Forum on Race Relations Produces Contention, Progress

A town hall meeting Monday night brought city leaders together with leaders of recent social justice protests and the black community, yielding a mixture of agreement and contention about the state of police policy and race relations in Lakeland.

The three-hour meeting was attended by about 50 people in a small meeting room in Cannon Funeral Home on West Memorial Boulevard. It was convened by AL Lewis, a Lakeland resident, in the wake of local protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis last week.

A seven-member panel included Maj. Vance Monroe of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office; Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia; the Rev. Charles Williams of Bethel Gospel Tabernacle; Jarvis Washington, president of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk; Reginald Cannon Sr., owner of Cannon Funeral Home; Stetson Glass, an Episcopal deacon who was arrested during the June 1 protest in Lakeland; and Don Brown, former president of the Lakeland NAACP. Mayor Bill Mutz, who is out of town, interacted with the meeting for a time via teleconference.

AL Lewis, right, moderates the Call to Consciousness town hall meeting Monday night. From left are Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia, Don Brown and Jarvis Washington, president of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk.

Declaring, “This is the nation’s emergency. Racism in America is a pandemic, too,” Lewis said the city needed to move beyond protests over Floyd’s death. “We need a plan of action so we can become one Lakeland. I believe in my heart tonight is a new chapter for the Lakeland community.”

She directed several questions to the panel, drawing reflections on the meaning of Floyd’s death, the nature of racism, how black males in Lakeland can better trust the police and what steps need to be taken next.

While Monroe and Garcia called Floyd’s death a failure of law enforcement, the other panelists and black men in the audience recounted numerous stories of being detained and questioned by police for no apparent reason.

“As a black man, I can die for doing nothing,” Cannon said. “My skin means I’m a threat. What do I tell my children or other black men when being innocent still leaves you in your grave?”

Monroe and Garcia defended their departments’ policies regarding the use of force in making arrests, stating that the choking technique employed against Floyd is not part of officers’ training in Florida.

Brown, however, pointed out recent video evidence of a Sarasota officer using a similar technique.

“George Floyd was not a monumental death. We’ve been killed since we came to this country. What’s happening is because a smart phone projected it around the world,” he said.

The most contentious exchanges concerned the lack of police body cameras in both the sheriff’s office and LPD.

Monroe was repeatedly challenged over Sheriff Grady Judd’s refusal to equip officers with the devices.

“The sheriff has been adamant. His position is that the government does not need to be in your home at your worst moment. Cameras are not a cure-all,” Monroe said.

Cannon responded, “What if it’s my worst moment and I can’t defend myself, when my life is on the line?”

Panelists at the Call to Consciousness town hall meeting Monday night included, from left, Maj. Vance Monroe of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Stetson Glass, the Rev. Charles Williams of Bethel Gospel Tabernacle, Reginald Cannon Sr. of Cannon Funeral Home and Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia.

Garcia conceded that the cameras “can give more evidence” in disputed arrests or deaths and noted that LPD does use dashboard cameras in its police cars.

Garcia also was pressed several times about reopening the case of Michael Taylor, a young black man who was shot and killed by police in 2018 in the parking lot of a Lakeland business after police say he tried to ram them with his car.

Brown and Washington urged Garcia to require officers to become more familiar with black neighborhoods, requiring officers to get out of patrol cars and engage black residents.

Clearly frustrated, Garcia responded that LPD does have several community engagement programs, including the Police Athletic League, school resource officers and numerous neighborhood associations that have monthly meetings.

“I would encourage everyone to come to those meetings. It’s a good avenue to speak to your police department. At the end of the day, call me. I answer every call. We haven’t got everything right, but we’ve got a lot of things right,” he said.

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There were moments of agreement that there have been gestures of racial cooperation between Lakeland city agencies and the black community.

Williams said, “(Our church) has partnered with the police on its gang task force. We have a positive relationship. They’re there helping us.”

Washington focused several comments and questions on economic development. He pressed Mutz for answers on city development policy to assist black-owned businesses, part of a series of demands developed by Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk.

“It’s more than just police brutality,” he said. “We went from being the builders and architects of this country to not being able to get a job. There are no black-owned businesses here on Memorial Boulevard. Black Lives Matter means I have to explain it to you. Why don’t you see it?”

Mutz answered that the City Commission already has taken some steps to address discrimination and inequality, pointing out the decision to remove a Confederate memorial in Munn Park last year. He also said the city has scheduled a community forum on race relations for 6 to 9 p.m. on June 29 at the RP Funding Center.

“We had systemic racism for decades. I’m a huge believer in level playing fields. We know prejudice exists. What a great city can do is move the hearts of people, one heart at a time. Economic policy, education, policing, those are all things we can do. It can’t always happen fast. It takes time,” he said.

Glass, the sole white person on the panel, said, “I can’t tell the black community where we go next. I can only tell the white community. It’s not the black community’s job to fix something they didn’t break. Nothing is going to change unless someone with privilege steps down and gives it away. We have to recognize as a white community we’ve been blind to a lot of things.”

Despite the sometimes-tense moments in the meeting, both Lewis and Washington, representing a younger generation of black leadership in Lakeland, pronounced themselves satisfied at its conclusion.

“There are a couple of things we did accomplish tonight,” Washington said. “We’ve arranged a meeting with the black Chamber of Commerce and with (Garcia) and black leaders about a community review board. There was definitely progress.”

Lewis said the town hall was “a major start.”

“Now we know where we are. There are some issues here. We didn’t address them all, but we made them aware of what they are,” she said.