Nevertheless, Manigault-Newman’s participation invited opposition to the panel even before it took place. Page Six reported on Thursday that New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and New Yorker journalist Jelani Cobb pulled out of the panel because of a number of issues, including the last-minute addition of Manigault-Newman to the panel. Gordon then stepped in to moderate, and new panelists were added to the lineup.
At first, the Gordon-moderated event hewed closely to original expectations. The host interviewed Sandra Sterling and Valerie Castile, the aunt and mother, respectively, of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men gunned down by police officers in the summer of 2016.
Valerie Castile’s grieving reflections on the year since her son’s death provided a somber juxtaposition to President Trump's recent remarks encouraging police to abuse suspects (the administration later said the president was joking) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s endorsement of more punitive policing measures. “I don’t know what the fuck to tell you,” she said when Gordon asked her about recommendations for black people when stopped by police, “I did everything humanly possible to protect my son.”
Castile and Sterling were ushered off stage for a second panel discussion on police brutality, which Manigault-Newman joined after about 30 minutes. The proceedings immediately plunged into the bizarre. Gordon largely ignored the other panelists for a one-on-one theatrical debate with Manigault-Newman, who attempted to evade the topic of the panel in order to discuss murders of her father and other family members (carried out by private citizens) that shaped her childhood. “Let me tell my story,” she chided Gordon after his attempt to ask questions about police brutality.
Manigault-Newman and Gordon paced the stage, interrupting each other and interjecting comments. Several members of the crowd—mostly a collection of journalists and professionals in the media industry—booed, walked out, or turned their backs on the debate. At one point, Manigault-Newman addressed the crowd directly. “Walking into a room where you get shut down does not open a line of communication so change can happen,” she said. She later walked off stage.
The NABJ panel was undoubtedly not one of those moments of constructive community engagement Manigualt-Newman had suggested might lead to changes in White House policy. But the second inherent flaw in the event’s construction was that useful engagement—a rare enough thing in on-stage talks at any convention—between the White House and black communities is, simply, extraordinarily difficult right now.
Under Trump, the White House has displayed not only a puzzling indifference—illustrated by Manigault-Newman’s self-description as often being “the only African American representative” in the White House—to black issues and black voices, but often an open antagonization to them. Trump has used his Twitter account to retweet white supremacists, has invited self-described nationalists like Steve Bannon—who used to operate a website that maintained a “Black Crime” content category—to work in the White House, and has maligned protesters against police brutality.