“I’m not a nigger, I’m not a nigga, I’m a king,” Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy said at a July 26 black male town hall summit he initiated on behalf of the local African-American population. “When I see all of you, I see kings.”
Following the homicide of 23-year-old Denzel Morton, a black man who was shot to death in a parking lot on Earhart Street July 17, Bellamy called for the “brothers”—local men of color—to band together in an effort to positively influence younger generations. And Bellamy has a three-tiered plan to do so.
“How many of you are willing to work with some brothers who may not be going down the right path?” he asked a room of almost 60 African-American men who gathered on behalf of the Charlottesville Alliance for Black Male Achievement, 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, the Black Professional Network of Charlottesville and local hip-hop radio station 101.3 Jamz. “We value [young people],” Bellamy said. “We will not give up on them.”
One tier of his plan includes a twice-monthly “circle of brotherhood,” in which a group of men would meet with black males ages 17 to 29 for an open discussion and to teach the younger men a set of useful skills. He also asked the men at the meeting to sign up to greet kids outside their schools on the first day of class this month.
But potentially, the most discussed tier of Bellamy’s proposed plan is improving political visibility within the city and county for African-Americans. Asking those present at the meeting to attend and speak on their own behalf at City Council, Board of Supervisors and School Board meetings each week, Bellamy said, “When we talk about changing policy and representation, if we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”
Bellamy is the sixth black person to serve on City Council, and on the Albemarle School Board, Graham Paige is the third. An African-American hasn’t served on the county’s Board of Supervisors for more than 10 years.
Damani Harrison, who runs 101.3 Jamz, noted at the meeting that while white families talk public policy at the dinner table, basketball is a topic more likely to surface in barbershop banter.
A racial minority’s overall disinterest in politics can be attributed to the lack of education on how the system works, says Derek Perkins, a 29-year-old Charlottesville resident from Brooklyn, who attended the meeting.
“A lot of our brothers and sisters aren’t properly prepared to understand exactly what the political system is in itself,” says Perkins who moved to town five years ago and met Bellamy while coaching third-grade basketball for the Charlottesville Dream. “They just assume it’s a bunch of people who are trying to rule over us and don’t necessarily understand their jobs and duties,” he continues. “So they don’t vote.”
Perkins’ interest in politics comes from the grassroots organizations he worked with in New York.
“It drew me more into wanting to create a change and understanding the importance of a vote and the importance of holding [elected officials] accountable,” he says. “Especially because we’re paying them with our tax dollars, so we must hold them accountable for completing their jobs to the standards we want to hold them to.”
At 29, Perkins is in the age group Bellamy’s circle of brotherhood intends to reach.
“I know there’s a lot of people out there that’s close to my age, still walking that thin line,” Perkins says, “and realizing that our time is running out.”
Local attorney Jeff Fogel—who is known for his current lawsuit against an Albemarle police officer who has allegedly targeted black people and his work in asking city police to release stop and frisk records—said at the meeting that solely showing up to council meetings isn’t enough.
“City Council has not been responsive,” he says, referring to a presentation to council in which he showed that officers are twice as likely to find something on a white person than a black person, yet 70 percent of all stops made are of African-Americans.
“That’s just one issue,” said the vice-mayor, to which a man in the crowd could be heard saying, “That’s an issue enough for me.”