Meetings of advisory neighborhood commission 5C are among the most scrupulously documented affairs in the city. Debbie Smith, a Ward 5 resident and former commissioner, has taken to filming the meetings in full from the back of the room, citing “crazy stuff that has been going on lately.” Edgewood resident Michael J. Henderson publishes PDF documents of laptop notes he takes at each monthly meeting. Commissioner Gigi Ransom now sits behind a tape recorder in order to preserve every comment exchanged between commissioners.
Ransom knows the importance of catching comments on the record. On June 5 [PDF], five of Ransom’s fellow commissioners voted to censure her [PDF] regarding a variety of charges—from attempting to order surplus government furniture for her home office to displaying “erratic outbursts and outlandish behavior.” The most incendiary charge, however, concerned an e-mail Ransom sent to fellow commissioner Barrie Daneker on May 6. The e-mail contained the following critique:
Please know, I really don’t appreciate a white man, especially one who is gay, who gained his civil rights on the back of slaves & those of color who fought in the civil rights movement trying to control me or devalue my efforts. I am not a slave.
The censuring of Ransom is only the latest ANC 5C spat to come from a commissioner’s use of speech. ANC 5C—which represents Bloomingdale, Edgewood, Eckington, and Pleasant Hills—-is distinguishing itself for generating never-before-contemplated issues of English usage and criminal law.
THE “POTENTIAL HATE CRIME”
In censuring Ransom, the ANC described her note as “racist and bigoted…possibly violating the Vice-Chairman’s civil and human rights; potentially committing hate crime.”
Acting Lt. Brett Parson, who heads up the D.C. Police Department’s Special Liaison Unit, discounts the possibility that Ransom’s note constituted any “threat” in violation of D.C. Code. “There’s no hate crime here,” he says. “It could—and I underline could—be construed as a hate-bias related incident, but it does not rise to the level of a criminal threat. This falls under freedom of speech. You’re allowed to hate whomever you want.”
In his reply, Daneker denounced Ransom’s e-mail as racist: “As for my civil rights, I am still waiting! How very dare you state that the civil rights of any group has been place on the backs of slaves and people of color, disgraceful!…I hope you find some happiness in your life and stop the hate and hurt that you apparently are feeling and spreading in our great city!”
Then, 5C Chairman Anita Bonds replied to the e-mail by dropping the possibility of a lawsuit against Ransom and adding: “Some say ‘we got you’ others say ‘we are going to get you.’”
Finally, the ANC made its words official. At that month’s ANC meeting, held on May 19, a coalition of commissioners came to get Ransom, distributing the “Resolution of Censuring and No Confidence Vote” and blindsiding Ransom with the allegations. If anything, the censuring of Ransom has only inspired more indecorous speech in the ANC 5C. The scene that erupted following the reading of the resolution was captured in Henderson’s monthly notes [PDF]:
Commissioner Ransom said you being white and gay means got your rights on the backs of slaves and there is nothing racist about that; I am a strong black woman and I don’t need anyone to validate me; I did not come back to serve to be subservient to anyone… Commissioner Ransom said she was told she could not read, and she was called the “B” word by Commissioner Day in a church.…Commissioner Ransom spoke at great length in defense of her integrity…the debate became rather heated; Debbie Smith stood up and began shouting loudly…at that point the meeting abruptly ended, at 9:50 p.m.
THE “MZ.” THING
Ransom’s upset about more than just Daneker’s free ride to civil rights. Another sticking point for Ransom was Daneker’s insistence on referring to Debbie Smith in correspondence as “Mz. Smith,” instead of the more traditional salutation “Ms.” Smith—the one with the video camera—has often popped up in official correspondence for her habit of raising neighborhood concerns with the body.
After fielding several e-mails from Daneker referring to Smith as “Mz,” Ransom asked Daneker to explain his strange usage in an e-mail: “Comm. Daneker, has there been an official change to the DC Manual of Styles in which now the correct way to address a female to whom we are communicating is ‘Mz.’, as opposed to ‘Ms.’?”
Daneker replied by providing an etiquette lesson courtesy of his Rhode Island prep school education. “[I]t is proper to use Mz. for a lady who’s the martial status is unknown, and who’s age appears to be more than 25 years old.… I was educated at the Wheeler School for my secondary education, and a whole course in etiquette was required. So I thank you for your question, and I hope you have found this information useful, you never know when you might need those skills.”
Ransom wasn’t buying it. “Daneker continued to address her as Mz.,” says Ransom. “Well, I’ve heard that term used by bloggers, rapper types like that, and sometimes it’s used for prostitutes, and we’ve seen it used in the gay community. But the real thing that bothered Deborah and me is that the term is used for a very popular animated character called Mz. Gorilla.”
Sarah Baak, the director of admissions for the Protocol School of Washington, a local authority on business etiquette, says she’s not familiar with Mz. in a business context. “The appropriate and most formal way to refer to a woman in the business world is by ‘Ms.,’” explains Baak. “I’ve never heard of Mz. It seems very informal.”
There is one context where “Mz.” is standard usage to refer to a woman, however—when she’s competing in a drag show alongside female impersonators. “Some organizations have a Miss, a Mr., and a Mz.,” Andre Hopfer, a veteran local drag performer, wrote in an e-mail. “They created the Mz. to differentiate between a real woman and a drag queen.”
Professing ignorance of the drag connection, Daneker says that he’s now stopped referring to Smith as “Mz..”
THE “B” WORD
In her response to the reading of the charges against her, Ransom noted that she’s not the only commissioner to have used incendiary language in the course of official business. Ransom claims that at one ANC meeting, “she was called the ‘B’ word by Commissioner Day in a church.”
Since ANC 5C meetings are often held in local houses of God, the church in question would have been operating in a civic capacity. Besides, nothing was caught on the record. “Yes, she did reference that in that meeting,” Commissioner Tim Day says. Day, who voted to censure Ransom for her comments against Daneker, issued the following nondenial to her accusation against him: “You know what—if there were any name-calling during any meeting, no one can validate that there was name-calling. This is just a desperate attempt to lash out at anyone she possibly could have.”
Debbie Smith, too, has repeatedly complained about commissioners’ use of “the ‘B’ word.” At the beginning of most 5C meetings, Smith uses the open “community comment” period to complain that Commissioner Marshall Phillips used the term to describe her more than five years ago. At the most recent ANC meeting, Smith claimed that Phillips had never been held accountable for calling her a “dirty black whatever”—in 2004.
Phillips denounced Smith’s dated accusation with a rumination on the word bitch.
“I have never called Ms. Smith the bitch word,” says Phillips. “I haven’t had any need. I might have thought that—that she was becoming difficult—but I know that she’s a human being, and a bitch is a female dog. Now, some people have used that word to stand as a hard task to communicate with. The Golden Girls used to use it on the TV, and The View uses the words as ‘The Bitch,’ almost now like it’s a diva. And I would never give Ms. Smith the credit to call her a diva.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery