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Tampa town hall meeting on race brings out raw emotions

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two nights after Baltimore burned in anger at the death of Freddie Gray, the young black man who died in police custody there, mass demonstrations were held in cities like Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Denver; New York City; and Minneapolis on Wednesday night.

No such protests occurred in the Tampa Bay area, but Baltimore was very much on the minds of the overflow crowd that crammed into a conference room at the Ferguson Law Center in Tampa. The subject was the issues with the black community in Tampa and its interactions with local law enforcement.

Prominent Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen scheduled the meeting weeks ago, well before Baltimore erupted and a published report showed Tampa police have been disproportionately citing black bicyclists in Tampa for infractions.

The meeting turned raucous at times when Cohen seemed on the verge of being out of control. He began the meeting sounding like a preacher, dropping his r’s and and occasionally yelling into his microphone.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn opened the evening by giving a short speech, waxing eloquently about the problems of race in America that have again become part of the national conversation after the trouble in Baltimore.

“We as a country are a work in progress, we as a community are a work in progress, and we are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” he began.

The mayor referred to a time of civil unrest in Tampa in 1988, and said he “swore on that day that that would never (again) happen in this community.” He said it hasn’t in part because of many people in the room, who included lawyers, judges and advocates. “We started down that path, and we changed the police department, and we changed the culture in that police department, and we built bridges to the community. But I can tell you it doesn’t get fixed in one diversity training session. It is a work in progress every day for each of us …”

In addition to Buckhorn, Tampa City Council members Mike Suarez and Lisa Montelione were part of the 300 or so people in attendance. About 75 percent or more of the crowd were black, as were most of those who spoke.

Cohen dominated the first part of the meeting, leading some in the back of the room to ask for a chance so others could talk.

The meeting centered on race relations between blacks and local law enforcement. People offered opinions on why the problems exist with some black youths specifically. When Cohen attributed part of the blame to the lack of a father figure in many black families, he got pushback from Kylila Bullard, a former West Point cadet who later transferred to Harvard University Extension School.

“It stems from systematic racism, and that stems from people healing from being oppressed for 200 years,” she said, rejecting the notion it’s a problem just with the family or with the school system. “Having teachers who are culturally competent to the student and also realizing our own biases, and our own prejudices, both in society and the education system — that’s how we fix it.”

Stanley Gray moved to Tampa in 2000 to start a human resource company. Almost 60 now, he said he had been detained several times in his life but never incarcerated. With Buckhorn looking on, Gray said that although he likes Tampa, he wouldn’t bring a company here, saying there’s no visible black middle class nor diverse work force.

“There’s no excuse for the corporate leaders in this city, the companies who tout Tampa Bay, their employment levels don’t represent this city,” he said. “If you’re serious about this, this kind of meeting needs to be held at the Chamber of Commerce, with commitments and numbers.” His comment elicited a standing ovation from at least half of the audience.

Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Rex Barbas agreed that the business community needs to be more involved, and said a huge problem for black youths is that there is nobody who cares about them. He said it doesn’t have to be a parent, but a pastor, a Big Brother, somebody he sees accompanying them into his juvenile court shows him that somebody cares about the child. He said there needs to be more after-school programs that he’s seen in cities like Boston and Chicago, and called on state legislators to provide more funding to do that.

When activist and poet Life Malcolm complained about a police state in Tampa, Cohen challenged him to come up with solutions. Malcolm said he would cut the “defense spending” in the city, and would take money that usually goes to the police to pay for educational and recreational programs for parts of the city. He also said he would use civil forfeitures the city confiscates from taking automobiles and give them to “mothers and families who don’t have cars.”

Malcolm also referred to the Tampa Police Department’s treatment last year of Arthur Green, a 63-year-old community activist who had a diabetic seizure and died while in TPD custody. The family has sued the city in federal court in an eight-count complaint that includes the two responding officers as defendants.

With neither Chief Jane Castor or Assistant Chief Eric Ward in attendance, Major Rocky Ratliff was the lone member of the police department to handle the rhetorical slings and arrows from the audience. He called the death of Green a “terrible tragedy,” acknowledging that the police force has been trained now to recognize anybody with a disability. “None of us is perfect,” he said. “Our department is not perfect.”

It was 90 minutes into the meeting before the the issue de jour came to the fore — citing blacks for bicycle infractions. The recent piece by the Tampa Bay Times said blacks have been the subject of 79 percent of bike infractions in the past three years.

Longtime civil rights lawyer Warren Dawson called it a “big smoke fire going on in the community,” and praised Buckhorn for calling in the DOJ to investigate. Then he called the issue a “Tampa version of stop and frisk.”

“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “That’s a violation of the constitution.” Looking directly at the mayor, he called on him to suspend the policy. He then called on city council to not approve the hiring of a new chief if he or she continues the new policy.

Ratliff, however, said the TPD has been taking a lot of guns off the streets in recent months, some of them from cyclists. He said the department has seized 400 guns off the streetsso far this year “and it’s not even May.”

“We’re trying to make this place a safer city for everyone to live, work and play,” Ratliff said.

Cohen said that “we all appreciate” what he and the force do every day in protecting Tampa residents. “Don’t think that we don’t know you’re risking your lives,” he said. “Don’t think we came here to bash the police.”

He then blasted Ratliff to his face over the bike citation system.

“If you have probable cause, then you do your job, but just stopping people on the street just because they’re riding a bike … now we know, and you know this — it’s bull—t!”

Cohen went on to say no black resident should be pulled over on a bike unless there’s reasonable suspicion they’ve committed a crime, “not just because you think he may have a gun on him, or that he might have drugs on him.”

The meeting concluded with the promise of forming a board to deal with racial issues.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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