The birth of a grassroots movement is often difficult to pinpoint. On a hot Saturday morning, Democrats from across the Florida Panhandle met in the fellowship hall of Bethel AME Church, hoping that maybe such a movement was being launched.
Republicans control both houses of the Florida Legislature. Rick Scott and all his cabinet are Republicans. Escambia County has only three Democratic elected officials—Commissioner Lumon May, Property Appraiser Chris Jones and Tax Collector Janet Holley. Santa Rosa County has none.
The frustrations of having little voice in state and local matters were voiced by one participant at the meeting, “They know they are in control. They don’t have to listen to us.”
Florida Speaks Tour
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, ACLU of Florida and Florida Black Caucus of Local Black Officials want to change that. Through a series of six town hall meetings across the state, they are collecting stories on what is really happening in communities.
With the help of Coalition for Justice of Northwest Florida, the Sept. 15 meeting was the kick-off for the “Florida Speaks Tour.” Each group was represented at Bethel AME church.
City of Deland Commissioner Vonzelle Johnson, representing the Florida Black Caucus of Local Black Officials, emphasized the need to be involved in the policy-making.
“We need to work to get people we know elected to office,” said Commissioner Johnson, “because we have to have some policy-makers at the decision-making table.”
Aaron McKinney, legal assistant to Sen. Bullard, also talked about the importance of participating in the process. He said that while people need to participate in marches and protests, they also need to be at the table when policies are developed.
“We need a place at the table because if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu,” he told the audience of nearly a hundred people, some driving from as far away as Holmes County.
McKinney read aloud a letter from Sen. Bullard. “We are here to give a voice to the voiceless, ear to the unheard and an eye to the unseen to those in our democratic process,” wrote the state senator. “Oftentimes the ones that are hurting the most are the ones that are heard the least. We can change that with your help.”
Bullard wrote they wanted to hear from the attendees about their frustrations and hardships, particularly on the issues of civil rights, racial profiling, “Stand Your Ground,” excessive use of force by law enforcement, voting rights and lack of access to suitable healthcare.
McKinney added, “We need to better understand where we are failing, where we are lacking.”
Henry Crespo, president of the Democratic Black Caucus, said he saw the issues facing the state as more than race problems.
“At the end of the day, it’s about humanity, not color. We’re in this struggle together,” Crespo said. “That’s the message that you take back to those in government and in law enforcement—if they do not feel that we have a collective responsibility for the citizens of this great city and for this great state, then we have a problem.”
The testimony given by citizens was filmed so that a documentary and white paper could be created to bring awareness to Gov. Rick Scott, his cabinet and the state legislature. Eight citizens came forward and talked about their issues with excessive force allegedly used by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the Pensacola Police Department. Several believed that they were profiled by law enforcement when they were arrested, for what they felt were bogus charges.
Tony McCray, the local NAACP’s branch Economic Development chairman, said that he was arrested on June 4 on Pensacola Beach for driving without a license and given a ticket for careless driving when he was trying to find a parking space for a concert on the beach.
“It’s not just our youth that are being racially profiled,” said McCray. “I’m 62 years old.”
McCray admitted that he had an unpaid speeding ticket in North Carolina but had until June 18 to pay the fine and avoid having his license revoked.
“I was told to step out of my car, put my hands on the hood and then the officer began to handcuff me,” he said. “When I began to question the deputy and explain my deadline, I was told that I would be charged with resisting arrest if I didn’t keep quiet.”
Later the state attorney decided to not prosecute McCray after he provided his letter proving his statements to the deputy. He said that he plans to file a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office for his arrest.
After the statements were recorded and groups weighed in on the issues, the panel talked about other events in the state.
Ciara Taylor, political director for Dream Defenders, asked the attendees to come to Tallahassee on Sept. 23 for a rally against “Stand Your Ground.” The Dream Defenders, a group of college students and young leaders, held a sit-in inside the state capitol protesting the verdict in the murder trial of George Zimmerman who killed an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, in February 2012.
The group wanted Gov. Scott to call a special legislation session to discuss the “Stand Your Ground” that played a role in the shooting and the instructions to the jury. Instead, House Speaker Will Weatherford agreed to have Rep. Matt Gaetz hold a committee hearing on the law.
“We know where Matt Gaetz stands on this,” said Taylor. “He is rallying the Tea Party and NRA to come to Tallahassee. He’s said, ‘I don’t expect to change one damn comma of Stand Your Ground.’”
Taylor said that Sen. Bullard had pulled the permit for a rally from noon to 2 p.m. on Sept. 23. “We need to get as many of us there as possible.”
Aaron McKinney said that he and Sen. Bullard would be returning to Pensacola in October. He urged the various groups in the room to work together.
“There is strength in numbers,” McKinney said. “This is a coalition effort. We all have the same issues in mind. Let’s get together and make it happen.”