GREENSBORO — Mayor Nancy Vaughan has made an emphatic statement to Greensboro's protesters: "I hear you."

Now comes the hard part, colleagues, adversaries and activists say: Listening and acting.

Vaughan released her statement early Sunday morning, just hours before about 2,500 people took to streets around the city in the eighth day of protests over police brutality and the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, who died at the hands of police officers there two weeks ago.

Photos: Protest on Wendover Avenue

The mayor promised in her 17-paragraph written statement to take actions that include reviewing police policies, engaging the community, making a report in 90 days and "implement substantive reform."

"Critical conversations are underway in City government and in the Police Department," she wrote. "We are exploring substantive changes in policies and procedures based on discussions within and led by our community. The City Council and I want to build on progress made in past years and quickly begin new initiatives."

In the past year, the City Council has enacted the Cure Violence initiative in two neighborhoods to reduce violent crime and paid for mental health professionals to respond to certain 911 calls.

But Marcus Hyde, a founder of the Homeless Union of Greensboro and a persistent critic of police and the City Council, said Vaughan's statement is "another example of rhetoric without action."

"The question I want to ask everyone with that stance is, how do you think these protests end?" Hyde said.

Greensboro's protesters have more on their minds than George Floyd, Hyde said. Decades of police misconduct have built Greensboro's protest movement, he said, including the 2018 death of Marcus Deon Smith. Smith, a homeless man, died Sept. 8 after police restrained him by tying his hands to his feet behind his back in what is called a hogtie. Smith's family is suing eight city police officers and two county paramedics in his death. The lawsuit is ongoing.

"You don't need 90 days to begin to look at the process and start doing things differently," Hyde said. "Repairing the damage will take a heck of a lot longer than 90 days. But there's action steps she can take today."

It's clear the city can act quickly when necessary, Hyde said, pointing to a public hearing the City Council has scheduled on an initiative to help downtown businesses make repairs after demonstrations turned destructive on May 30-31 along South Elm Street.

"What kind of message is it to the public if the council is willing to dedicate more money to business owners after the protest than protecting the lives of people?" he said.

Vaughan's list of actions mirrors a set of suggestions that former President Barack Obama has challenged mayors across the nation to implement.

A spokesperson for one of the city's leading protest groups was not impressed.

"Her implementing Obama's policies over the demands of people in this city makes us wonder what her intent is, who does she serve?" said Kahran Myers-Davis, a spokesperson for Greensboro Rising, which helped organize Sunday's protests. "Is she doing this for some white progressive pat on the back?"

Protesters' demands include a conversation with the mayor about finding ways to protect people on the margins from police brutality, including black men, the homeless, the mentally ill and working class white people, Myers-Davis said.

"We need her to be authentic because right now it sounds like posturing," she said. "I can state with confidence that the door is open. She knows we're here so it's incumbent upon her to reach out to us, the people who voted for her, and open a dialog."

City Councilman Justin Outling said all council members will have to go beyond talk to take more action.

He said that police "use of force" will likely be at the top of the list for future work sessions of City Council. But in recent months, council members have raised issues that have yet to be addressed, including finding a way to write a new policy to allow people to give their consent when they are being searched without probable cause.

The public should expect more from their council, Outling said.

"People should expect a sense of urgency," he said. "A sense of urgency to actually tackling these problems and accomplishing our community ideals."

He said the mayor's goal of having a report in 90 days is good for setting a benchmark. He said, however, the city's problems developed over hundreds of years and can't be solved in 90 days.

"We're looking for a sense of accountability. I can't tell you how many times council members have made statements expressing desires to have work sessions on topics," Outling said. "What never happened ... is actual work sessions."

Lewis Pitts, a retired civil rights lawyer who is associated with the group that is suing the city of behalf of Marcus Smith's family, said the city needs "transformational leadership" and the mayor and council have not shown that they are providing that.

"The only thing (the mayor) knows now that's new is that the nation is outraged, is protesting, there's property damage and it seems that is motivating this false concern," he said. Activists have spoken to City Council month after month about grievances with the police, he said, and nothing has been done.

But Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who is often a vocal critic of city policies in council meetings, said that while many issues should have been addressed, it's never too late to get started on the right path.

"Is it sad we had to wait for it to become a national focus? Yes, it is very sad. We've gotten to the consciousness of America. We see what they are doing downtown, but it can't do anything but make you stop and say, 'whoa, this is real,'" Hightower said.

"Watching it on TV is heartbreaking enough but seeing it right here on the steps of the city of Greensboro brings it home. It's just a reality we can no longer walk away from," she said.

Hightower said she has told council many times that it should review all the charges of police brutality going back decades.

"We've got bad police and we've got good police," she said. "Good police should oppose the same things I oppose. They should be against police brutality. They should be against excessive use of force. That's where we need to cross the divide. And until we do that you're not going to sow and create trust in a community that doesn't trust you."

Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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