If the Shelby County Commission chamber had been a classroom and Commissioner Henri Brooks had been Pablo Pereyra's teacher, the admonishment that she directed at the real estate agent during a May 12th Commission meeting likely would not have caused such a firestorm.
But that was not the scenario that played out. Brooks' upbraiding of Pereyra was a key element in a scene that set off a chain reaction, including calls for Brooks' resignation, an apology from her, or a resolution of censure from the Commission.
During a meeting Tuesday afternoon with the editorial staff of The New Tri-State Defender, Brooks moved to put the swirling controversy in what she considers the correct context.
"Any move to do anything to me can't be done. Nothing can be done to me," said Brooks, noting that she was right for admonishing Pereyra, asserting that her "detractors" and "opponents" are stirring a media firestorm in an effort to singe her chances of winning the race for Juvenile Court clerk.
"My campaign is focused on July 18 (early voting). I'm gonna get my base out and I will be winning. Juvenile Court can start packing up now," said Brooks.
Making it clear that she didn't want to dwell on what transpired at the Commission meeting or respond to sound bites, Brooks, however, did want to set the record straight.
"He (Pereyra) made a mistake and I corrected him," said Brooks, a former teacher.
During the Commission meeting, Brooks determinedly voiced concern about the awarding of a $1.7 million county roofing contract to a firm that employed 25 Hispanic roofers and no African Americans. At one point, Pereyra was given the floor, using the opportunity to draw upon his Hispanic background to make the case that Hispanics are the "minority of minorities" in Memphis. That's when Brooks unleashed a sternly-worded shot of her view of relevant history.
"You asked to come here. We did not, and when we got here, our condition was so egregious, so barbaric," said Brooks. "Don't ever let that (the minority of minorities reference) come out of your mouth again because, you know what, that hurts your case. Don't compare the two, they're not comparable."
In the session with the TSD editorial staff, Brooks said, "I knew something was going on when that man spoke. He didn't have to speak. He had the vote. He got up to talk about his experience and they knew that would push my button. It made me angry. What I said was a fact."
Brooks said she became suspicious of Pereyra after he acknowledged that he represented a real estate company in Nevada that purchased tax property from the Shelby County Land Bank, which the commission had approved by a vote of 4-3.
"He said he is the representative of Anthony Joseph Sy (also known as Anthony Syevades)," said Brooks, pointing out that Sy had acted as an unlicensed broker in 740 real estate purchase transactions on behalf of buyers at foreclosure auctions, which landed him in U.S. District Court.
"We're getting ready to take property away from a black man and give it to a man in Nevada who has 740 counts of fraud," she said.
The other issue that concerned Brooks was the $1.7 million roofing contract that the commission had awarded to B Four Plied Inc. to replace the roof on a county-owned building at Shelby Farms.
Brooks argued that B Four Plied Inc. should hire employees from the dominant ethnic group in Shelby County, which is African American. She said she advocates for African Americans who put her in office, and that the whole shebang is all about economics and fair play.
The New Tri-State Defender: Was B Four Plied Inc. in compliance when the company received the roofing contract?
Henri Brooks: You can institute policy to implement a law and it would have a disparate impact on black folks. That's what's going on. We're not getting any contracts. The policy is cumbersome. We don't even get a piece of anything. If we do, they want to use our name only. Then they pay you off. It's a sad situation. It's going to get worse.
TSD: You took umbrage at the company that was awarded the roofing contract. Why?
HB: We are both ethnic minorities. The workforce should reflect the demographics of the county. That's fair. That's humane. That's equal. It has been my philosophy, my intent...and we've talked about it on the County Commission, that when a company receives a county contract or taxpayer dollar project, at least the workforce should reflect the demographics of the county.
This particular contract really caught my attention because it came down three times. We sent it back each time for the same reason, because it did not have any black employees. ... And black people are the dominant population here in this county. To ignore that makes me very uncomfortable.
We talk about the poverty in this city...we have to understand what the underpinning of poverty is. Those policies that we make to implement law, those are the kinds of things that are...malignant. For some reason, they don't understand. When we don't make money, we cannot pay taxes. When you don't pay taxes, then you're not a productive citizen.
You can have all kinds of small businesses and skip over black people, but you're in compliance with the law. So it's those policies that we use to implement the law. We're still in compliance with the law, but we're still having a disparate impact on another group of people. That statement in itself doesn't mean that you're trying to give special attention or preference. You're just trying to be fair.
We have a fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars, to make sure it's evenly spread and that people who come here do not give the appearance of being discriminatory. Title VI and Title VII come into play here. No one has ever filed a lawsuit against the county; it is ripe for a Title VI lawsuit and a Title VII.
TSD: Explain the reason for the "sheet" comment regarding your fellow commissioner, Chris Thomas?
HB: That resolution had been down three times. It was on its third hearing, and each time we'd send it back for the same reason. Each time during committee, Chris Thomas was the one who wanted to push it, always wanted to give a speech that we need to move forward, that we're complying with the law. When I referred to the sheet, I was talking about a cover-up.
TSD: How can you change a policy that you say is unfair to African Americans?
HB: We got to get the people with the courage to change it. Seven votes can buy Japan. You need seven courageous votes to take a stand for right. You don't have enough black people with backbone to stand up and speak the truth. I'm saying be fair and equal.
TSD: Is there a percentage of African-American businesses getting contracts in Shelby County?
HB: One of the certification agencies here, when that question is asked about doing business with black people, they aggregate the total number that certified companies are doing, and they say this is the amount of business that black people are doing. That's not the way you do it. That's making figures lie. What you do is, you take the number and you divide by the number of participation. I filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee in 1998 for contracts: 0.1 percent. It hasn't changed.
TSD: Is there a standing committee that oversees contracts?
HB: We all do that. All 13 of us can sit on and vote on every committee. Some of us are assigned to various committees as chairpersons. But we can all sit and have a vote on the committee.
TSD: It appears you're the only local leader leading the charge. Why?
HB: When you start talking about the money, the pocketbook, economic issues, people get a little crazy, and they'll pull out every rabbit that they can out of the hat to keep you from getting your fair share. That's wrong. We're not saying that anybody should get more than the other. It should be fair across the board. Nobody should discriminate – red, black, green, yellow. And then no one should be denied the opportunity to participate, particularly when you have a federal law, state law and county ordinance. So why won't other people say what I say? You think about it.
NOTE: Read Part II of The New Tri-State Defender's Q&A with Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks as part of the TSD's Friday Digital Daily and online the same day at TSDMemphis.com, where you can sign up to receive the TSD Digital Daily free, 6 days a week.