This article was originally published at the LensNOLA

While I objected to being called a thug and having my upbringing called into question, I never feel good about getting angry. I cannot ask people to be peaceful and have a short fuse.

by Oliver Thomas

    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.

    In light of last week’s public disagreement in the City Council chambers, Oliver Thomas says that he is “going to take this moment to remind myself to remember each person’s humanity.”

    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.

    2 thoughts on “Giving each other a moment of humanity”
    1. OT I stand with you Bruh! Apology accepted but NOT need! That guy rubs me the wrong way constantly! Council at large dude not Mayor. Seems to many on that Council want that Mayorial power but don’t have the seat. Disrespectful to put Woodfork in that setting this was about confirming Mayor Cantrell choice. #onelove #lower9 # redeemedone

    2. I appreciate councilman Thomas’ comment regarding humanity. It is unfortunate that those who have power over us in some sense of that word oversteps, whether it is in government in the public school system, ministry, ot in any office USA
      Power-hungry leaders can make our lives miserable.. Humanity is sometimes forgotten. There comes a time when we must defend ourselves against such bullies – Or, we might habitually get run over,, walked on, sidelined or ultimately silenced for fear of retribution.
      We must have enough boldness to rise to our own defense and unfortunately, sometimes it must play out in public places.
      On another note, People, who stereotype, in my opinion, have vacancies in their reasoning abilities and a low respect quotient when it comes to others, who may have some kind of differences than they themselves have or have encountered.
      Now, back to the city, Council, as a citizen, and someone who is familiar with Oliver Thomas, it was apparent to me that Councilman Thomas was not in agreement with some of the responses or decisions that came across city council- 1st to citizens but especially when it comes to our mayor.. I cannot recall Former mayors receiving the kind of treatment from the city Council, as this mayor has received from this city Council.. My final thought is, Mr. Morrell should take it down a notch or two from his “loftiness” and care a little more where fairness has a place higher than his personal likes and dislikes. Aside from the occasional power struggles, our city Council is doing a great job. That’s the way I see it..

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.