthly meetings--the very rhythm of the organization--had all but ceased a year ago.

The final straw came when a 68-year-old African American woman was dragged from her car by a police officer and was allegedly choked. Internal Affairs found no wrongdoing by the officer. Although the woman, Dora McCrae, was not a member, she petitioned the NAACP for support. Several members lent personal support, but the local NAACP leadership--and, therefore, the organization--roundly ignored her pleas.

Frustrated members complained to national oversight committees. In mid-February, a top-ranking officer from the national office traveled to Portland, lectured members about the proper procedures for managing a NAACP chapter, and then cleaned house. By the end of the day, all of the organization's directors, except the treasurer, announced their resignations.

That housecleaning, say members, has cleared the way for a new start and pathway for the local NAACP. And now, with the very same issue that splintered the organization--police brutality--back in the forefront of community concerns, there is a clear opportunity for the NAACP to regain its virility within the city's politics.

Bruce Brousard, a longtime NAACP member, called the pending change in leadership and the dangling issue of Hammick's death a "jumpstart."

Frank Berry, a Los Angeles-based NAACP officer, has been appointed as the lead person to manage legal issues relating to the shooting of Hammick. "It may be an issue that will cause people to realize what the NAACP is," explained Berry. He then politely added, "[the Portland chapter] is being assisted on getting back on track."

On April 13, the local NAACP chapter will host elections to fill the vacated seats of President and Vice President. On March 23, there will be a march to remember Byron Hammick and to voice concerns about police brutality. That march will begin at 1 p.m. at Youth Opportunities Center, 3034 NE MLK.

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