Monday, April 29, 2013

NAACP in turmoil on local, national levels

Keila Torres Ocasio,  Saturday April 27, 2013
The state NAACP branch's takeover of Bridgeport's long embattled local chapter surprised few people last week.
For months the local branch of the civil rights organization, whose membership has dwindled over the years, had been bitterly divided over questions of financial impropriety, membership issues and election woes.
But it's not alone.
Last month, the same types of issues led the national leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to call for the reorganization of the Waterbury branch as well. And earlier this year, questions of election impropriety cast a shadow over the installment of a new board in the Norwalk branch.
The internal conflicts, some say, is the result of the historic organization's struggle to evolve and come together to form an agenda that is in line with the needs of its 21st century members.
"My views are not the same as theirs, and that's why I'm not a member," said James Holloway, a Bridgeport City Councilman. "I think the organization should live by its name. It's not the national association for the advancement of black people. If you're there, you should fight for all people of color."
But Holloway said he doesn't see the local chapter doing much to help anyone in the city.
When video of a vicious beating of a man by Bridgeport police went viral, it was the state branch that called for the arrest and firing of the officers involved, Holloway noted, not the local branch. "There are a lot of issues in Bridgeport the (local) NAACP isn't taking care of," he said.
That's because the infighting has put a halt to any positive actions, members said this week.
Those internal conflicts came to a head last November when four of the organization's executive committee members sent a letter to People's United Bank, removing President Carolyn Vermont and treasurer Errol Earle from control of its bank account.
The members have accused Vermont of failing to provide annual reports or regular updates on the funds raised by the organization, accusations she says are not true. The board members' actions went against the organization's bylaws, according to national leadership, which suspended their memberships.
In January, Vermont called Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph Gaudett on his cellphone during a meeting at the Messiah Baptist Church to charge member Wayne Winston with harassment.
"There's a lot of people who have been turned off" by that conduct, said Verna Kearney, a former Bridgeport police officer and lifelong NAACP member. "And the meetings take place in a church, so we should behave, not react with so much animosity toward each other."
Kearney said she used to attend meetings when she could, but stopped going after there was a "big blowup" at the last one she attended. In the last five years alone, the local branch's membership has gone down from nearly 500 members to roughly 250 now.
"We are all concerned about the NAACP because it can be bigger and better than it is," she said. "There's infighting in any organization, but it hurts my heart that it's happening at this time. I'm hoping and praying that everything will be repaired."
Jimmie Griffin, a former Waterbury branch president, blamed the state and national branches for the local chaos. Local branch memberships are administered through the national office and the state branch serves a supervisory role over each local branch. "It's just coming to the surface that the local branches have been neglected over the years," said Griffin, who served as state NAACP president from 2001 to 2004.
He received a three-year suspension of his life membership for taking his complaints about the Waterbury branch public and forwarding emails to the media. He is also accused of making defamatory and false accusations on Facebook, he said.
"Anyone that stands up and says they need to change the way they (the national leadership) do business, they suspend them," Griffin said. "It's a hypocrisy to me that they operate the way they do. I think they're more concerned with the brand name and fundraising than with the members."
He is not alone in his criticism of the organization.
In 2010, an NAACP Suspension Network blog was created to highlight membership suspensions individuals considered unjust. And on Twitter, an NAACP Watchdog group is dedicated to criticizing the civil rights organization. Last fall, some of these critics even started a campaign urging individuals to burn their NAACP membership cards.
In February, a small group of the Watchdog members -- opposed to abortion and the NAACP's ties to Planned Parenthood -- protested the organization's 44th annual Image Awards in Los Angeles.
The national branch has also had critics from among its ranks.
Internal conflict with the 64-member national board and opposing views on the organization's direction were the reasons former national president Bruce Gordon gave when he stepped down in 2007 after only 19 months in the job.
Locally, though, members are confident the organization can grow and thrive here -- as long as they can leave the infighting in the past.
"I am confident the NAACP will resurrect itself," said Rev. Kevin Ginyard, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group made up largely of black ministers. The organization used to work closely with the NAACP.
In recent years, though, that has not been the case. When the IMA demanded an apology for the way in which he fired former health director Marian Evans, a respected professional and a black woman, they were joined by many city residents. But the local NAACP branch was silent.
"The organization has not been able to be as effective as it should be," admitted Ginyard, who has let his NAACP membership lapse. "I think they've got to let go of the petty things."
Vermont's predecessor, Craig Kelly, said he hopes the local branch moves forward in a positive direction. "I think over a period of time all organizations need restructuring," he said. "Because people fall into, well, I don't know if its complacency, but things are constantly moving and changing in life."
Focusing on future generations and building up its youth membership will be critical to its success, Kelly said. "Who is going to take our place?" he said. "Every time I turn around and look, it's the old people stepping up. The NAACP has an opportunity to do a lot of great things. The question is are there people in this community willing to support them?"
Vermont deferred comment about the chapter's reorganization to state branch President Scot X. Esdaile, who declined to comment. National officials declined to comment as well.
But Vermont did acknowledge that elections to replace the existing board will be held in the near future. After the state branch's first reorganization meeting last Monday, those in attendance expressed excitement over the future of the local branch on Vermont's Facebook page.
"Look out Bpt NAACP is reorganizing and its going to be different around our town ... get involved!! I'm excited," posted member Wanda Simmons, who was at the state's reorganization meeting last Monday night.
The next reorganization meeting will be held May 28 at the Messiah Baptist Church on Congress Street in Bridgeport., 203-330-6321, or