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The Jan. 6 meeting of the Shaw neighborhood’s East Capital Civic Association (ECCA) started just like any boring community meeting. The 25 to 30 members heard a detailed treasurer’s report on Shawfest, the annual street festival ECCA sponsors. Then members heard a report from the police and a presentation by a representative of the new downtown convention center. But when it came time to elect a new association president, the group veered away from its protocol and into a racial quagmire.
The contest for ECCA president pitted a black candidate against a white oneECCA members admitted that the vote raised tensions in the meeting room. Some feared that the tally would divide cleanly along racial lines among those in attendancea crowd 60 percent black and 40 percent white and Asian. But the fears proved unfounded: Tom Briggs, a white computer consultant, prevailed by one vote. His opponent, Eloise Wahab, was then elected vice president. “In the end everybody clapped and cheered. To me it was a wonderful atmosphere for an organization that doesn’t always have its act together,” says ECCA activist Randy Wells.
But that’s not quite where it ended, according to Wells and others at the meeting.
After initially proclaiming that “democracy has triumphed,” local activist and advisory neighborhood commissioner Leroy Thorpe reportedly spoke out against black ECCA members for not voting for their own. According to one witness, Thorpe’s comment prompted many of the white ECCA members to pick up their coats and bolt from the meeting. To silence Thorpe, the association hastily approved a motion for adjournment. The remaining ECCA members then tried to form a prayer circle, a common ritual at the end of association meetings.
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Thorpe reportedly joined the circle and called his black peers “Uncle Toms” and “house niggers,” according to Wells. When the group broke up, Thorpe reportedly followed several ECCA members down the street, screaming obscenities at them, according to another ECCA member.
Wells was the only ECCA member to speak on the record about Thorpe’s outburst. One woman, a longtime Shaw resident and local activist, said she fears on-the-record comments would trigger reprisals from Thorpe. “He really is a threat to me,” she says. “He called me a ‘house bitch.’ It’s the second time he’s done it. He hollered it down the street!”
Fears among ECCA members over clashing with Thorpe are by no means irrational. After all, Thorpe was convicted last spring for assaulting Darryl Moment, another community activist, at Shaw’s Kennedy Playground. Moment came away from the encounter with a broken ankle and a bruised head.
“[Thorpe] goes after black people who are working hard and who are working hard to make this community a better place,” Wells says.
Nor do ECCA members understand why Thorpe, who they say rarely attends their meetings, decided to hammer them. “We’re just this dipshit little group!” says an ECCA member. “Maybe…[it’s] because he sees ECCA as becoming more effective and successful, and that’s a threat to his power,” says another member.
Thorpe said that the allegations from ECCA members were “petty, trivial, and divisive.” When asked for his version of events at the meeting, Thorpe offered a 45-minute monologue on gentrification, community divisions caused by ECCA, and those who “are always trying to tear down strong black men.” In his defense, Thorpe noted that his support in Shaw is already well documented: He is now serving his fifth term on the ANC, and won his last election with 70 percent of the vote. He is also the founder of Shaw’s red-hat patrol, a group that patrols neighborhood streets to deter crime.
His community credentials notwithstanding, Thorpe is not welcome at ECCA meetings. Some members are now discussing how to respond to Thorpe’s tirade. “I do plan to seek some type of redress,” says one member. There has been vague talk of a lawsuit against Thorpe, although it’s hard to punish a man for exercising his First Amendment rights. The most effective means of redress may be to do nothing. “I’m trying to put us together as a community,” says ECCA treasurer Lillian Gordon. “There’s a lot of decency in the community, and I’m sure things will work their way out.”Kathy Jones