Last week, after City Council President J.P. Morrell and I had a well-publicized squabble while on the dais during a meeting, I sent a note to my friends, apologizing for my outburst while defending myself.
It’s not how I conduct myself.
I still contend that the entire disagreement was unnecessary, since I asked for – and was denied – a “point of personal privilege,” a right of mine according to Robert’s Rules of Order, the standard for how meetings should be run. As I looked inside myself, I also realized that the tension with our council president had accumulated over time, as I watched him repeatedly treat people in ways that felt disrespectful to me.
Yet after the disagreement, I felt bad. Even if I believe that I’m right, I never feel good about any level of aggression with someone. Nobody can make me feel worse than I feel about getting angry with someone else or engaging in a manner that is not civil.
Still, I have to confess that the council president’s remark, “I’m sorry – I wasn’t raised that way,” struck home with me.
Because my mom, Mignonette Egana Thomas, emphasized kindness and common courtesies in our household. We had to tell everyone “Good night” and “Good morning.” For my siblings and I, our job coming up was to carry the groceries in for the elders next to us on Andry Street, to pick up the trash in front of their door and cut their grass, free of charge.
Then Scoot, the WWL radio host, took it to another level, calling me “an ex-con” who had displayed a “thug mentality.”
That showed me that, despite me serving my time and being very public about my mistakes, the stereotype still exists. And for people who want to jump to stereotypes, there’s a fine line between us defending ourselves or, or even just having a moment of disagreement, and us being called thugs and convicts.
Certainly, I don’t come from the city’s elite Creole political community. But I was raised pretty good. I had great parents and a great family and a great community. I grew up in Lower 9th Ward, to parents who worked hard all their lives and taught us the value of hard work and civility.
My dad, Oliver Thomas, Sr., was a laborer on the river who lost half of his foot in an accident, where a crane’s cable broke, catching his foot. His disability was cut short by a white doctor who told him, “You’re a big man. You need to be working.” So my dad worked on half a foot for the rest of his life.
I attended Alfred Lawless school in the Lower 9, graduated from Joseph S. Clark High School, and made my way to College of Santa Fe with a basketball scholarship. I’ve finished the leadership program at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, the Aspen Institute’s program for executives and the Loyola Institute of Politics. I’ve traveled the world.
So I guess I’m kind of a refined thug, if I gotta be a thug.
But we have all seen how stereotypes can be harmful, even deadly. Look at George Floyd at the corner grocery or Trayvon Martin walking home with his Skittles and his hoodie. We’ve even heard it at our level of governance, when Nury Martinez, the then-president of the Los Angeles City Council was caught on tape comparing a colleague’s Black son to a monkey. And that happened only last year.
Where does this stop for us? Especially for black men, you know? Why do I have to be a thug because I got mad? Am I considered a convict forever because I did some time?
I remember how my cousin, civil rights fighter Jerome Smith, told me about how he walked up to the bus station in Macomb one morning and, as he leaned over to get a New York Times from a newspaper box there, made eye contact with a white guy who was standing nearby. He said, “Good morning” to the man. Mind you, this was at the height of civil rights struggles against blatant racism, segregation and Jim Crow.
Later, when Jerome was getting beaten with brass knuckles, in a way that fractured his skull, that man did not participate. He felt like that was because of their moment of humanity earlier that day.
Sometimes it feels like people won’t even give each other that moment now. It’s like Washington, D.C.-style politics and national party-style politics have worked their way down to the common man and woman.
I’m going to take this moment to remind myself to remember each person’s humanity, even as we work within the machinery of politics and political ambitions. I will defend myself when treated unfairly, let’s be clear. But I need to remember Jerome’s call to common courtesy and remember to conduct myself with dignity, with more tolerance, more respect.
Because I cannot ask people to be peaceful and have a short fuse. We can’t as leaders, tell the kids put the guns down when we can’t put down our harsh and disrespectful words.
Oliver Thomas served on the New Orleans City Council from 1994 to 2007. In 2021, he was again elected, the Councilmember representing Section E.
This piece has been updated to reflect that while Thomas attended Lawless, he graduated as a Bulldog, from Joseph S. Clark.