ST. PETERSBURG – It was Sunday afternoon. Many people were watching the Heat get trounced by the Raptors in the NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals. But a few concerned citizens were present and accounted for at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church for the Building Lives in our Community forum.
St. Mark’s Brotherhood Ministry held a community forum to discuss various crisis situations that plague our neighborhoods and schools. An all-star lineup of community leaders discussed and answered questions from what to do when stopped by law enforcement to how to enroll in college.
The panel of speakers included Hope Crews, retired officer of St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD); Rev. Michael Hawkins, retired SPPD; Lewis Stephens, executive director of I Support Youth Program; Stacey Lodge-Hawkins, Pinellas County Urban League and Boe Norwood, director of Pinellas Technical College, St. Pete campus.
Presiding over the forum was Cedric Gordon, retired assistant chief with the SPPD. Law enforcement officers have a very challenging responsibility protecting us in the 21st century, he said. We all should respect and support law enforcement—when they are right—Gordon added.
We have a moral responsibility and obligation to speak out in constructive ways when law enforcement is wrong, he pointed out. It takes “courage” and “intestinal fortitude” to speak out in these situations.
Why speak out at all?
“Because law enforcement is the only profession in this country that impacts African-Americans lives in significant ways,” Gordon said. “Sometimes in ways that can be very negative.”
Over the last couple years we’ve seen an increase in shootings of African Americans all over this country, he noted, citing the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin right here in Florida, among others.
“Because of these types of cases all over America,” Gordon said, “we have witnessed a revolution for people of all races, genders and backgrounds saying that ‘enough is enough.’”
People around the country are saying ‘black lives matter’ and we need change. Gordon pointed out the disproportionate amount of African Americans serving time for drug-related offences. Approximately 60 percent of these convicted offenders are African American, even though African Americans comprise only about 13 percent of the country’s population.
The percentage of African Americans that number among the incarcerated in this country in general is also disproportionately high. As a consequence, 1.5 million African Americans have lost their right to vote due to convictions.
“That’s 15 percent of the African-American male population that cannot vote,” Gordon underscored.
Gordon went on to point out that the national average for African-American teen convictions versus convictions of white teens for marijuana-related offences is five to one, and in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties it’s even higher at seven to one.
He challenged everyone to take a step back and think: Are law enforcement policies fair and practical, or do they contribute to civil disturbances and mistrust in the community?
Hawkins recalled that while he was a resource officer at Gibbs High, he came across an article about a young white male who was arrested for dealing drugs. The female judge looked at the offender and told him, “You’re too cute to go to prison,” and gave him probation. Yet when the young African Americans stood before the same judge for the same exact offense, they were sentenced to jail time.
“I said then that it was not fair,” Hawkins recalled.
Concerning the number of young African Americans getting pulled over by officers, Crews conceded that injustices are out there and added that police officers have a “wide range of perspective” for what they see. If these young people find themselves stopped by officers, the first thing they should do is be respectful, she said.
“They have to be respectful,” she said, drawing on her experience. “Don’t do anything to escalate the situation.”
She noted that she isn’t “pro-law enforcement” but “pro-right.”
“What is right and what is just? I know that there are police officers out there that frankly don’t do things like they should do,” she said.
Referencing the five failing elementary schools in south St. Pete, Gordon stated there is a nexus between education and crime. When schools fail to properly educate children it can lead to desperation, failed aspirations and crime.
Hawkins noted that he’d visited one of the failing schools and was appalled at the disrespectful attitudes of the young children who will curse out teachers or even hit them.
“We have teachers that are tired,” he said. “African-American teachers who are very good that are saying, ‘I’m going to find a job somewhere else.’ But they’re the ones we need to keep.”
We’ve got to find a way to work with our children, he said, because children need structure and they need it at home.
“If they don’t get the structure, they’re not going to make it in life,” Hawkins said.
Lodge-Hawkins underscored the importance of education and noted the partnerships Pinellas County Urban League has with PTC and St. Pete College, in helping young people find a path to success. She noted that though its programs, the Urban League deals with individuals who are hard to place, meaning those that have “background issues.”
“We partner with United Way,” she noted. “They actually give us funding for us to make sure they get the proper training in order to go back into the work force, even though that have background issues.”
The term “failure factories” has now become such a blight on the community that Stephens, who works with hundreds of young people on a daily basis, said that something is truly wrong when children ask him, “Am I really a failure?”
“Something is wrong when I have kids that come every single day, three or four years old, wearing the same clothes,” he said. “Something is wrong when I have kids that live in a two-mile radius of downtown and have never seen downtown before.”
It’s not only teachers or officers or parents that are letting the children down, but the community as a whole, which has to step up to make sure the youth of St. Pete have a future rich with opportunity.
A year ago Stephens began “I Support Youth”—an organization that literally goes door to door and asks, “What can we do to help your child be successful?” The organization’s several programs look to help and instruct young people on how to become productive members of the community.
Norwood stressed that he wants to let young people in the area know that PTC is a viable option, noting that the college sends letters to all graduating students informing them about scholarship opportunities.
He also revealed that not just graduating seniors are qualified for full scholarships; they are available to anyone who meets the income eligibility.
But PTC can’t help prospective students, even if they lack the funds, if they don’t apply.
“I’ve said this over and over: give me a chance to say no,” Norwood stated. “And I can tell you right now, I haven’t said no to one person who has tried to apply.”