As our country tries desperately to wade out of its centuries-old morass of brutal racism into meaningful steps toward a future of “we” and not so much “us” and “them,” almost every discussion about where we are and where we need to be can be relevant and useful.
At least that’s what should be the case. Too often, as we recognize almost hourly, what’s said forms verbal lances heaved in anger and pain rather than bouquets of grace, understanding and acceptance that are delivered with care and humility.
We find it particularly disdainful when such oral assaults involve people of influence, such as a business owner well known in a community or, worse, someone elected to serve and lead. There’s nothing productive about such people calling each other “racist” and doing so in that most public of forums – the gale-force megaphone of social media.
But that’s what we have had here in Martinsville with business owner Ray Reynolds, a lifelong white resident of Henry County well known for his photography, and Martinsville City Council member Jennifer Bowles, a pathfinder for young, African-American women aspiring to lead us toward a more balanced future.
Their private telephone conversation about their views of race and each other has become a very public row, erupting on social media with words that were both hideously ugly and horribly divisive, serving no purpose to advance our conversation and more likely to stymie it.
Many lined up salvos of support, and into this war of words waded Martinsville City Attorney Eric Monday, who decided he should spend the public’s time, the public’s money and the public’s power to defend a public figure, Ms. Bowles, in really what is a private disagreement with a citizen.
Mr. Monday wrote a letter to Mr. Reynolds to “demand that you cease and desist from your defamatory and malicious attacks upon the reputation of Council Member Jennifer Bowles.”
Mr. Monday threatened not only to bring the city’s legal power to bear against Mr. Reynolds, but he also through some circuitous logic suggested he would have Mr. Reynolds’ arrested and jailed.
Mr. Monday, who has that built-in-conflict-of-interest role of also being assistant city manager, was moved to action, not endorsed by the City Council in any forum we’ve witnessed, because, he said, he thinks a member of the City Council is being attacked.
To be sure, the words allegedly spoken in a private telephone conversation, to which both Mr. Reynolds and Ms. Bowles claim witnesses, were outrageous, sad and divisive.
Mr. Reynolds says he has been labeled a racist because he has a deep and abiding loyalty to President Trump, whose actions and perspectives have proven to be magnets for some who represent racist organizations and those who abhor them. Mr. Reynolds has attended dozens of rallies, including last week in Tulsa, Okla., and sometimes has served as an official photographer. He is not shy about his loyalty or his reach into the Trump campaign.
Ms. Bowles is proud to be known as the youngest person to be elected to City Council. She runs a non-profit that mentors young women. She is seen as a leader, a voice to be followed, and she doesn’t abide the same political views as the president – or Mr. Reynolds.
Following their phone conversation, Mr. Reynolds posted a lengthy video to social media decrying being called a racist and attacking Ms. Bowles, who has said that what Reynolds said in the video was “false and untrue” and that “other statements made in private messages that I’ve seen are also untrue and false.”
Sadly this stuff between citizens and politicians happens every day, but we wonder where in this process the rights of the citizens of Martinsville were impugned in a manner that allowed Mr. Monday to enter the fray?
Actually we do know: nowhere.
Mr. Reynolds took down his video, and no one said anything at the council’s meeting this past week about any of this.
Mr. Monday’s efforts here are not only unproductive and unethical but also, dare we say, illegal, as at least one expert has suggested. He needs to shred his letter and back off. This isn’t the city’s business, and the citizens of Martinsville don’t need him to argue that it is.
In this case, this is about “them” and not about “us.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version stated incorrectly that Jennifer Bowles was the first African-American woman elected to Martinsville City Council. Sharon Brooks Hodge holds that distinction.
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