Thursday, August 05, 2004

More on the Memphis Snub

A local radio show has just given out a detailed timeline of communications between the major parties in the snubbing of the Iraqi delegation this past Monday. It casts some things in a new light. I tried to get it down, but missed a big chunk as I wasn't prepared. City Councilwoman Carol Chumney was interviewed at length about what happened. I sent an email to her office, hoping to get copies of that timeline.

It was interesting that Chumney was interviewed so early in the show, which is very atypical for Mike Fleming. It turned out later in the interview that she was the source for the timeline he read, and she elaborated on it quite a bit, casting aspersions and naming names.

Anyway, it seems the whole ball got rolling on July 19, a mere two weeks before the visit was to happen. The director of the Iraqi goodwill tour, Elisabeth Silverman, emailed someone on the City Council and also left a voice message at City Mayor Herenton's office. Councilwoman Chumney emailed them back to accept; apparently, her office then handled details of their visit.

On Friday, July 30, just days before their arrival, Council President Joe Brown and Chumney discussed the Monday visit by the delegation. Brown was well aware of the visit and had problems with them coming to City Hall. He expressed concerns about bomb threats and security. Chumney had Brown contact Silverman, to see that the group had US State Department bona fides. Brown, according to Chumney, also contacted the Fire and Police Departments. According to Chumney, Silverman called her back. Brown decided to move the meeting to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau building, for security reasons.

Chumney also said that she spoke with someone from the Cultural Affairs office of the City Mayor, a Narquinta Simms, who Chumney claims told her that Mayor Herenton had stopped meeting with these kinds of groups because he thought the meetings took too much of his time. He would not be meeting with the Iraqis. Chumney also claimed to have spoken with the Mayor's Executive Assistant, Gale Carson Jones, to try to get Herenton to appear.

So, on Monday, the delegation was mistakenly sent not to the CVB but to City Hall! Chumney did not explain how this happened. They tried to enter and a guard stopped them. The guard confirmed the mix-up and got in touch with Chumney. It was at this point that Council President Brown became involved and apparently repeated his concerns about security at City Hall with the Iraqi delegation, refusing them entry and making his threats. The Iraqis then left and went to the Civic Center, apparently at Chumney's insistence since they were already downtown, where things proceeded.

Chumney and Fleming, frankly, both seemed to have ulterior motives. One thing that was clear was that Fleming, a Republican, viewed Chumney, a Democrat, as his ally in slamming Mayor Herenton. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," and all that. Fleming has made something of an audience with his juvenile and emotional taunting of Herenton. He asked Chumney if she had orchestrated the whole thing to embarrass Herenton, as some had claimed. She demurred, of course, but I'd bet money that her appearance on the radio show, with a detailed, printed timeline of events, was intended to raise her profile against the rest of the Council and the Mayor. Chumney is also furthering her campaign to be perceived as Mayoral timber and an ally of the small people of the City. I don't doubt that this was part of that ongoing effort.

Herenton issued an apology, later, but has remained mum and off the newspaper pages and television news shows. No one seems to be going after him all that hard, except Chumney. The City Council later issued an apology itself, minus Chumney who claimed that since she did meet with them, she didn't feel a need to apologise. Brown, who was at the heart of this in terms of mishandling things, was pretty clearly too concerned with personal security. This is nothing new on the part of local government.

I still remember on September 11, 2001. Within a couple of hours of the New York attacks, the whole area around the City, County, State and Federal buildings was closed off. Not just the square itself, but many blocks around the area, a huge perimeter. All traffic was stopped, the streets closed, and access to the government buildings severely restricted. Bam, just like that! It was impossible to even get parked cars out. It struck me then -- and in light of this incident I'm reconfirmed -- that the folks downtown have a pretty seriously over-inflated sense of self-importance. Their imperial sense of entitlement and elevation is disgusting to see.

On the other hand, Chumney and County Mayor AC Wharton, who did meet with the delegates, are to be commended. Wharton has since kept quiet, to his credit. Chumney, though, is milking this for everything she can. The radio show I mentioned above just had a caller who suggested she should run for mayor. Well, well, about that?

Television news seems to be keeping this covered and in perspective. It's not the big splashy "hyped to death" story of the day, but neither is it downplayed. Only the Commercial Appeal seems to be keeping the story on the down-low, especially the robbery of two of the Iraqi delegates on Beale Street. It's being covered, but just barely, in minimal, factual style, on the inside pages for the most part. Hey, can't have Memphis made to look bad by its historic, world-class, widely-loved Mayor, Willie Herenton, can we? Nor can we do anything to jeopardise our Beale Street Cash Cow District and the Downtown Renaissance, our Manhattan on the Mississippi.

So what do we have, at the end of the whole thing? A goodwill group rushed to put together a tour by foreign dignitaries. As someone who has worked in government before, many years ago, I know that two weeks is a serious rush-job for something like this, especially security concerns like Iraqi officials. You have a contentious, posturing, elbowing, preening and territorial City Council fighting over how to handle the thing, with the junior Councillor -- who has been ruffling feathers and getting up noses since Day One, making enemies and piling up bad will along the way -- coming up against the magisterial Council President. (I can't believe I just called Joe Brown "magisterial," but hey, there you go.)

Then there was the delivery mistake, taking the Iraqis to the very place they weren't supposed to go. I'd lay that at Chumney's feet. She knew Brown's sentiments and the likely consequences, but seems to have failed to assure it wouldn't happen. How would you expect Joe Brown to react? Well, exactly as he did. From his point of view, it looks, I'm sure, as though Chumney is trying to upstage and embarrass him, to try to usurp his authority. You just don't do that here in Memphis with our politicians. Especially when you're "pebble in the shoe" Carol Chumney.

It also strikes me, as I write this, that it sure does seem odd that Chumney would go to all the trouble of writing up a detailed timeline of who called or emailed who, what was said by whom to whom, who was were and what they did, etc. Why all the effort? Why the work? I believe as I said above: self-promotion by Chumney at the expense of Brown and Herenton.

And then there was the robbery of two of the delegates on Beale Street in broad daylight. There's an apocryphal story now circulating that the delegates said to the robber that they were from out of town and the robber replied, "Welcome to Memphis" before he ran off. What an odd experience: to go from the National Civil Rights Museum, which memorialises the racist treatment of blacks in the past, to Beale Street, where black history has been commericialised and Disney-fied into a white moneymaker and safe party experience, only to be robbed by a black Memphian (according to police reports).

If that's not Memphis in a nutshell, I don't know what is.

The national press has been zooming in on the racism angle, which from the Memphis perspective is pretty hilarious. The City and County Mayors are black; the City is majority black; the City Council is majority black. President Joe Brown is black. Councillor Carol Chumney is white. The delegates toured Graceland. Elvis is reknowned for bringing black music to white audiences. They later went to Beale Street, which was a thriving black business district until Jim Crow and racism killed it. It was a cradle for bringing the field blues of Mississippi to urban audiences and a conduit for taking that blues to the big urban centers of the north: Chicago, Detroit, etc. The delegates were robbed by a black.

What I hope I've shown is that this was bad political karma, ongoing ill will and distrust, and political maneuvering come home to roost. Race inevitably plays a part in everything in Memphis, but it wasn't the motivator in this case, nor the engine of trouble. It was sparked by Herenton's famous Inauguration Day breakfast speech and has spread to a hundred brush fires since, like this one.

But of course, the story has since moved on, the impression made and left, and it's now far too late to do anything about it.

Welcome to Memphis.

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