Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has done a lot of good in his city. He’s revived a long under-utilized riverfront. He’s worked hard to eliminate blight in troubled neighborhoods. He’s taken leaps when it comes to attracting jobs.
But he’s not always good about holding his tongue. This time, he went a little too far.
Over the weekend 14-year-old Edward Harris was gunned down in broad daylight in East Tampa. It was the 18th homicide in Tampa this year and representative of a growing increase in homicides over last year.
Buckhorn responded to the neighborhood, as any good mayor should. But he showed up not with messages of empathy for friends and family of the boy who was shot and killed, but with a shocking message of blame.
“These young people, if they want to end up a statistic, either incarcerated or dead, the choice is theirs,” Buckhorn said to the Tampa Bay Times. “Either get out of the life and find good role models, or you end up in the street in a pool of blood at age 14. That’s the reality.”
He said this as news was breaking. In his defense, he didn’t know the boy’s brother would later talk to media explaining he thought his little brother took a bullet that was really intended for him.
Buckhorn probably didn’t know that the younger Harris had fallen either victim or witness to three separate criminal cases. He was robbed. He was shot at. And he witnessed a stabbing.
The situation in which Harris was shot at led to the arrest of a 16-year-old. Police think Harris may have been targeted for being a snitch.
It’s a life Harris probably didn’t want too much to do with. But like many juveniles who have lived the sort of hardened lives people like Buckhorn have only read about or seen from a distance, Harris probably didn’t know how to get out. He may not even have really known there was a way out.
What Buckhorn should have been saying to the people in that neighborhood was that the city will work tirelessly to ensure that if someone wants out, there’s a way. He should have apologized for the city failing them. He should have condemned the shooter for shooting, not the victim for not having gotten out before he got shot.
Buckhorn probably didn’t mean to sound like a victim blamer, but it’s exactly what his words portray.
“These young men who solve every dispute with a gun for even the simplest slights or neighborhood beefs, it’s becoming an epidemic,” he said. “It’s just senseless. When I was growing up, you settled things with your fists. You didn’t automatically pull out a gun and solve every argument with a gun.”
There’s a problem with this quote from that same Tampa Bay Times story: Buckhorn is white. He didn’t grow up in East Tampa. He doesn’t get to compare.
What he does get to do is make a difference.
As much as Buckhorn is guilty of not thinking before he spoke and sounding a bit condescending, to put it mildly, he is making efforts to improve conditions for poor residents in places like East Tampa.
Take Sulphur Springs,for example. Buckhorn has, from very early in his first term as mayor, begun tearing down old houses, installing better lighting and fostering better housing conditions. This is good work and Buckhorn should be commended for it.
But it’s not enough and the tragic murder of young Harris is proof.
Buckhorn also told the Times there are ways kids can get away from the hard life. He mentioned amped up services by the city’s parks and recreation department aimed at keeping kids off the streets over the summer and stronger efforts by police to improve community relationships.
But the hard, cold truth is people in those communities often don’t know how to access services to help them. Instead they live in a community where police target them.
Just this April the Tampa Bay Times reported police were disproportionately citing black bike riders in poor neighborhoods for infractions often overlooked in white neighborhoods.
The investigation sent shockwaves through the community and resulted in calls for police to knock it off. Buckhorn stood by the policy. In the Times story, one young man had been ticketed so many times it led to a problem with his driver’s license when he got older. The boy collected 13 tickets as a teen, but couldn’t afford to pay them. That led to his license being suspended and later to his being arrested for driving.
He’s now, as the Time reports, listed as a habitual traffic offender despite the fact that he had never gotten a single ticket for bad driving.
But Buckhorn didn’t jump out against the practice.
This is the environment kids like Harris grow up in and Buckhorn had the audacity to imply he could have somehow salvaged his fate had he just avoided that kind of life.
Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but what is certain is it’s not always that cut and dried.
Buckhorn should re-evaluate his words following Harris’s tragic death. He should apologize to Harris’s family. And above all, he should not only continue, but increase his efforts to provide better opportunities for kids in tough neighborhoods.
If Buckhorn wants them out, he needs to not only find a place for them to go, but show them how to get there.