When protestors drop by

Posted: May 18, 2007 12:01 AM

I was chagrined when I got word at home that there was going to be a protest that morning at the newspaper. A protest against our editorials. It was billed as a News Conference and Call to Action - and I wouldn't be on hand to meet and greet our visitors. Or even offer them a cup of coffee. Shucks. What kind of host am I?

A robust exchange of opinion is what freedom of the press is all about - and I was going to miss it. Talk about crestfallen. It's not every day people care that much about what we have to say.

I thank everybody who turned out for the mass protest, which numbered, by the official crowd estimate, seven. Maybe eight if you count the passerby who stopped to watch. It wasn't exactly Red Square on May Day back in the day. But, hey, it's a start.

Our critics' timing could also have been better. A federal judge had just told the president of Little Rock's school board - Katherine Mitchell - to stop threatening the district's top administrators. We'd warned her about that. So when the court blows the whistle on her, the first response of our critics is to protest Š our editorials.

And what did our visitors have to say? It seems we're guilty of stirring up divisions, hurting the city's image, perpetuating stereotypes, cheating at craps Š OK, I made that last one up. But it's just as probable as finding a nest of racists here on the editorial page of Arkansas' statewide paper.

I just wish the protesters had been as interested in defending the civil rights of a black school superintendent as they were in playing the race card against us.

Instead, they accused us of "race-baiting" and making "racist statements" - preparatory to concluding that we're the ones guilty of name-calling.

Our critics took particular umbrage at some of our more colorful phrases, like Gang of Four. And here I thought that sobriquet a particularly apt one for the four members of the school board who had been planning to hold a little kangaroo court to suspend Roy Brooks, the reform-minded school superintendent. Until that federal judge intervened.

Now the, uh, Faction of Four has given up on trying to suspend the superintendent and has gone straight to termination hearings. Why mess with any intermediate steps? The Little Rock Crisis of '07 must go on.

The protesters accused us at the Democrat-Gazette of holding "race-baiting opinions" (so said one Terence Bolden) and making "racist statements" (according to a lady named Brownie Ledbetter). In short, thoughtcrime and hate speech.

I'm sure Mr. Bolden and Ms. Ledbetter are good people, but I'm unaware of when they won their Pulitzers for standing up for civil rights. I got mine in 1969. Some racist.

But the strangest part of the protest was provided by the courageous soul who said she'd talk only Off the Record. That's right: She was taking part in a news conference to speak off the record. There's something charming, or at least mystifying, about that concept. It's one of those prize non sequiturs you want to save for your collection. It sounds like something Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel might have said in public when they chose not to say anything in public.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole foofaraw here in Little Rock is that it's not really about education at all, or something good might come out of it. It's not even really about race. That's just a card to play.

It's all about power. And the pay and perks that go with it. That's what happens when a school superintendent sets out to reform the system and gets crosswise with the teachers' union.

The superintendent's crime? He's been trying to trim a bloated bureaucracy and shift the emphasis to achievement in the classroom, which means trying to raise test scores and even introducing merit-pay programs to reward the best teachers. Unforgivable.

Why? To quote Katherine Mitchell, the president of the school board: "African American employees have lost $918,000."

Yep, that's really what it's all about: political patronage.

After last fall's school elections, her faction won a fourth seat on the seven-member school board, and is determined to make the most of its one-vote majority. No matter the cost to the district, the city or the community.

If there's a real villain here, it's the lack of public interest in school affairs. The result is the kind of low voter turnout that lets a small, well-organized special interest seize control of a local school board. Now all of us here in Little Rock are paying for it.