Bring on the noise

Why the hecklers heckle, and why Bill Keever's gotta go now

Let's be fair. The man can't help it that he sounds like a yapping Chihuahua when he's angry.

After all, if you'd been charged with keeping order in the mighty dysfunctional world of DISD board meetings, you, too, might find yourself letting loose a few high-pitched canine squeals of aggravation from time to time.

"Clear the aisles and please be seated--now!" Keever squeaked indignantly during the February 11 meeting at H. Grady Spruce High School.

Needless to say, this condescension doesn't sit well with the men and women who've come to register their protests of "business as usual" in the DISD, however undecorous those protests may be.

The problem is compounded when the white board president then makes the most unfortunate faux pas of calling a black citizen who's just delivered a three-minute address to the board "Ms. Gilliam," which prompts him to stumble over himself in Boy Scout apologies. (Believe me, DISD teacher's aide Johnnie Jackson looks nothing like the black trustee in question.)

This ineptitude--so often perceived by blacks as intentional disrespect--was precisely what some of the district's noisiest hecklers and haranguers cited when I tracked them down away from the fray, hoping to get an answer to perhaps the biggest question of the year: Why do these people persist in their profane and irksome antics week after week after week?

Whether you accept Keever's clumsiness as an excuse for all of the crazy stuff that's gone down at recent board meetings is another matter; I don't. But I also have an aversion to cussing--particularly the sort that's aimed viciously at another human being. That's called verbal abuse, and it's deployed without pause by John Wiley Price and Co. at DISD.

What I saw, though, after sitting through an interminable board meeting last month and reviewing tapes of others, is that Keever and his hecklers feed off of each other. The hecklers start their silliness, and the board president's peevish attempts to stop them only fuel their indignation and outrage, because Keever can't seem to do it without sounding patronizing.

While the DISD trustees, on February 14, unanimously adopted policy changes designed to curb the excesses of protesters--allowing Keever to ban repeat violators from board meetings for 30 days--the truth is that we could stand to lose both Keever and the hecklers. Like, yesterday.

That was the conclusion I reached after spending some eight or nine hours talking to three of the district's citizen hecklers, the people who work so hard to keep the 10 o'clock news interesting.

I found that Keever is a walking insult to them, an offense that cannot be corrected. Though there's a good argument that any white man in his position would provoke a similar response, you'd have to watch Keever in action to gauge the depths of his cultural obtuseness.

One thing is clear. As long as Keever and the hecklers are free to do their thing, the board's embarrassing stalemate will surely continue.

So go ahead, toss the hecklers.
But Keever's gotta go, too.

"You lying witch!"
Gregory L. Beasley pulled out a tattered gray scrapbook that documented the significance of his 35 years on this planet. The cover was adorned not with his baby picture, but a John Wiley Price bumper sticker: "We support our man downtown." Inside were blurry snapshots of public protests, a church flier titled "The Nigger Christians!" and newspaper clippings detailing the exploits of Price, New Black Panthers leader Aaron Michaels, and other public provocateurs.

Beasley appeared in the fuzzy background of some of the photos, as he duly pointed out.

There were also articles documenting some of the ill deeds done to black people in Dallas--police shootings and the like. "Those are just some of the things that takes place in this city that makes black Dallas frustrated," Beasley said softly.

This day, as we talked in the kiddie section of South Dallas' public library, Beasley bore no resemblance to the agitated man who scurried about the DISD board room on January 23, viciously heckling Keever and Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez.

He was kind; he made an effort to understand. He talked about his two teenage sons, who live with his ex-wife and attend DISD schools, and spoke plainly about his own failure to finish high school.

"America don't hear us," Beasley said. "I believe in my heart--and I know in my mind--that there are non-black people who care about what's going on, but those are very far and few, and they're not speaking out."

The reason for the heckling, he said, "is to stop business as usual--because it's apparent how hard they've worked to exclude African-American people in the process. They're doing a yeoman job of cutting 'em out of committees. As long as that goes on, they're not gonna have any peace. There won't be any meetings conducted until they get it right."

(Beasley was referring to the Dallas Observer's January cover story, "'It's all a matter of power,'" which reported allegations that previous DISD board president Sandy Kress and former trustee Dan Peavy had attempted to rig committees in order to limit the influence of black board members.)

"But why the cursing?" I asked. Beasley squirmed in his plastic seat, and looked away. He was embarrassed. He'd been brought up Baptist, like I was.

I reminded him that he'd called a Hispanic DISD employee a "lying bitch" at the January 23 board meeting after she was assaulted by a New Black Panther in the hallway, claiming he touched her breasts. Beasley didn't even witness the entire incident, but got in the woman's face afterward and harangued her publicly.

"I said 'lying witch,'" Beasley protested rather feebly.
Hmmm...the victim and at least one witness heard the word "bitch." But even if Beasley's account is true, big dif--as my big sister always said to me.

"You got this lack of respect going on with these people," Beasley went on to say, referring to the white trustees, particularly Keever. "This city should be glad black people are acting the way they are--'cause it could be on another level. They act like they want a body count.

"Racism should cost everyone," he added. "If it costs you some money, maybe even some bloodshed, maybe then you'll listen."

Later on, Beasley took me on a mini-tour of black Dallas. We drove through the State-Thomas area and examined some particularly hideous apartment complexes in South Dallas.

Beasley pointed out each sight, each evidence of seeming injustice, with a word or two of protest--all mixed together with his running commentary on racial problems in DISD. At one point he hastened to add, "All whites are not bad--all white people are not out to get us."

Greg Beasley seemed confused. He was full of grievances, but didn't quite know what to do with them. His scrapbook bustled with words and images, each one chafing some tender part of his soul. Yet together they were a jumble.

He was grasping for significance, to rise to a place where he could make a difference--any difference, as long as someone noticed, and as long as someone cared.

"You know, I am ill. I have the flu. And you guys must know, you have to stop trying to treat us like children."

T.L. Youngblood acted as Kathlyn Gilliam's enforcer at the January 23 board meeting. She tried to kick me out of the DISD board room during a recess, employing various specious arguments about why I had to leave. Ms. Gilliam had wanted to address "her" people, and, apparently because of my skin color, I wasn't one of them.

Youngblood chuckled to herself when things got really nasty that day. She showed up again at the February 11 meeting, delivering a long account of racial slights allegedly suffered by her and other black DISD activists.

"Just as our forefathers stood steadfast in the face of bigotry, racism, and injustice...so do we," she said that day. "We shall not be moved."

I caught up with 58-year-old Thelma Lucille Youngblood last week at her well-kept home near the Cedar Crest golf course. I knocked, but she wasn't in the mood to talk. "Nothing personal," she said. "I have no respect for the Observer because of Laura Miller...they do use her articles, and 90 percent of those that I've seen are very disgusting."

Then she shut the door.

"I want my tax dollar...don't touch my wheelchair, or I'll own ya."
"There's two of me," Earnestine Taylor told me from her bed in the Bryan Manor nursing home. "There's the Martin Luther King Jr. in me, and there's the Malcolm."

No doubt about which one I saw at the last January board meeting--when Taylor, 53, addressed a board member by the stately moniker "asshole" and, at one point, appeared to be using her wheelchair as a battering ram after she was refused re-entry into the 50-seat DISD board room.

Taylor found a way to get her point across that afternoon, by any means necessary. That meant bellowing "I want my damn tax dollar!" at various inappropriate intervals--which, I may add, is a tad insincere, seeing as Taylor doesn't pay any property taxes.

While we're on the subject of small hypocrisies, may it also be known that Ms. Taylor has no children, and didn't even bother to vote in the last school board election, according to county records.

But the Earnestine Taylor I tracked down to her spartan room at Bryan Manor was clearly in MLK Jr. mode. She offered me the only seat available--her manual wheelchair, patched with duct tape. "That hurt your feelings, didn't it?" she asked, referring to Youngblood's attempts to boot me out of the board room.

Well yeah, maybe, if I'd really 'fess up, which I didn't just then. No one enjoys being the target of prejudice, and unfortunately, many black Americans embrace the deception that they cannot be bigots because they're the oppressed. Not so.

And that's ultimately what left me disturbed after the four-hour conversation I had with Earnestine Taylor--which was conducted while her very elderly roommate shuffled back and forth within a six-foot space, repeatedly bumping into me with her walker.

I just can't buy this two-of-me stuff that so many of the protesters espouse. In my mind, you either walk in love and forgiveness, or you walk in hatred. You either curse people, or you bless them. Love and hatred cannot coexist, and Martin can't abide Malcolm. Bigotry and prejudice are always evil--whether they come from the oppressed or the oppressor.

If there's two of you, well, one's a fraud.
Taylor, however, presented a most eloquent apologetic for the Malcolm in her.

"I love you," Taylor said, "but I don't love you enough to let you walk on me. And I'm not gonna walk on you. But if you walk on me, I'm gonna come at you, and I'm not gonna stop.

"I understand your people," she added. "Bill Keever is a hogger like everyone else. He wants prestige. Bill Keever only believe in one thing--his laws."

Taylor is one of the more candid individuals I've met, and it was obvious she didn't give a hoot about what people think of her. After graciously asking my permission, she stuck a plug of tobacco in her cheek and regularly spat into a glass jar, even as our conversation veered off into a long discussion of theology.

And, believe it or not, theology plays a role here.
Black Americans are, by and large, people who reverence the Word of God. Their cultural reference point was, and remains, the Bible.

But an enormous shift in thinking has occurred in the last three decades among many blacks who identify themselves as Christians, and Taylor exemplifies it. The Jesus she prefers, by far, is the man who grabbed a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple, upending tables, flinging their filthy shekels onto the floor. Extend that attitude to today's racial politics, and the implication is obvious. People use it to justify the commingling of love and violence.

It doesn't matter that the Jesus who appears in just about every other passage of the New Testament preaches humility and expounds on the law of love.

Time out for that mushy stuff, Taylor said. These are the Nineties, and this is Malcolm's world. She should know--Taylor said she spent 10 years with JFK's War on Poverty. She also organized social programs in the South for both blacks and whites during the King era.

"Martin Luther King Jr. was totally nonviolent. But when they was throwing eggs and stuff, Sister Girl was jumping up and down," she recalled. "The Bible says the meek will inherit the earth. But do you really want the earth? Jesus Christ was only meek when it was necessary. I'm not gonna come out and start something, but if you don't want peace, so be it."

From there, Taylor shifted, without apology or pity, to talk of race wars.
"You rest assured--it could blow bad," Taylor said. "There's chaos now, and it's gonna get worse, because the Word [of God] said it. How can it not get worse?"

When that time comes, I said half-jokingly, I guess I'll be praying for the resurrection of Martin.

Fat chance of that, Taylor said.
"Some of your people ain't did nothing--some of them been nice," she said. "But at the same time, they refuse to come forward and say what's not right."

As I got up to leave, Taylor pulled a transistor radio into her lap and tuned in to Talk Back--the John Wiley Price show, already in progress.

When I drove home in the rain last week from Bryan Manor, my thoughts turned again to the hecklers' nemesis, poor Bill Keever.

Be a man, I thought. Step aside--right now. Know when you're not wanted, know when you've ceased to be an asset. Sure, it isn't fair. In the face of extraordinary opposition, you gave your time selflessly. Well, kind of. We know you had greater political aspirations, but pity you because they've so obviously taken several giant steps backward.

Clearly, Keever wants to stick it out till May, when his term as board president comes to its scheduled close--he wants to show those hooligans that they can't run him out of office. He wants to be the suffering antihero, proving how he's got it under control after all.

But any efforts to prove a point, at this juncture, are counterproductive for the entire district--and that goes for the hecklers, too.

The unfortunate truth is that Mr. Keever is inept, culturally and otherwise. It's something the misguided white folks from North Dallas who've begged him to reconsider resigning don't understand, perhaps because they haven't seen him in action, or don't pick up on his ethnic miscues.

Keever is no bigot, however; neither was Sandy Kress. Bigotry is an act of the will, and Keever's problem goes deep into the subconscious. From my limited observations, he seems to personify something white people never like to talk about, let alone acknowledge: that feeling of personal superiority that virtually all white Americans have received as their dubious cultural inheritance. You know he sits there thinking that if he departs, the children will play and ultimately tear down the playhouse.

It is a sensibility that chafes unbearably against something black people never like to talk about, and that this batch of protesters would never acknowledge: the false, ingrained suspicions of inferiority that are their cultural inheritance.

These respective diseases of the soul, of course, will not be affected by the changing of board presidents.

But there's one thing for sure about Keever's tormentors--the hecklers and protesters who've disrupted so many board meetings. They do what they do not only out of frustration, but because they can get away with it. They know that when they play their little games of provocation, Keever almost always takes the bait. The media, in turn, are only too happy to broadcast every bit of DISD's street theater.

That's entertainment, I guess, but it's also tragedy in the making.
So all you hecklers, stay home. Pull the curtains on this embarrassing sideshow.

And Keever, give it a rest. The white man's world won't fall apart without you.

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