L-R, Maria Scruggs, Watson Haynes, Ashley Green and Cedric Gordon
BY INDHIRA SUERO ACOSTA, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST PETERSBURG – “Critically and systemically we’ve been given a bill of false goods,” Ashley Green, Labor Organizer at SEIU-FL and Movement Organizer with the Dream Defenders, said about the way that society sees African Americans that express their needs and demand change. “We have every right to demand what we want to see in this world because we have to live in it. Every day. We’re going to keep living, hopefully.”
Green’s words were among the ones that set the tone for “Midtown by Midtown: From the People to the Candidates,” an open forum held on September 29 at the Enoch Davis Center with the intention to gather firsthand the issues that local candidates should address in Midtown.
Organized by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s (USFSP) Neighborhood News Bureau (NNB) and The Weekly Challenger, the event’s goal was to compile the comments made by the audience to conduct follow-up interviews with local and regional candidates to determine how they plan to address the topics discussed.
In addition to Green, Watson L. Haynes II, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League; Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg Branch and Cedric Gordon, former St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief initiated the conversation with the audience. After each of the panelists spoke, the audience raised comments and questions about themes such as poverty and food access.
Haynes started the discussion addressing the challenges to the African-American youth looking for jobs in St. Petersburg. “A large number gets frustrated because ‘no’ is not the word you want to hear every day,” he said about the barriers young black professionals face in the job market.
Akile Anai, a member of the Uhuru movement, complained about the lack of jobs and the changes that affect the communities in the south side of the city.
“We’ve actually been forced out of our communities. It’s not rhetoric. We’re being kicked out of our homes for whatever redevelopment plan they have in the city,” Anai said.
Audience and panelists discussed police oversight in African-American neighborhoods; tense relations with law enforcement; school curriculum, along with the Community Grant Program; the Tropicana Field development implications for the city and the lack of support to other black neighborhoods. Members of the audience shared personal stories of disenfranchisement, racism and abandonment by authorities and by society.
Gordon said that the police need to change their practices to serve the community better.
“We have to consistently ask ourselves: Do policies, procedures, tactics enhance trust in the communities? Or are they a systemic problem [that] create distrust,” he asked.
“We have a whole generation of black people that are in prison, languishing under a minimum mandatory sentence,” Brother John Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, commented asking if there shouldn’t be a minimum mandatory sentence for police officers who commit criminal offenses against community members, especially those who are serial offenders.
Describing how her mother, who needed to be escorted to an all-white school by U.S Marshals during integration in Athens, Ga., fears for her daughter’s safety today, Green said she doesn’t see much improvement in how our society treats black citizens.
“For her to tell me that she is afraid for me when I walk out of the house because of what I do, because of what I stand for, it means that the relationship hasn’t changed,” Green said. “I feel no freer walking around my neighborhood today than my parents felt in the 50s and the 60s.”
Some members of the audience also expressed that they don’t feel represented by the City of St. Petersburg and that they are tired of hearing the same rhetoric from the authorities. Others addressed the need to improve the quality of life and the monetary situation of African Americans living in the area.
Scruggs described the multiple failures of economic development plans for the black communities of St. Petersburg throughout the past three decades.
“Everybody has their own plan, and everybody does their own thing. There is no coordinated or strategic focus on how one plan supports the work of the bigger picture of redeveloping Midtown,” Scruggs said.
Nearing the end of the event, audience and panelists agreed that the community needs to find solutions for its own issues as politicians have failed them multiple times.
“It’s not up to them. It’s up to us,” Anai said about who should be in charge of making decisions about policing and finding solutions for the local neighborhoods.
Scruggs summarized the conversation as the community agrees on what the problems are, but there are still divided on the solutions. Scruggs asked that members of the black communities to engage with local organizations saying there is power in numbers.
“When you consistently advocate for something and the people in power don’t do it, you can vote and kick them out.”
Green agreed that people in the community need to organize and engage, adding that people shouldn’t give up one form of power for another. She said that in addition to voting, people also need to participate and change the relationship of Midtown communities with power.
“None of this, none of what we talked about happens without power,” she concluded, saying that there is only one black member of the city council.
The discussion was the first of a series of community conversations that NNB is planning to hold with different groups and neighborhoods in Midtown and marked the official inauguration of NNB’s office at the Enoch Davis Center.
NNB is a project developed and maintained by students and staff at the USFSP Department of Journalism and Media Studies.