THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE — In the aftermath of fatal attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., black leaders say Florida — which has a long and ugly history of racism — has reached a race-relations crossroads.
Meanwhile, one sheriff says the African-American community needs to “mature” as law enforcement officials seek to keep a lid on the violence that has erupted in other states.
Race relations in Florida, where lynchings of black men were once almost commonplace, have reached a low point as a result of a growing distrust — and outright fear — of law enforcement officers, black leaders told The News Service of Florida in a series of telephone interviews Monday.
The tension is fed by videos documenting black men sitting in their cars or crossing the street — some of them unarmed — being shot dead by police across the country.
“I have not seen the kind of anger and agitation and unrest and paranoia and frustration across the board that I see now,” the Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor of Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church said.
Florida sheriffs are reaching out to leaders in the black community while also taking additional measures to beef up protection for their own.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, a former state representative who was a Miami-Dade County police officer during race riots that engulfed urban Miami in 1980, said he is exploring the purchase of “tactical rifles” for all of his deputies and holding training sessions with local businesses and schools, if requested.
Snyder met recently with a dozen black leaders, will hold a town hall meeting later in the week in a largely African-American neighborhood and is taking to social media to address concerns, he said.
But he also blamed black activists for contributing to the tension.
“I could be politically correct and say yes, we have to continue the dialogue, which we do, which I’m doing. But the African-American community must mature and deal with the reality that they have too many young black males that are aggressive and hateful and racist themselves who are consistently making the lives of the average deputy or police officer untenable. And that’s a fact,” Snyder said.
Snyder echoed the frustration of other law enforcement officers who feel they’ve been painted with the same brush as a handful of rogue cops caught on camera but who don’t represent the actions of the vast majority of nearly 1 million men and women policing the streets around the nation.
While much of the focus has been on the growing dissatisfaction of people being policed, Snyder’s comments represent what may also be a tipping point for those on the other side of the thin blue line.
“If they continue shoving cameras into our faces and calling us names and agitating and trying to create anarchy in their neighborhoods, they may end up winning the day, but the people are not going to be happy with what they get,” he said.
Many law enforcement officials, including Snyder, are looking to spiritual leaders like Holmes to help keep the situation in Florida from exploding.
“I’ve talked with many spiritual leaders across the country, in the state and city about a need to continue to call for strategic ways to strengthen police and community relations,” Holmes said.
Black pastors are organizing a “Solidarity Sunday” to show support for law enforcement and to “encourage the community to not turn on police officers but to turn to them with a spirit of love, unity and respect,” Holmes said.
But Dale Landry, vice president of the Florida branch of the NAACP, said black leaders are tired of being called upon by white officials to quell possible unrest.
“It starts to get ugly when that’s the only time you’re invited to the party, when they flash the ‘black man’ light,” Landry said, using the Batman superhero phone as an analogy.
Landry said there is “a malignancy of fear spreading among black people” about the police. He speaks about calls from mothers concerned about what might happen to their adult sons — some with sons of their own — when they travel to work or to the store.
“People have no faith anymore,” Landry, a retired law enforcement officer, said. “Right now, no lives matter in police hands.”
Landry is pushing a local referendum to create a citizens’ review board to oversee policing in Leon County and is urging other communities to pass similar initiatives.
Holmes advocates for broad-based advances — including better schools, doing away with predatory lending and making it easier for ex-felons to get jobs — to counter the despair in some urban communities.
“There is a feeling of hopeless, and when a person feels hopeless, they will ambush anyone, police, politicians, parents principals, whatever,” the pastor said.
Florida was ranked number one in police killings of unarmed individuals last year, according to Umi Selah, the mission director for the Dream Defenders, a black rights organization that pre-dates the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“So if you’re looking for a place where this is to happen, you can, with a reasonable amount of certainty, think that Florida will be amongst those places like something like that occurs and people don’t react in a calm peaceful way to it,” said Selah, whose group coalesced after the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman near Orlando in 2012.
While his group does not advocate violence, Selah said the country’s foundation is rooted in violence.
“The chickens are coming home to roost,” he said. “With the amount of video evidence that we have, the amount of information that has been released that was redacted, you see very clearly the level of violence instigated by this country. So there should be no confusion about the fact that now people find the only solution in violence.”
But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he does not believe the state is at a tipping point.
“There’s a saying that perception’s reality. Whether people are actually being treated in a certain way is different than whether they are, but if there is a perception on their part, then that’s a problem. That needs to be dealt with,” he said. “Law enforcement needs to do the best job we can, and in some cases a better job, about being transparent and about helping people to understand what we do, how we do it, why we do it.”
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, who serves as the head of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said the Black Lives Matter movement — which some blame for violence against police — is “not going away.”
At the same time, Demings, who is black, said the majority of African Americans support law enforcement in their communities.
He urged both sides to “tone down the rhetoric” and strengthen the relationships between law enforcement and other members of the community, including clergy.
“We’ll get through this time just like we always have,” Demings said. “A respect for honest differences is a healthy sign of process. …When we get to know each other, we can break down some of those stereotypes. I believe the overwhelming majority of people want to resolve the conflicts, if they care about their community.”