Among the questions thrown at him during a fleeting melee that passed for an impromptu press conference was this one: Had he actually read the proposed Metro charter that he had just denounced as a threat to the rights of The People?
“I’ve read it, I’ve studied it, and I’m definitely disappointed with it,” was Sharpton’s answer. (Take that one or leave it, and, okay, the same question might fairly be asked of FedEx founder Fred Smith and other prominent supporters of the charter.)
The extent to which the Rev. Sharpton, head of an organization called the National Action Network, was fully conversant with local issues might have been tipped by his answer to another question: How did he regard the recently filed federal lawsuit, evoking Dr. Martin Luther King as he had done and based on the same civil rights assumptions that he had just invoked against the charter, that had put the results of the November 2 vote in legal limbo?
“Again, I have serious questions about what happened on August 5,” Sharpton answered, confusing litigation aimed at the state law mandating separate city/county tallies of consolidation votes with the recently dismissed Chancery lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of this summer’s county election. Significant numbers of inner-city African-American Democrats had conflated their suspicion of the August election outcome with their opposition to consolidation, and, in his remarks, Sharpton, too, had linked the two cicumstances as instances of "co-option".
(That particular neologism figured prominently in Sharpton's speech. A central tenet of his opposition on behalf of inner-city Memphis had to do with the fact that the city would surrender its charter, while the surrounding munipalities would not be required to. “If you're the only one putting up your charter, then that's not consolidation, that’s co-option.”)
What did Sharpton make of the fact that consolidation had drawn passionate opposition from white suburbanites as well as black city dwellers? “Well, sometimes there are unusual alliances. People get to the same place for different reasons. I think that’s all the more reason why this should be defeated, because you have people from different perspectives that agree with the same conclusions.”
In the case of consolidation, of course, those “different perspectives” are akin to those featured by Poe in the famous story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which bystanders, on the basis of some overheard shrieks, all describe the perpetrator (who turns out to be an out-of-control orangutan) as belonging to some human faction other than themselves.
Similarly, suburban opponents of consolidation see it as a scheme emanating from the inner city, while residents of the urban core, newly up in arms against the referendum, denounce it as a plot to disenfranchise Memphis for the benefit of the outer municipalities. Not quite “the same conclusions.” What these attitudes have in common is a vision of lost local sovereignty, a dread of surrendering political control to a larger collective.
And, indeed, the frustrated protests from consolidation supporters that the proposed charter hasn’t really been read, or understood, or given a fair shake are irrelevant to this kind of visceral reaction. Logical arguments about the governmental and economic improvements to be had from consolidation get nowhere. Increasingly, opponents of all kinds are saying it’s spinach, and they’re saying the hell with it. And the feeling — for that is what it is — is contagious.
Take Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, for instance, who was cited to the crowd by Greg Grant, local president of the National Action Network and one of the impresarios Thursday. (Another was local AFSCME president Warren Cole.)
Harvey, a black Democrat, was described by Grant as one who had taken the initiative on the commission in opposing consolidation. In actual fact, as the commissioner acknowledged afterward, he had not even been a co-sponsor of a recent commission resolution opposing the referendum. The measure had emanated from white Republican suburbanites like Terry Roland and Wyatt Bunker. Harvey, who famously (and perhaps uniquely) makes up his mind about issues after listening to debates, had in fact decided to support the resolution only as the vote was being taken.
(One of the ironies of the county body’s vote was that the commission, along with the Memphis City Council, had voted to endow the Metro Charter Commission in the first place.)
Anyhow, there Harvey was, after the event Thursday, giving a confidently assertive press interview in which he both conceded, as Sharpton had done, that people of radically disparate views opposed the Charter and maintained that the Charter was “biased.”
Consider, as Grant did, some of the organizations that have taken formal positions against passage of the Charter: the NAACP, the County Commission, the Shelby County Democratic Party, local labor groups. “Civil rights and labor on one side, big business on the other. What else do you need to know?” Sharpton had asked rhetorically.
What else? Well, maybe that a phalanx of conservative ad hoc organizations, along with the mayors and governing bodies of the suburban municipalities, could be lumped together as Charter opponents, as well, and they, too, could cite “business interests” as the requisite foils. The self-professed populists of the Right and the Left are together on this one.
A reporter was asked by one of the attendees: Had this event on Thursday been the “funeral” of this latest effort to consolidate city and county governments? Nope, was the answer; this had been just a memorial service. The consolidation effort was long dead. In fact, it was stillborn. Al Sharpton is not the only one who can profess to be “deeply disappointed.”
So, too, though for opposite reasons, are the proponents of consolidation, who continue to believe it is in the best interest of the whole community, and will, it is rumored, try again in a couple of years in the almost certain event of a defeat next Tuesday.