COURTHOUSE — Controversy over a description used in a text message between Virginia Beach city officials seems to have been resolved following an apology and a meeting with community leaders.
The head of an organization that voiced its concern – and, at one point, called for the firing of City Manager Dave Hansen – said the productive meeting should lead to continued communication about other issues involving equal opportunities in business and public life in Virginia Beach.
Discord unfolded amid stories by The Virginian-Pilot and a series of letters between community leaders and city officials this spring.
But, effectively, it all started last year, during the inaugural Faith, Freedom and Justice March at the Oceanfront organized by the Virginia Beach Interdenominational Ministers Conference in response to concern about opportunities for minority business here.
The Pilot’s Alissa Skelton reported that in trading text messages in a group that included City Manager Dave Hansen, Deputy City Manager Ron Williams estimated crowd size at the march and texted “mostly 5 percenters.” The term Five Percenter can refer to the Five Percent Nation, a group that split from the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s. Williams has said that was not what he meant.
Businessperson Bruce Smith took offense at “referring to the African American faith community as 5 percenters,” The Pilot reported. Williams told the newspaper it was “absolutely false” that there was any racial intent in what he had texted, and he said he was offended by the suggestion. Hansen told the newspaper it was meant to describe a percentage of the crowd.
The Rev. Dr. James Allen, president of the ministers’ organization, wrote to the City Council that the use of “5 percenters” was “derogatory,” and he also questioned why the march had been the subject of surveillance. The group, among other things, wanted Hansen replaced as city manager at the time.
After a response by then-Mayor Will Sessoms, Hansen and Williams wrote a letter of apology that stated there was no racial intent in Williams’ text. “[W]e understand that sometimes it is the appearance rather than the reality of a situation that speaks loudest,” the letter read.
“Ron’s use of the term – and my interpretation of it – was to describe the broad base of participation the gathering attracted,” the letter added. It also discussed why “large and unique” events are monitored to ensure safety.
A meeting with the leaders followed that letter. Allen said those who met with the managers meant to help them understand perspectives of people who do not always feel represented in public life. Several faith and community leaders met with Hansen and Williams on Monday, April 30, at New Hope Baptist Church.
“Mr. Hansen and Mr. Williams were very open,” Allen said in an interview following the meeting. “They both expressed an apology and the context in which they used the term.”
“I think they made us understand there was no racial intent,” Allen said, and he added that he and others at the meeting wanted the managers to understand how words can carry cultural power. “We left with the resolution that this issue is behind us.”
Yet other issues remain, such as opportunities for businesses and representation in the government.
“We volunteered ourselves to be available to them,” Allen said. “Our ultimate goal is to help Virginia Beach be the greatest city in the world.”
“I think it was a really good dialogue,” Hansen said later. “We reiterated our apology that we may have offended some folks, and we also reiterated that there was no racial intent. We were certainly in listening mode.”
Hansen said he has offered to meet with the leaders again.
He also noted that some of the leaders came out to observe this year’s College Beach Weekend at the Oceanfront, which he appreciated.
“It’s important they see and experience what we see as public servants,” Hansen said.
“We are well meaning in how we go about our business here,” he added.
Williams, too, said it was a good meeting.
“We want to find opportunities to work together on the priorities they laid out as an organization,” he said in an interview.
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