"Raising Hell Till Heaven Comes": At Sunday's Fund-Raising Rally For John Wiley Price

Yesterday's "Justice for John" event at the St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church was all kinds of things: a rally in support of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who entered to chants of "John! John! John!" before taking his seat near the back; a fund-raiser for his legal defense that raised upwards of $10,000; an impromptu drum jam and a concert featuring one of the most wondrous glory-hallelujah choirs in town; a history lesson of black oppression from slavery to the birth of 14-1 at Dallas City Hall; and a recitation of every conspiracy theory ever to involve the federal government, save for Who Killed JFK.

Among those mentioned: Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, COINTELPRO, Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Louis Farrakhan, Wen Ho Lee, Al Lipscomb, J. Edgar Hoover, the KGB, Fruhmenschen, Harold Ford Sr., Elsie Faye Heggins, Santos Rodríguez, Roy Orr, Robert Kennedy, Casey Anthony, John F. Street, Anthony Weiner, Coretta Scott King, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Walker Consent Decree, Tasby v Estes. Among the songs performed: The O'Jays "For The Love Of Money," its thumping bass line providing the sound track to a cash-collecting effort led by the bold-faced names in attendance.

The pulpit was packed with the familiar (Rev. Zan Holmes, former council member Diane Ragsdale, activist John Fullinwider, Dallas NAACP President Dr. Juanita Wallace) and the famous (Georgetown professor and author Michael Eric Dyson). Out in the audience sat other local leaders: council member Carolyn Davis (who held a basket to collect checks), Dallas Independent School District trustee Bernadette Nutall (who donated $100 to the cause), Dallas Urban League CEO Beverly Mitchell Brooks (who gave $250), former council member Leo Chaney and thousand-dollar donor Dr. Frederick Haynes of Friendship-West among them. Council member Vonciel Jones Hill sent her apologies for being out of town, but wanted Price to know she "stood with you, by you and for you."

Pastors offered their prayers for the man under investigation by the FBI. New Beginnings' Pastor Rodney Frazier opened by thanking God "for his life, for his legacy, for his loyalty." Holmes opened his remarks by saying, "I thank God for him." Tyrone D. Gordon, senior pastor at St. Luke, quoted 1 Kings 18:17 and then reworked it just a bit: He looked at Price and smiled at him -- "you troubler of Dallas." Said Gordon, to loud applause and thunderous amens, "We're here to support the troublemaker."

Gordon, serving as emcee, promised a "hell-raising rally ... we're gonna raise hell till heaven comes." And he did not disappoint: The Justice for John event was a spiritual spectacle drenched in politics and populated by 1,000 faithful followers who believe Price is being targeted by the FBI for one simple reason: He's a powerful black man who "is not afraid to speak for us," as Dr. Ouida Lee put it. Price, she said, "is a vocal challenger of the status quo," and just one more "civil rights leader picked out and picked on."

Such was the theme of the afternoon that sunset into evening: Price is no longer just Our Man Downtown, but Our Martyr Downtown too -- a man once again pronounced guilty before he's even been indicted.

"If you're going to investigate him," said Holmes, "investigate the good he's done. You can't narrow his life down to one investigation. ... He's not perfect. None of us is perfect. The FBI's not perfect." The crowd roared. "The criminal justice system's not perfect." Holmes them mentioned DNA exonerees freed from prison after decades behind bars, serving time for crimes they did not commit.

"Dallas is not perfect," he said. "But John Wiley Price's cause is perfect. ... [And] I'm not gonna let any jive investigation throw me off course."

Ragsdale opened her remarks thusly: "Good afternoon to the members of the FBI." She then ran through a quick history lesson -- from 3/5 to 14-1. "This is not the first time the FBI has attempted to destroy our leadership and our political base, and this won't be the last," she said. "The enemy has organized a concerted effort to victimize and harass our leaders and weaken our power by drumming our leaders out of the office. The tables have turned, and it's so obvious."

At which point Ragsdale mentioned something underscored on the slick, thick handout given to attendees -- Point No. 2, matter of fact, which says that Price "increased Dallas County resources going into the Black and Latino communities since 1984 from only $50,000 to over $350,000,000 in 2010, thus 'bringing home the bacon' to our people." Again and again speakers would return to the point: that Price's election 27 years ago meant spreading the wealth from the north to, finally, the south.

"John Wiley Price," said Ragsdale, "is a victim of an aggressive assault. Power to the people."

Fullinwider insisted that the FBI investigation stems from the Dallas Citizens Council's losing its grip on politics and power with the election of Elsie Faye Heggins to the Dallas City Council in 1980, then Price's election to the commissioners court in '84. No longer would Dallas's "top white businessmen [tell] everyone what to do," and "when you scare a bunch of white people and take their contracts, they don't say, 'Thank you.'" He then proffered a history of FBI investigations that proved fruitless, harmful -- from MLK to Wen Ho Lee to peace activists targeted as terrorists before and shortly after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. And he cautioned that investigations like this one only serve to "deepen racial division in our city."

Dyson, the Georgetown prof familiar to viewers of Meet the Press and Bill Maher's HBO show, said no one paid him to attend; he flew in all on his lonesome to support his friend, "this giant of a figure" being persecuted by the FBI -- which, he said, has come to mean "For Brothers to be Indicted, I'm not sure." Said Dyson, "He may be your man downtown, but he's my man everywhere." And it was Dyson who led the money-collecting, exhorting the audience to "dig deep in your pocketbook like you're trying to buy some stuff you want. The good stuff -- food, hair, make-up, perfume."

Dyson was unapologetic in his support for Price, insisting that even "if they caught him on tape with his hand in a jar, rewound it and put it out on DVD, I'd be right there." Not that he supports the law-breaker, he said, but because he doesn't trust the law-enforcer. "I will never abandon a friend no matter what the circumstance is." At the very least, he exhorted, Price should at least be afforded the presumption of innocence till the feds make their case. But, he said, so far this has been nothing short of "judicial pornography," a tale half-told through incomplete media accounts filled with the contents of search warrants that, as of yet, don't add up to anything other than conjecture and speculation.

"And I don't believe in premature emasculation," he said to deafening cheers. "When we look at the history of assault on our leadership, we know that articulate, intelligent, flamboyant, visible, good-looking, nice car-driving, nice suit-wearing Negroes cause a problem." And he suggested that perhaps the feds were going after Price for one simple reason: He's good with the ladies. "Psycho-sexual jealousy is the reason for castration -- to cut off black potency at its root. Because if they can control the black phallus ..."

He explained away the money allegedly found in Price's safe (after the economic collapse, he said, "you'd keep money in your safe") and the cars in his garage ("Goddammit, can't I look good while I'm doing well?"), spoke of his cornrows as proof a powerful man can connect to the "most degraded, most vulnerable  members of our community") and even mentioned Price's beefcake calendar of a decade ago. Dyson got laughs, but always returned to his message, which was, boiled down, this:

"Today him, tomorrow us, because he is us. He's our symbol. He's our commissioner. I love this man [who's] under assault by a government agency whose record is not spotless when it comes to people like us. Pray for him on your knees. And open your pocketbooks."

Jeffery Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said Price, like Farrakhan, was being targeted for being a "powerful black man"; Vincent Hall, Price's office manager and the organizer of the event, suggested a boycott of the Dallas Morning News for its unheard-of request for readers to "Help us cover the FBI's John Wiley Price investigation"; and Wattley insisted that attorneys aren't getting rich representing John Wiley Price."

Price stayed till the very end, heading out only briefly -- to thank those wandering the hallways who'd just donated to his defense fund, to hug and handshake his supporters. But otherwise he remained silent. No need to speak up when others are willing to do it for you.

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